“Richard Gerstl” at The Neue Galerie

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Richard Gerstl, Self-Portrait, Laughing (1907), oil on canvas; courtesy Belvedere, Vienna

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It’s going to happen, trust me: Gerstl: The Movie. How could it not? Within a few minutes of walking into “Richard Gerstl,” museum-goers—at least, those who read the wall labels—could be heard tut-tutting over the artist’s short and scandalous life. Though Gerstl’s reputation doesn’t extend much beyond his native Austria, the biographical particulars are universal in prurient appeal. Imagine: a precocious talent comes of age in a milieu charged with innovation, a society in which cultural, political, and moral norms have been called into question. Genius abounds, as does love between parties which are otherwise involved. Mix in psychological instability, illicit sex, marital abandonment, broken hearts, and an early death, and you’ve got the makings of a great story. A tragic life shouldn’t be trivialized, but Gerstl’s tale is remarkable not only for its drama, but for the significant figures it touches upon, notably the composer Arnold Schoenberg. Then there are the paintings. If the oeuvre is slim for the cruelest of reasons—Gerstl, who was born in 1883, died by his own hand at age twenty-five—it is marked by moments of thrilling lucidity. “Richard Gerstl” is a superb exhibition.

For those of us who have had our curiosity piqued by Portrait of a Man (Green Background) (1908), a painting regularly on display at Neue Galerie, or the stray Gerstl canvas seen here and there, “Richard Gerstl” is a welcome event. Curated by Jill Lloyd, a specialist in Expressionist art, and organized in conjunction with the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, this is the first Gerstl retrospective mounted in the United States. It includes about half of ninety extant pictures, and provides a solid, if frustrating, overview. Whether due to the unavailability of certain pieces or because of space limitations at Neue Galerie, “Richard Gerstl” is skimpier than one would like. (The catalogue provides a more thorough accounting.) Gerstl’s trajectory should be familiar territory to anyone conversant with how an ambitious artist might pursue “entirely new paths” at the turn of the twentieth century. After establishing himself as an adept practitioner of academic painting, Gerstl discovered, and was energized by, a handful of artists out to buck the status quo. How directly familiar he was with Edvard Munch or the Swiss symbolist Ferdinand Hodler is unknown, but the aesthetic turf they shared is clear. More certain is the influence of Vincent van Gogh and Edouard Vuillard, particularly in how each painter animated the pictorial surface with lessons gleaned from Pointillism.

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Richard Gerstl, Self-Portrait (1908), oil on canvas; courtesy Leopold Museum/Neue Galerie

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As a means of providing context, The Neue Galerie juxtaposes Gerstl’s pictures with those of fellow countrymen Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and Oskar Kokoschka, as well as the American William Clarke Rice. The latter is included for his portrait of the twenty-four- year-old Gerst, whom Rice met while on holiday in Austria. Portrait of Richard Gerstl (1907) captures a sharp and lively intelligence, and serves as a counterpoint, as well as a corrective, to Gerstl’s self-portraits, of which there are many. Chalk it up to youthful arrogance or the limitations of Expressionism, but Gerstl’s self-portraits can be a bit much. The earliest is Semi-Nude Self-Portrait (1902–04), wherein the lanky painter, partially draped in a white robe, surrounds himself with divine light. In the last self-portrait, from 1908, religious portent is jettisoned, as well as any remaining clothing, for an unseemly mediation on the flesh. In between Gerstl relishes his good looks, radiates moody introspection, immerses himself in a flurry of minty blue, and embodies madness in Self-Portrait Laughing (1907), an over-the-top image that makes Van Gogh seem like Winnie the Pooh. All are marked by heady self-infatuation and, at crucial moments, self-loathing. If these are the pictures of an unapologetic narcissist, they also favor painting over pure expression. As unsavory as we might find Gerstl as a type, his love of oil paint is patent. Gerstl’s bravura is never unearned.

Born in Vienna to wealthy parents, Gerstl showed artistic promise early on, eventually going on to study at the prestigious Academy of Fine Arts. (He preceded another Academy pupil, Egon Schiele, by eight years.) During the summer of 1900, Gerstl attended the Nagybanya artist’s colony, where the Hungarian painter Simon Hollosy introduced him to Impressionism. A taste of radical art soured Gerstl on the conservatism advocated at the Academy, and he quit his studies—not once, but twice. Gerstl bristled easily, and didn’t suffer authority figures gladly or to his benefit: Gerstl refused an opportunity to show at the vanguardist Galerie Miethke when he discovered that the proposed exhibition would also include Klimt, whom Gerstl dismissed as a “society operator.” In 1906, Schoenberg hired Gerstl to provide private lessons in painting, and the young artist was subsequently welcomed into the “Schoenberg Circle,” an exclusive and close-knit company of musicians, composers, and historians. Gerstl grew closest to Schoenberg’s wife, Mathilde—too close. Their relationship proved disastrous. The abortive affair resulted in Gerstl’s expulsion from a nurturing social environment and prompted his messy suicide. Hanging wasn’t enough for Gerstl; stabbing was involved, as was the burning of papers and artwork. A posthumous declaration of insanity, requested by the Gerstl family, allowed for a Christian burial.

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Richard Gerstl, The Schönberg Family (1908), oil on canvas; courtesy Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien/Gift of the Kamm Family, Zug 1969

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It’s not entirely coincidental that the two strongest paintings in “Richard Gerstl”— masterpieces, out-and-out—center on the Schoenberg family. Wax as one might about the expressive possibilities of paint, words fall short in describing the coarse, hyperbolic power of The Schoenberg Family and Half-Portrait of Mathilde Schoenberg (both 1908). At the time, these pictures must have seemed reckless bordering on inchoate; today, they are no less shocking. In the group portrait, Gerstl conjures up Arnold, Mathilde, and their children Trudi and Gorgi, with a lava-like slathering of acidic yellows, sharp greens, and a deceivingly placid pink. Gerstl’s portrayal of his inamorata is wilder and weirder, going in-and-out of focus with keening, off-kilter rhythms, and pitiless attention paid to likeness. Neither painting is devoid of humor; both are harsh and hypnotic. Pity Schoenberg, the amateur dauber: the pictures of his included at Neue Galerie barely register as trifles compared to Gerstl’s furied images. Then again, the attendant pictures by Klimt, Schiele, and Kokoschka come off as pretty mild as well. Six years—that’s all the time Gerstl allowed himself to pursue his art. Does a place in history serve as recompense for a life of confusion and pain? “Richard Gerstl” provides a riveting opportunity to mull that sad and sobering question.

© 2017 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the September 2017 edition of The New Criterion.

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