LANPian Lives: Richard Gerstl, the First Naked (And Not “In the Nude”) Self Portrait in the History of Art Who The Viennese Avant Garde Rushed to Forget

“If suicide is allowed, then everything is allowed,” Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote. He was reflecting on the disturbing frequency of suicides in fin-de-siècle Austria, especially among younger artists and intellectuals. Three of Wittgenstein’s four brothers died, evidently, by their own hand: one swallowed cyanide in a Berlin bar, after requesting the song “I Am Lost”; another disappeared on a boat in the Chesapeake Bay. In 1903, the philosopher and sexologist Otto Weininger shot himself in the house where Beethoven died. In 1914, the poet Georg Trakl, the author of the line “Now with my murderer I am alone,” died of an apparent overdose of cocaine. The chemist Max Steiner poisoned himself in 1910. The most scandalous episode involved Crown Prince Rudolf and his lover Mary Vetsera, who committed double suicide in 1889, precipitating the endlessly replayed saga of the Mayerling Affair.


Sometimes it seemed as though artists were vying for fame by staging a memorable exit. Weininger’s magnum opus, the anti-Semitic and misogynist tract “Sex and Character,” at first received little notice. After his death, it became a best-seller, drawing morbid pilgrims to the Beethoven Todeshaus. One visitor was the brilliant, unstable young painter Richard Gerstl, whose works are the subject of a forthcoming exhibition at the Neue Galerie. On November 4, 1908, Gerstl—who had recently turned twenty-five—removed his clothes, strung a noose above a full-length mirror, and hanged himself while stabbing his chest with a knife. This act came in the wake of an affair with Mathilde Schoenberg, the wife of the revolutionary modernist composer Arnold Schoenberg, who, that summer, had found Mathilde and Gerstl in flagrante delicto. Gerstl’s grisly demise failed to create any sort of notoriety, but this desperate young man probably had no grand plans for posthumous fame—he destroyed many of his papers. The family hushed up the circumstances of his death, and his oeuvre vanished from view, to the extent that it had ever been noticed.

In 1931, Gerstl’s brother Alois brought several of the artist’s paintings to Otto Kallir’s gallery in Vienna, a showplace for Austrian Expressionism. As Jane Kallir, Otto’s granddaughter, recounts in the catalogue for the current Gerstl show, Alois had contemplated throwing the canvases away, since the family could no longer afford to pay for storage. Kallir, astounded by what he saw, staged a comprehensive Gerstl exhibition, prompting critics to hail the artist as the “Austrian van Gogh.” Yet, in the decades that followed, Gerstl never achieved the degree of international name-recognition accorded to his contemporaries Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele, not to mention the somewhat older Gustav Klimt. The concussive force of the works on display at the Neue Galerie may bring the renown that he richly deserves. What makes him especially significant is the effect that he had on Arnold Schoenberg, not only by way of the emotional catastrophe in 1908 but also in the exchange of ideas and impulses that came before. Even if Gerstl’s paintings were seen by very few during his life, the ferocity of his artistic personality burned bright in the spiritual murk of fin-de-siècle Vienna.

Gerstl’s short life is sketchily documented, but scholarly detectives—notably Raymond Coffer, who wrote a doctoral thesis on the Gerstl-Schoenberg relationship, and who collaborated on the Neue Galerie show—have plausibly reconstructed it. The artist was born in 1883; his father was a prosperous Jewish businessman of Hungarian descent, his mother a staunch Roman Catholic of Czech-German birth. He was accepted into the Academy of Fine Arts at the age of fifteen, though his relationship with that institution was stormy and marked by several breaks. He responded poorly to authority and disdained the mainstream marketplace of Viennese art: on one occasion, he refused an offer to join an exhibition because his works would have appeared alongside those of Klimt, whom he considered a compromised society operator.

Even so, Gerstl cannily absorbed the trends of the day, showing an easy mastery of a variety of styles. He created otherwordly images tinged by symbolism; intimate scenes rendered in pointillist technique, with pastel colors reminiscent of Bonnard and Vuillard; and, most strikingly, a series of stark self-portraits unmistakably influenced by van Gogh. Eleven of the self-portraits will be at the Neue Galerie, and they have an unsettling effect: the artist seems to have an unfixed sense of his own identity, at times presenting himself as a wavy-haired dandy and at other times as a wild-eyed, buzz-cut punk. (Gerstl scholars have speculated that he cut his hair short in periods of depression, although he may simply have been imitating the playwright Frank Wedekind, whose close-cropped-convict look was later adopted by Brecht.) The portraits radiate a mixture of self-fascination and self-disgust—narcissism turning on itself.

