Tag Archives: Richard Gerstl

“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.

“Munch and Expressionism” at The Neue Galerie, New York

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Edvard Munch, The Scream (1895), pastel and board on the original frame; courtesy The Neue Galerie, New York

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Is there any pocket of culture that isn’t conversant with, if not the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (1863–1944) himself, then his signature canvas The Scream? Few images have filtered through the popular imagination with as much persistence. Like Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, Grant Wood’s American Gothic, and Alberto Gorda’s photograph of Che Guevara, Munch’s paean to psychological distress has been honored, quoted, and parodied; it’s proven infinitely parrot-able. Here in the twenty-first century, The Scream has been co-opted by the digital zeitgeist: those who send bad news electronically can do so with an emoji dubbed “Face Screaming in Fear.” Given the contemporary prevalence of Munch’s image, it comes as a surprise to learn that The Scream didn’t have the same currency during the artist’s lifetime. In a radio interview, Jill Lloyd, the co-curator with Reinhold Heller of “Munch and Expressionism,” stated that our reigning emblem of hellish anxiety didn’t gain traction until after Munch’s death. That The Scream continues to resonate with audiences says much about the primal emotions it embodies.

Munch did four variations of The Scream, as well as a suite of prints; the best known of these, an oil on canvas from 1893, is the star attraction of The National Gallery in Oslo. That painting, it should be noted, is not on view at The Neue Galerie. The version of The Scream squirreled away in a side gallery of “Munch and Expressionism” was done in pastel two years later and is more stylized and less discordant. It is, in so many words, fairly underwhelming, but it does serve, albeit inadvertently, a curatorial purpose: to place Munch in a historical context that extends beyond a single iconographic picture. In the catalogue, Lloyd states that while Vincent Van Gogh “is justly deemed a precursor or ‘father’ of Expressionism, Munch, by contrast, inspired and participated in the movement.” Munch’s notoriety in Germany helped kick-start Expressionism. An exhibition of his work held at the Verein Berliner Künstler in 1892 garnered the kind of press best measured in column inches, not praise. Roundly drubbed as a “mockery of art,” the show was shuttered before the closing date due to the controversy it generated. Munch was pleased by this turn of events; the scandal was “the best advertisement I could have hoped for.” He subsequently made Germany his home for sixteen years.

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Erich Heckel, Girl with Doll (Fränzi) (1910), oil on canvas; courtesy The Neue Galerie, New York

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Playing upon his newfound fame, Munch organized a series of German exhibitions that helped solidify his outré reputation among a local cadre of forward-thinking patrons, critics, and collectors. Munch’s status was codified by the critic Julius Meier-Graefe, who featured him alongside Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin in Modern Art, a 1904 text that served as a touchstone for the burgeoning Expressionist movement and, especially, the painters of Die Brücke. This group of Dresden-based artists—its members included Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rotluff, and Emil Nolde—shared “similar yearning[s]” with Munch, and repeatedly invited the older artist to participate in its annual exhibitions. Munch demurred every time. These rebuffs did little to staunch Die Brücke’s admiration, though you can’t help but wonder why Munch held himself apart. Arne Eggum, an art historian and the former director of The Munch Museum, conjectures that Munch had his eye on establishing a reputation in Paris—Dresden being a veritable Podunk in comparison to the City of Light. Munch and the Expressionists wouldn’t be exhibited together in Germany until 1912, at which point the Norwegian had returned to his native land.

“Munch and Expressionism” makes no bones about mixing-and-matching the recalcitrant master with his progeny. Divided into sections according to specific motifs—among them, “Portraits,” “Adolescence,” “Experiments in Printmaking,” and that reliable chestnut “Battle Between the Sexes”—Munch’s art is placed alongside that of Die Brücke, as well as pictures by Egon Schiele, Gabriel Munter, Oskar Kokoschka, and the uncategorizable Max Beckmann. The inevitable comparisons aren’t revelatory—at least, for those conversant with the by-ways of twentieth century art—but they are satisfyingly predictable. Nor do they always favor Munch. In the “Urban Scenes” portion of the show, Munch is overshadowed by Kirchner, whose Street Dresden (1908) retains its punch some hundred years after the fact. Its acidic palette and lava-like rhythms make Munch canvases like Midsummer Night’s Eve (1901–03) and The Book Family (1901) look woefully polite. Admittedly, the exhibition doesn’t include Evening on Karl Johan Street (1892), a moody canvas that is a precursor to The Scream and a Munch masterpiece. A lithographic take on Karl Johan Street at The Neue Galerie has much to recommend to it, but even on the attenuated evidence found in “Munch and Expressionism,” it’s clear that Munch was far more innovative as a printmaker than as a painter.

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Richard Gerstl, Self-Portrait in Front of a Stove (1907), oil on canvas on board; courtesy of The Neue Galerie, New York

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Truth be told, Munch remained very much a nineteenth-century painter until the end of his life. An inherent parochialism both powered his vision and prevented a full reckoning with Modernism. Post-Impressionism clearly threw him for a loop, and his experiments with its pictorial liberties are ham-handed when they aren’t over-heated. (Lord only knows what he made of Cubism and its offshoots.) The artist we see in pictures like Christian Gierloff (1909), Puberty (1914–16), and Bathing Man (1918) is wildly out of his depth: pictorial space warps-and-woofs with no discernible purpose, the palette turns muddy when it doesn’t chalk out altogether, and the brushwork flails where previously it had snuck up on the images with a brooding, understated sensuality. The post-1900 canvases, even the much-lauded self-portrait The Night Wanderer (1923–24), are enough of a mish-mosh to make a minor figure like Erich Heckel seem a contender. And then there’s the Austrian painter Richard Gerstl, dead by his own hand at the age of twenty-five: his canvases all but steal the spotlight of “Munch and Expressionism.” His was a powerhouse talent and is too little known. The name “Gerstl” may not generate the same buzz or box office as “Munch,” but this is a museum with the means and institutional interest to organize an overview of the work. Who knows? That exhibition may be a revelation.

© 2016 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the June 2016 edition of The New Criterion.