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The Uncivil Servant: Discovering Richard Gerstl

Mitchell Abidor
August 12, 2017

AN EXHIBIT AT THE NEUE GALERIE

THE VIENNESE-BORN artist Richard Gerstl committed suicide on November 5, 1908, at the age of 25. He had never exhibited his paintings, which once numbered around seventy. It would not be until 1931 that they were exhibited, thanks to the efforts of his brother, and Gerstl’s modest fame was posthumously launched.

We would have to wait a further eighty-six years for the ever-estimable Neue Galerie, Ronald Lauder’s museum dedicated to the art of Germany and Austria, to present the first American show of the work of an artist who has been called an “Austrian Van Gogh” and “the first expressionist,” but who is quite simply one of the handful of great artists produced by Austria.

The show, which will be on display until September 25, includes about half of Gerstl’s surviving output. What is clear from it is that Gerstl, during his relatively brief career, was a man who could not be tied down to one style. Fiery Expressionist landscapes alternate with more bucolic ones; portraits have clearly delineated faces or are blurs; and the order in which they were painted is uncertain. Paintings are largely dated by cross-referencing where sitters were at a given time, by the presence of other Gerstl paintings within the frame, and, in the case of self-portraits, the length of Gerstl’s hair. Central to the exhibit is Gerstl’s relationship with the great composer Arnold Schoenberg who, in 1906, began painting lessons with Gerstl, hoping to supplement his meager earnings as a composer, and with whose wife Gerstl had a brief affair, with tragic consequences.

Portraits played a prominent part in his oeuvre, yet though there are certain common features in them, they differ far more than they are similar.

He was fond of placing his sitters squarely in their comfortably bourgeois settings. Gerstl himself came from a wealthy family, his father a Jew, his mother a convert to Judaism who insisted on bringing up her three sons as Catholics. The show includes portraits of his father and his brother, done in a pointillist style, painted at age twenty. In his portrait of his brother Alois, the subject is in a military uniform, while in his father’s, the subject is seated in a comfy chair, both gazing directly at the viewer, the space around them filled with the trappings of a well-to-do home, the Gerstl home. His brother Alois boldly fills the frame in his Austrian army uniform; his father, a wealthy investor on the stock exchange, sits hunched. The two paintings possibly converse: in the mirror behind Alois there is a figure visible in the lower left-hand corner who could very well be the father as we see him sitting in his portrait.

A 1906 portrait of Smaragda Berg, the sister of the great composer Alban Berg, also has the sitter gazing directly at us, and Gerstl demonstrates his mastery of space, Berg occupying the foreground, with an alcove behind her and yet another room behind that. There is no implicit critique anywhere of the financial ease underlying the portrait. The sitter is, as in almost all Gerstl’s portraits, looking full-faced at us, the expression neutral.

It was perhaps the Van Gogh influence that led him to paint so many and so varied self-portraits. Three among those in the show in particular are important. In his self-portrait of 1902-1904, Gerstl is a standing corpse, his arms limp at his side, the lower half of his body covered in a sheet tied at his waist, a kind of aura emanating from the body. Or is he Jesus or Lazarus risen from the dead, wrapped in a winding sheet? The 1907 Self-Portrait Laughing is a close-up of the artist in a jacket and collarless shirt, his eyes of different colors, as he laughs happily or, perhaps, maniacally. This question is posed because of atmosphere created by the background, brown covered with daubs of a lighter shade of brown. Most controversially, there is his nude self-portrait, painted less than eight weeks before his death. Gerstl’s body is turned slightly towards us, his hair is long and his hands, as is often the case in his paintings, are vague stump-like appendages. Broad white strokes are added over the body, seeming to depict his ribs, the muscles of his thighs. He is framed within the frame, with a dark object (a door? a cabinet?) closing off the space to the viewer’s right. Painted after his rupture with Schoenberg and his circle, it is literally the artist laid bare.

INSOFAR as it is possible to draw a line between an event and a suicide, it is the break with Schoenberg, whose friendship had been vital to Gerstl, and the resulting isolation from all those who mattered most to him, that led to the artist’s death. The relationship was a fertile one for both men, and it is the thesis of the great Gerstl scholar, Raymond Coffer, that Schoenberg’s shift to atonality was inspired by Gerstl’s art. Gerstl’s portraits of Mathilde Schoenberg, the wife of the composer Arnold Schoenberg and briefly Gerstl’s lover, are rich in artistic and biographic importance.

At some point in mid-1908, Gerstl and Mathilde Schoenberg began an affair. Caught in flagrante delicto in August 1908, Mathilde and Gerstl fled, but she quickly returned to her marital home. It was then that Gerstl painted his nude self-portrait. Though their relationship was seemingly at an end, Mathilde continued to visit Gerstl in his studio, and his final work was a nude whose face is totally obscured, a nude assumed to be Mathilde.