In the summer of 1908, at the same time as the affair with Mathilde, Gerstl’s work entered the unknown. Conventional figuration buckles under the pressure of an all-out Expressionist technique. Gobs of paint stream across the canvas, squeezed from the tube and spread with a fast brush, a palette knife, or the fingers. Faces melt into blurry masks, with splotches for eyes and mouths. Backgrounds are reduced to chaotic abstraction. Although the effect is unnerving, these images lack the theatrical anguish typical of early Expressionist portraiture. They are drenched in yellow sunlight and verdant green. Ingrid Pfeiffer, a co-editor of the Neue Galerie’s Gerstl catalogue*, observes that they resemble the Abstract Expressionism of Willem de Kooning more than they do any work of their period. The blotted faces put me in mind of Francis Bacon. If Gerstl had continued in this vein, he might have changed the course of European art.

The fact that Schoenberg made an equally daring leap in the same year—in the summer of 1908 he was finishing his Second String Quartet, in which tonality dissolves before one’s ears—has tempted commentators to find a causal link between the two. Often, it has been supposed that the crisis in Schoenberg’s marriage gave impetus to the otherworldly harmonies of the Second Quartet, whose final two movements feature a female voice singing ecstatically tormented poems by Stefan George (“Kill the longing, close the wound!”). Yet Coffer’s meticulous research has demonstrated that Schoenberg completed the quartet before the fateful day that he walked in on the lovers, in a rented house in the Austrian lakeside town of Gmunden. As I noted this week, in a piece on the occult roots of modernism, Schoenberg was immersed in mystical literature, and, like the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, was seeking new chords as a way to represent the ineffable. One can, however, guess that the startling violence of Schoenberg’s works from the following year—the Three Piano Pieces, the Five Pieces for Orchestra, and the monodrama “Erwartung”—reflect the trauma of 1908.

Coffer, in his doctoral thesis, asks a different question: Was Schoenberg emboldened by the molten images that Gerstl made that summer? Two of those de Kooning-like canvases are group portraits of Schoenberg, his wife, and his friends. The composer is the only one who remains readily recognizable, because of the dark bars of hair on either side of his balding head. Certainly, Gerstl had a great deal to do with Schoenberg’s decision to take up a side career as a painter—a brief but striking endeavor, dominated, again, by harsh self-portraits. (“The Red Gaze,” from 1910, is a minor masterpiece in its own right; it can be seen at the Neue Galerie.) Perhaps Gerstl’s example helped to give Schoenberg the courage to continue with his experiments, although atonality is already looming in a song composed at the end of 1907. At the very least, Gerstl diminished Schoenberg’s sense of creative solitude as he faced furious opposition from the audiences and critics of his day. Gerstl’s betrayal must have been indescribably painful. In a last will and testament that may have been intended as a suicide note, Schoenberg wrote that he had “plunged from one madness into another,” that he was “totally broken.”

In the end, Gerstl was the broken one. Mathilde, after resuming the affair for a little while, that autumn, returned to her husband. Schoenberg, understandably, cut off all contact with the artist, and encouraged members of his circle to do the same—a circle that had been Gerstl’s principal source of support. He committed suicide on the same day as a Schoenberg-organized concert to which he had not been invited. He had been left alone with his inner demons, which probably took the form of manic-depressive disorder. In a final, shocking self-portrait, he paints himself naked, his body streaked in clammy blue tones, his genitals colored strangely brown. Coffer describes the picture as one last gasp of self-assertion—“an artist who is crowing at his potency.” Others see it as a rehearsal for suicide—a portrait of the artist as a young corpse. Either way, the image has the feeling of a radical, irrevocable act. A veil has been torn; anything is possible.

*A previous version of this post misidentified Ingrid Pfeiffer’s role at the Neue Galerie.

Bienvenidos al Mes de Engendros o La Generacion Z  bajo el Signo de la K


Y no te podes perder mi marathon con Kenny Schachter, encuentro de Titanes




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