Much has been penned about the twenty-five volatile years leading to Richard Gerstl’s death in early November 1908, when the young painter hanged and stabbed himself in the heart. For instance, his depression and possible mental illness; his combative persona, which led to his leaving Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts, where he was accepted at 15; his philosophy drawn from Freud and Schopenhauer; his spurning of the “decorative” Klimt for the radical possibilities afforded in Munch and Van Gogh; his brief, illicit affair with Mathilde Schoenberg, the wife of Gerstl’s friend and patron, Arnold, who caught the couple in the last days of a summer dalliance in the country; Gerstl and Mathilde’s subsequent escape to the city, where she stayed only a few days before she left her lover to return to her husband and children; Gerstl’s final weeks spent in solitude in Vienna, ending the night of Schoenberg’s concert, to which the painter had not received an invitation. The young man set fire to letters and works on paper, but, fortunately, left about seventy of his paintings behind. Mostly portraits and several expressionist landscapes, these were stored by his brother, Alois, and were unseen for more than twenty years.
Richard Gerstl, the first museum exhibition of his work in the United States, makes use of modernist mythology, reproducing the story of a prodigy beset by disquiet and vulnerability. His six years of output were enough to influence the European postwar Expressionists, who saw in Gerstl’s oils, speedy temperas, and violent brushwork, a guttural, material quality. In fact, no portrait would imbue the same fervent air until de Kooning’s Women. Given this history, it is difficult not to wonder how the course of modern art might have been altered had he lived a long and productive life.
Two self-portraits illuminate the pressure that percolated over these years. In an early work, Semi-Nude Self-Portrait (1902–04), the painter depicts himself as gaunt, shaven, like a convict, draped in a towel, and glowing with a Christ-like halo. In this symbolic painting, his body is set forward from the background and rendered with clear definition. Years later, in his final self-portrait, the cloth and halo have disappeared, and the figure appears as if formed directly from the atmosphere. The swirls of paint that are his pubic hair repeat in the cobalt surroundings and coalesce into an unidentifiable object resting behind the figure. The once-tender strokes depicting the body become strikes that howl with assertiveness, predating the violent figuration of artists like Francis Bacon by almost half a century. Such a conflation of figure and background—an atmospheric portrait, if you will—appears in earnest with an immense 1906 painting of the artist’s father, Emil, conducted in a post-Impressionistic style. Gerstl first saw Van Gogh’s work at the Galerie H.O. Miethke in January that year and appears to have found liberation, mastering the Dutchman’s techniques immediately. Thick, plaster-like paint is pulled, shaped, and sculpted from the same primordial gunk used to light the delicate window; floral mauves and cool citrus hues collect into the shape of his father’s beard, his legs cresting like breaking waves.
Gerstl developed his landscapes while summering in the country with the Schoenbergs, and in this genre he made his most radical works. By 1907, his landscapes took on an unworldly air, with wet mounds of paint pushed straight from the tube, shaped with fingers, palette knives, or the hilt of a brush, handled as if paint were merely clay. In Nude in the Garden (July 1908), Gerstl followed the boldness of his brush, stumbling into abstraction. The subject—possibly Mathilde—is nearly indistinguishable from an overall-surround of flowers and weeds, which loom in a vague, formless pattern, such that they also appear like a distant crowd.
Gerstl was no favorite of his academy professor, Christian Griepenkerl—the same man who rejected Adolf Hitler’s applications in 1907 and 1908. Upon seeing Gerstl’s paintings, he spat, “The way you paint looks like piss holes in the snow!” Gerstl was denied wall space at an academy exhibition, causing him to file a formal complaint with the Ministry of Culture and Education, but he found a disciple in Schoenberg. At the time Schoenberg was developing his atonal symphony, he hoped to supplement his income as a composer by studying portraiture under the artist. It was he who encouraged Gerstl’s friendship with his wife, only to threaten suicide upon discovering the affair. The Neue Galerie has placed four of Schoenberg’s own drawings across the gallery from four of Gerstl’s. All eight are self-portraits. By separating them with Gerstl’s last painting, an unfinished portrait of Mathilde, the exhibition underscores the degree to which the two men exchanged ideas and the degree to which Schoenberg would prove a more radical musician than painter. Together, Gerstl’s four drawings show the ease with which he adopted new styles and survey his voracious development. An early drawing, pointillist in style, transforms into general strokes as the points begin to bleed. Meanwhile, Schoenberg’s drawings, while powerfully rendered, appear as studies of a more eccentric talent.
“Schoenberg deplores his ‘defective technique,’” wrote Kandinsky, who befriended Schoenberg three years after Gerstl’s death. He was likely unaware of Gerstl’s work, which remained un-exhibited. “Schoenberg is wrong—he is not dissatisfied with his pictorial technique but with his inner desire, with his soul from which he demands what it cannot give him.” Gerstl’s torment passed to Schoenberg like a phantom, affecting Kandinsky, who saw in Schoenberg what actually belonged to the dead artist: the pursuit of a feeling or an image in the absence of peace.