The composer had accepted his wife’s return, but had not forgiven his friend, and pointedly excluded Gerstl from a concert of music by Schoenberg’s students held on November 4; he that day stabbed and then hung himself.

Gerstl painted many portraits of Mathilde, or portraits that included her, and it is striking, for this viewer in any event, how little hint they give of any special feelings towards the sitter. In a full-length portrait, Mathilde stands stately in blue “reformist” attire, her facial features undefined, her hands a blur. In a 1907 portrait, she sits, her arms folded, unsmiling, posed in a way similar to a 1906 joint portrait with her daughter Gertrud. This later portrait of the artist’s future lover is perhaps the one in which she can be most clearly seen, and yet she is no happier for all that, her round, unsmiling face drawing the viewer’s attention. Six months pregnant at the time, one is tempted to describe her as frumpy. In Gerstl’s disturbing half-portrait of Mathilde, painted either at the beginning or just before they consummated their relationship, Mme. Schoenberg’s face is two eyes posed above a blob of paint. Though the exhibition catalog speaks of the painting’s “intimate touch and even a soupçon of humor,” given by the rouge on her cheeks that echo the decoration of the hat she is wearing, her sheer ugliness is too shocking for us to find any humor in the portrait.

In a July 1908 portrait of the Schoenberg family, none of the family members have recognizable faces; their eyes are reduced to dots, their limbs mere strokes of color. Even so, anyone familiar with Schoenberg’s appearance would be able to make him out despite it all, his bald head and ring of hair clear markers of the great composer.

None of these paintings would lead a viewer to believe the artist was in love with -- or would someday be in love with -- the subject. There is no romance or sentimentality or even sentiment in these visions of the woman, his affair with whom would lead to his death.

Gerstl was certainly not interested in painting beautiful images, but the lack of eroticism in the portraits of Mathilde do not mean he was incapable of infusing a painting and a sitter with an erotic charge. His painting of the pianist Henrika Cohn from 1908 has a subtle heat to it, from the languid way her right arm is hanging on the sofa upon which she is seated, to the ringlet that tumbles over the left side of her face, to her sideways gaze at the painter. With its daubs and swirls, often present elsewhere in Gerstl’s oeuvre, here we also have a hint of what we would have far more expected in the paintings of Mathilde.

The exhibition includes a section on the art and music of Schoenberg (and playing in the background is music by Schoenberg: the three times I have attended the exhibit, "Transfigured Night," so appropriately romantic, has accompanied my steps), including a facsimile of a self-pitying letter from Mathilde to Alois Gerstl written shortly after the artist’s death: “I would only now ask you if you should find something in Richard’s studio that you suppose belongs to me, simply to destroy it. Please do not send me anything, it is all so terribly painful, and only reminds me of the tragic misfortune. Believe me, of the two of us, Richard has chosen the easier way. To have to live in such circumstances is very hard.”

ACCOMPANYING this marvelous exhibit is a catalog edited by Jill Lloyd, Ingrid Pfeiffer and Raymond Coffer. It is as essential as the show itself, featuring essays -- all of them insightful, all of them enlightening, all of them finely written and thoroughly researched -- on Gerstl’s international influences, on his rediscovery, and on his relationship with the Schoenbergs. With reproductions and analyses by Raymond Coffer -- not only of the paintings in the show, but of every remaining work by the artist -- there is something to be learned on every page. After reading it, one cannot but feel the urge to return for a second viewing of the paintings.

Equally fascinating is Raymond Coffer’s site, richardgerstl.com, which is based on Coffer’s doctoral dissertation on Gerstl and the Schoenbergs, and contains a wealth of information on the artist and his brief life.

There is an irony involved in as comprehensive a show as this one. My wife and I discovered Gerstl a few years ago in Vienna, where his paintings can be found in each of the principal museums. Gathering these paintings in New York (and previously in Frankfurt), though revealing him to a wide audience in a major city, deprives visitors to his hometown of his serendipitous revelation.

Viennese art of the early 20th century has belonged to Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele. This show will certainly raise Gerstl -- who despised Klimt’s work and refused to be exhibited in a show alongside him -- into their company. It reminds us that, however closely studied art is, there are still discoveries to be made than can upset pantheons. Belgian art is James Ensor, René Magritte, and André Delvaux, but Léon Spillaert remains to receive the attention he is due. Scandinavian art is Edvard Munch, but Vilhelm Hammershøi remains undeservedly in the shadows. Richard Gerstl, 109 years after his death, has finally entered the light.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936 – 1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.