Friday, August 15, 2014

Richard Gerstl

Semi-Nude Self-Portrait
oil on canvas
159 × 109 cm
Leopold Museum, Vienna, Austria

This painting probably numbers among the most unusual works of Austrian painting created during the early years of the twentieth century. He did not portray himself in his studio, as it was traditional to do, but instead elevated himself to the status of a near-messianic figure. The abstract treatment of the background colour contrasts with the realistic depiction of his face. His rigid gaze meets that of the observer. At the same time, however, he seems as if he were actually looking through the observer and losing himself esoterically in the distance. The painting’s unrealistic appearance, emphasized by the transparent use of colours and the suggestion of an aura, allow this painting to be classified as a symbolist work. His passionate and unhappily broken off love to the wife of Schonberg still lay ahead of him at the time he painted this self-portrait. Three years were still to pass before he committed suicide, years during which he would passionately search for his personal form of modernism which, in the end, he was doomed to lose.

He refused to participate in a procession in honor of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria. He felt that taking part in such an event was "unworthy of an artist."

Richard Gerstl (1883-1908) was an Austrian painter and draughtsman known for his expressive psychologically insightful portraits, his lack of critical acclaim during his lifetime, and his affair with the wife of the composer and painter Arnold Schoenberg which led to his suicide. His highly stylized heads anticipated German expressionism and used pastels as in the works by Oskar Kokoschka.

He was born in a prosperous civil family. Early in his life, he decided to become an artist, much to the dismay of his father, a Jewish merchant. After performing poorly in school and being forced to leave the famed Piaristengymnasium in Vienna as a result of disciplinary difficulties, his financially stable parents provided him with private tutors. In 1898, at the age of fifteen, he was accepted into the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. He began to reject the style of the Vienna Secession. Frustrated with the lack of acceptance of his non-secessionist painting style, he continued to paint without any formal guidance. Although he did not associate with other artists, he did feel drawn to the musically inclined; he himself frequented concerts in Vienna. Around 1907, he began to associate with a composer Arnold Schoenberg. He and Schoenberg developed a mutual admiration based upon their individual talents. He apparently instructed Schoenberg in art.

During this time, he painted several portraits of Schoenberg, his family, and his friends. These portraits also included paintings of Schoenberg's wife Mathilde. He and Mathilde became extremely close and, in the summer of 1908, she left her husband and children to travel to Vienna with Gerstl. Schoenberg was in the midst of composing his Second String Quartet, which he dedicated to her. Mathilde rejoined her husband in the winter. Distraught by the loss of Mathilde, his isolation from his associates, and his lack of artistic acceptance, he entered his studio during the night of 4 November 1908 and  set fire to his paintings and papers. Although many paintings survived the fire, it is believed that a great deal of his artwork as well as personal papers and letters were destroyed. Following the burning of his paintings and papers, he hanged himself in front of the full-length studio mirror and somehow managed to stab himself as well. The incident had a significant impact on Arnold Schoenberg and his opera Die Gluckliche Hand is based on these events.

After his suicide at the age of twenty-five, his family took the surviving paintings out of his studio and stored them in a warehouse until his brother showed them to an art dealer in 1930 or 1931. Although he had never managed to exhibit a show during his lifetime, the art dealer organized an exhibition. Shortly afterward, the Nazi presence in Austria hindered the further acclaim of the artist and it was not until after the war that he was known in the United States. Sixty-six paintings and eight drawings attributed to him are known, although it is possible he destroyed many more or that others could have been lost over the years.