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In your face: "The Family (Self-portrait)" (1918) by Egon Schiele (Credit: The National Portrait Gallery, London)

The Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy that was established by the Ausgleich (Compromise) of 1867 ruled for 51 years. Its empire became the second largest in Europe and the third most populous. Vienna was transformed: citizens from the empire's 11 national groups flooded to the imperial capital, in part because religious toleration was inscribed in the new constitution. Between 1880 and 1890 the city's population doubled. 

Because the influx was dominated by the middle classes, the newcomers sought to express their identity, status and sense of belonging through the time-honoured medium of portraiture. This world, a mixture of confidence and anxiety, of Freud and the fin-de-siècle, of the people who colonised the Ringstrasse and sought to show, as quickly as possible, that they were Viennese, is the subject of Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900 at the National Gallery.

The timeframe of the exhibition is not restricted to the years around 1900 but encompasses the half-century life-span of the Dual Monarchy, from 1867 to its dissolution at the end of the First World War. At the artistic heart of this period was the Vienna Secession, an organisation of radical artists founded in 1897 in reaction to the prevailing conservatism and historicism of the Künstlerhaus — Austria's oldest artists' society. Its founders, Gustav Klimt, Koloman Moser and Josef Hoffmann among them, saw art in terms of the Gesamtkunstwerk and they catered to the more liberal and progressive members of the haute bourgeoisie. The Secessionists were as distinctive a national group as France's Impressionists or Britain's Victorian classicists. The Austrians' métier was not landscape or myth, however, but the individual and the private space.

Part of the scope of the exhibition is to show that the middle classes had their own hierarchies and artists to paint for them. The Grossbürgertum — the upper middle class — was not a homogeneous entity. One of its most important constituents, in terms of patronage, were the Jews. According to Stefan Zweig: "They were the real audience, they filled the theatres and the concerts, they bought the books and the pictures, they visited the exhibitions, and with their more mobile understanding, little hampered by tradition, they were the exponents and champions of all that was new."

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