When the exhibition Richard Gerstl: A Painter’s Fate opened at the Neue Galerie in Vienna on September 28, 1931, the press reacted with unprecedented enthusiasm on an international scale. Gerstl was called “the Austrian Van Gogh” by the Neues Wiener Journal; he was hailed as “a success unequaled by anything that has happened in the realm of art for the last century” by the Kölnische Zeitung; and he was deemed “an apostle for the art of the future” per the Neues Wiener Extrablatt. Gerstl, however, did not live to see his glory: he had committed suicide 23 years prior, at the age of 25, following the unraveling of his affair with Mathilde Schönberg, the wife of composer (and Gerstl’s former best friend) Arnold Schönberg. He had never exhibited nor sold anything in his lifetime and his belongings were stashed away upon his death to deflect attention from his suicide.
US audiences can now experience a novelty similar to those who attended the 1931 exhibition: New York’s Neue Galerie is currently hosting the first U.S. retrospective of the works of Richard Gerstl. The curator Jill Lloyd provides a detailed profile of the painter who, as of now, is still more known for his affair, his tempestuous personality, and his tragic death than for his artistic innovations.
Gerstl was a polarizing figure, a “neurotic Narcissus”, as co-founder of the Leopold Museum, Diethard Leopold defined him in the catalog for the exhibition Nackte Männer: Von 1800 bis heute (Naked Men: From 1800 to today). Gerstl perfectly embodied the artistic and existential turmoil of Vienna in the last years of the Habsburg Empire: he read Freud, Schnitzler and Wedekind when most of his contemporaries were only concerned with sterile talks of “redemption through art.” He equally despised the formality of the Academy of Fine Arts (where he clashed with the notorious professor Christian Griepenkerl) and Gustav Klimt’s aestheticized secessionist style, to the point that in 1907 he refused to show alongside Klimt at Galerie Miethke. His frantic brushwork, deemed by critics as a form of “radical expressionism,” predated the style of the German Expressionists by at least a decade.
The subjects he was interested in painting mainly consisted of himself (out of the approximately 70 surviving items, 22 are self-portraits); Mathilde Schönberg and other women, whom he rendered as dignified, restrained figures rather than allegories; and, occasionally, landscapes.
Gerstl’s retrospective at the Neue Galerie is organized thematically rather than chronologically, and, upon accessing the third floor of the Neue Galerie, the viewer first gets acquainted with the influences on Gerstl’s style by entering a room displaying photographs. In this room are one portrait of Gerstl, and portraits and self-portraits painted by Gerstl. Seeing these it becomes apparent that, rather than aligning with the fashionable Jugendstil (the German version of Art Nouveau, an art movement inspired by natural form and structure that was exceptionally popular from 1890 to 1910), he drew from the likes of Edvard Munch (for example, the “Portrait of Stanislaw Przybyszewski,” (1895), Vincent van Gogh, whose letters, translated into German in 1906, contributed to the “Expressionist” mystique around the Dutch painter, and Ferdinand Hodler. The centerpiece of this room is his “Seminude Self-Portrait”,” painted between 1902 and 1904. It depicts a seminude Gerstl standing against a blue backdrop wearing a loincloth and emanating a nimbus of blue light, his gaze direct and unavoidable — Lazarus and Christ are similar figures who first come to mind. Symbolist at a superficial glance, “Seminude Self Portrait” both alludes to and breaks from tradition: while his face is rendered in a realistic manner, his body is unnaturally slender and elongated. Diethard Leopold, in his essay published in the catalog accompanying this exhibition, equates the combination of realistic portrait and unnatural physique with the aesthetic that David Bowie would use to careen into mainstream culture in the 1970s.
The exhibition then leads to a portrait gallery, which is largely comprised of female subjects, including his lover Mathilde Schönberg and pianists Henryka Cohn and Smaragda Berg. They all tend to wear unadorned, corset-less garments, “Reformkleider,” which were in fashion amid Vienna’s artistic circle. To better emphasize Gerstl’s style, this gallery also features the portrait of Rudolf Blümner by Oskar Kokoschka (1910), Blümner’s hands and his face distorted, and “Black-feathered Hat” (1910) by Gustav Klimt, an elegant and ethereal society swan. This side-by-side comparison allows us to understand how Gerstl’s style is distinct from Klimt’s Jugendstil, while, at the same time, it anticipates Kokoschka’s and Schiele’s more psychologically charged styles.
The viewer is then led to explore the artistic relationship between Richard Gerstl and composer Arnold Schönberg, who spearheaded atonal music and became acquainted with Gerstl because Schönberg wanted to improve as a painter. In the fateful summer of 1908, while vacationing together, they would both reach a new level of artistic maturity. Schönberg would finish his Second String Quartet, while Gerstl would develop a new style. The room containing what the exhibition titles as Gerstl’s “Last Paintings,” features both landscapes exhibiting free brushwork and frenzied group portraits. For example, the the group portrait “Die Familie Schoenberg” particularly struck a chord with sculptor Fritz Wotruba, who in 1962 wrote “Richard Gerstl’s 1908 portrait of the Schönberg family was not a painting, but an explosion, but since it took place in Austria, it was inaudible and has really remained invisible to this day.”
However, the “Schönberg Family Portrait” is not the most haunting artwork in the room. Two of his last self-portraits exhibit Gerstl’s manic frenzy: in “Self-Portrait, Laughing,” (1907) Gerstl uses his technique of flecking in warm, muted tones to paint his face distorted in a nightmarish laugh, his eyes uneven, and the background mirroring the agitation depicted on his face. By contrast, his nude self portrait painted in September 1908 references his “Semi-Nude Self Portrait” of 1902–1904, in that with the blue background and with the eerie glow around his body, he insulates himself from his surroundings, and in both paintings, he appears unnaturally emaciated. His sex, at the center of the canvas, is unnaturally dark-hued, especially compared to his ghastly pale body.
The exhibition would not be complete without some of Schönberg’s amateur paintings, which are shown alongside some self-portrait sketches that Gerstl drew with India ink. Those works flank a larger canvas depicting an unidentified female nude with no recognizable facial features — scholars insist it’s Mathilde — and in the room plays a selection of Schönberg’s pieces including Verklärte Nacht, a string sextet inspired by a poem of the same name, which Schoenberg set to music in 1899, while infatuated with Mathilde. After Gerstl’s suicide, Schönberg would participate in the Blaue Reiter movement, continuing the fruitful dialogue between art and music.
This Richard Gerstl retrospective is exhaustive, but, after pacing in the four rooms dedicated to him and witnessing the radical expressionism of his self-portraits, I cannot help feeling like what I saw was just a fragment of what Gerstl could have been, and wanted to see more.
Unfortunately, Gerstl is the subject of very limited scholarship: not only was his artistic career cut short by suicide, but his temperamental nature precluded him from having a linear artistic progression or evolution. Thus, it is difficult to date many of his paintings and develop an organic theorization of his work. What’s more, on the night of his suicide, he set on fire whatever he could reach, so it is possible that a great part of his work was destroyed. What was left behind are about 70 surviving works — of which 45 are exhibited at the Neue Galerie — and a personal mythology portraying the quintessential fin-de-siècle tormented artist. This retrospective, however, can show non-connoisseurs that his art was as remarkable as his turbulent life.