On November 4, 1908, at the age of 25, painter Richard Gerstl committed suicide in his Vienna studio, both hanging and stabbing himself. Gerstl’s suicide was prompted by the discovery of his affair with Mathilde Schönberg by her husband, Arnold Schönberg — the modernist composer and Gerstl’s close friend. Before his death, Gerstl destroyed letters, notes and paintings in his studio, but he left in his wake a body of artwork that reveals a prodigious and untimely talent.
The mythology of the passionate, unstable prodigy, ahead of his time, and untimely in the Nietzschean sense of opposing the currents of one’s time, pervades Richard Gerstl at Neue Galerie, the artist’s first US museum retrospective. Organized thematically, the exhibition includes more than half of the roughly 70 works that have been attributed to Gerstl since his rediscovery by Viennese art dealer Otto Kallir in 1931. The underlying narrative of talent and tumult and the strength of the work beg the question of what would have been had he not ended his life.
The answers are various. His absorption and reinterpretation of influences suggests a painter who knew his talents and had the facility and desire to take on new territories of artistic expression. This characterization is supported by the artist’s few extant letters and notes. In the exhibition catalogue he is quoted as saying he is pursuing “entirely new paths” and friends and relatives confirm his convictions.
Curator Jill Lloyd, a specialist in Austrian and German Expressionism, reiterates the theme of the artist’s prescience by exhibiting select works by his contemporaries — most notably Oskar Kokoschka, Egon Schiele, and Gustav Klimt — alongside Gerstl’s paintings.
Klimt, whom Gerstl dismissed as a society painter, rarely sacrificed the physical beauty of his female sitters for inner emotion. Born in 1890, Schiele (represented in the exhibition by a 1917 portrait of Arnold Schönberg), began to gain acclaim the year after Gerstl’s death. Kokoschka, born in 1886, worked in the same period of feverish creative ferment as Gerstl and was, in some ways, more radical. A poet and playwright as well as a painter, his portrait “Rudolf Blümner,” from 1910, portrays the sitter as cross-eyed, with prominent, jaundiced hands and a wraithlike body dissolving into a spatial chasm. Yet Kokoschka’s radical derangements, of his own body as well as those of his sitters, are often infused with allegory and marked by theatricality.
Gerstl, on the other hand, comes across as fiercely focused on exploring his technique and the humanity of his subjects (including himself in his several self-portraits) with a startlingly modern lack of affectation.
The full-length “Semi-Nude Self-Portrait,” painted between 1902 and 1904, while Gerstl was under the sway of Symbolist painters such as Ferdinand Hodler, lacks the maturity of his later self-portraits. His full frontal pose, his body wrapped in a cloth from the waist down, evokes the figure of Christ, an effect heightened by the glow of the cerulean background. But aspects of the artist’s later style, and his disdain for allegory, symbolism, and the Academy, are already apparent: for instance, the spotty brushwork, flecked with light, the amount of surface area allotted to the background and the way it competes with the image of the artist — who all but disappears in later self-portraits, if not for his piercing outward gaze.
The catalogue and wall texts cite van Gogh and Munch as major influences. While van Gogh is present in the complexity of Gerstl’s colors — pastoral palettes in some works, dark earth tones with golden highlights in others — and in his increasingly thick, gestural application, he was equally indebted to Munch’s expressions of existential angst, eventually pushing representation to the brink of dissolution.
Madness underpins “Self-Portrait, Laughing,” dated summer-autumn 1907. Gerstl portrays himself from the shoulders up with a wide grin. The slight unevenness of his facial features, with one brown and one blue eye (the blue left eye popping out against the earth tones), and the sharp slope of his shoulders contributes to the sense of mania, but a greater intensity lies in the interaction between the face and background.
Gerstl fills in the background with abrupt, agitated brushstrokes in an earthy brown-beige that reflects his face and clothing. While the mottled background draws attention away from Gerstl’s face, it seems simultaneously to absorb him, infringing on the edges of his silhouette. It comes across as a maelstrom of color cohering at the center into a person, or, alternately, a person in the process of disintegrating.
Gerstl’s abstraction of his subject matter reached an extreme in his late landscapes, many painted while he vacationed with the Schönberg family in the town of Gmunden near Salzburg. In “Small Landscape at Traunsee” (August 1907), loose swirls of paint articulate a blue sky and verdant green meadow; the canvas is bisected vertically by the willowy black line of a tree trunk carved into the thick pigment. “Landscape Study” (September 1907) is further abstracted: broad smears of paint, squeezed straight from the tube or applied with a palette knife, are almost unreadable as a landscape up close.
The following summer, he again vacationed with the Schönbergs in Gmunden. A portrait, “The Schönberg Family” (late July 1908), portrays Arnold, Mathilde, and their two children as pools of paint amid a liquid yellow and green landscape. Gerstl’s style in this and similar works goes beyond Austrian or German Expressionism, laying the groundwork for Abstract Expressionism. Visionary, but conceived from a foundation of van Gogh and Impressionism, it exemplifies the artist’s spirit of formal innovation.
Yet, among his most striking works is a comparatively conventional representation of Mathilde Schönberg from the summer of 1907. Rendered in tempera rather than oil, Gerstl portrays Mathilde as pale and expressionless, dressed in a light-yellow-and-ochre kaftan and seated with folded arms in front of the goldenrod wall and blue doors of the Schönbergs’ farmhouse. Here, the artist’s future mistress is more a void in the pictorial space than its focus.
Gerstl’s self-portraits are equally compelling because he conflates narcissistic self-scrutiny with a sense of humility and his own insignificance. Where fellow Austrian Expressionists Kokoschka and Schiele, and German counterparts, such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, represented themselves through sexuality, machismo or gendered self-performance, Gerstl portrayed himself as slipping away. He is off-center and defaced (“Fragment of a Full-Length Self-Portrait, Laughing,” c. 1904); shrouded in shadows (“Self-Portrait in front of a Stove,” winter 1906-1907); and in his final self-portrait, nude and awkward, with a bluish pallor (“Nude Self-Portrait,” September 12, 1908).
A small self-portrait on a nearly square canvas (16 3/8 by 15 3/8 inches), dated winter 1907-spring 1908, is more unsettling. Described by Kallir in 1931 as “Head, self-portrait, detail of a larger painting,” and possibly cut from a full-length portrait, the painting, as Gerstl left it, depicts the artist in formal dress from the top of his chest up, against an olive green backdrop. Gerstl, in a three-quarter profile, his head tilted slightly downward, glances, furtively or nervously, at the viewer. Too small to consume the picture plane (his head reaches about three-quarters to the top edge), he seems dwarfed by its space, engulfed by emptiness.
Gerstl’s talent and vision are matched in this painting by its psychological weight. It feels both claustrophobic and unanchored. It would take a world war for his Expressionist peers to expose this level of anxiety.
Richard Gerstl continues at Neue Galerie (1048 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan) through September 25.
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