While still an undergraduate art student in college, I fell under the spell of the Austrian modernists active at the turn of the twentieth century, particularly Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. These artists did not garner a lot of attention in those days, being only briefly touched upon in my art history classes… if addressed at all. Occasionally, I would discover amongst my fellow students a like-minded enthusiast and would take delight in sharing materials and observations. Before the arrival of the internet, it was a difficult process to research lesser known artists. For instance, I could not find a single monograph on Klimt or Schiele at any of the bookstores in the local malls nearby to my home on the south
. I had learned that shore
of Long Island was the place to go to find what
couldn’t be found elsewhere, so, whenever I made one of my rare trips to the
city, I would always try to reserve a portion of my day to visiting a
bookstore. And more often than not The
Strand was the bookstore I visited. Manhattan
The Strand has a long history going back to the 1920’s, having been located in Manhattan since its inception and settling in its current location in Greenwich Village at the corner of Broadway and East 12th in the 50’s. The
housing tightly crowded rows of bookshelves that tower stories above the
customers and a fleet of tables loaded with boxes of rare used books, is an
incredible resource for booklovers.
Often the merchandise would spill out onto the sidewalk, trailing around
the building beneath the store’s low-tech, wraparound awning. The place was always packed, but the
customers didn’t seem to be buying books; they browsed for hours through the
stacks or settled on the floor for prolonged perusal. Amazingly enough, I could always find what I
wanted there – usually a thick, oversized, hardcover art book.
As is the case today, art books were pretty expensive. While an undergraduate, I worked Work-Study* at minimum wage to pay for my commutation expenses, textbooks, art supplies, meals and clothing, and money was very tight. Buying a costly art book for my own gratification was not a luxury that I permitted myself often, so I made my selection carefully, combing through aisles of books before making my choice. And at that time, my selection would be a monograph on Klimt or Schiele. Back then, even costly art books contained black and white reproductions with a small selection of images in color. It was frustrating to be unable to fully experience the paintings addressed in the narrative, but that was the norm – so you didn’t expect anything else. Any book concentrating on fin de siècle Austria would make mention of an artist named Richard Gerstl, devoting a paragraph or two to him and including a single reproduction of one of his paintings, without exception in black and white. I was always intrigued by whatever Gerstl image the author or publisher chose to include in the book. The paintings always seemed unconventional and disturbing. They didn’t floor me but did pique my curiosity.
Over the years, tastes change and evolve for various reasons, and, today, Klimt and Schiele enjoy popular reputations only exceeded by those of such perennial favorites as Monet or Van Gogh. But while the popularity of his contemporaries has been on the rise, Gerstl’s reputation has remained relatively static. There are some good reasons for this. Gerstl’s career was terribly short, his surviving oeuvre consisting of sixty six paintings and eight drawings. During his lifetime, he never exhibited his work, his first show occurring more than twenty years after his death. Without the internet, it would be nearly impossible for anyone interested in his art to see a representative sampling of his work. Luckily, recently a few sites devoted to Gerstl’s life and work have cropped up, and with each passing year more images of his artwork are available on the internet. The more work I see, the more I am convinced that Gerstl is worthy of wider repute and the more I mourn the loss of a talented artist who had the potential to contribute so much more to his era.
Gerstl was born in
in 1883 to a fairly prosperous family.
From the beginning of his life, he seemed destined to suffer
difficulties due to his uncompromising, nonconformist personality. At a young age he was expelled from the
prestigious Piaristengymnasium in Vienna
due to discipline issues, forcing his father to hire private tutors for his
education. Gerstl’s interest in pursuing
a career in the arts was not encouraged by his father, and their relationship
became strained as a result of it. At
fifteen, he was granted admission to the Vienna Academy
of Fine Arts in , at which a difficult relationship
with his instructor resulted in his working two years on his own. During the summers of 1900 and 1901, he
worked under the tutelage of Simon Hollósy and eventually began studying
formally with Heinrich Lefler, an artist whose more relaxed style of
instruction was more agreeable to Gerstl.
Unfortunately, friction resulting from Gerstl’s refusal to participate
in a procession in honor of Emperor Franz Joseph led to his departure from
Lefler’s studio. By 1906, Gerstl was
working in his own studio in relative isolation with no opportunity to exhibit
his work. Vienna
Gerstl early on showed great competency, his work bearing similarity to the youthful academic efforts of Klimt and Schiele. As a student under the direction of an established master, inevitably, he adopts a conservative style, but even his initial efforts exhibit a constrained intensity.
|Gerstl - Portrait of Waldemar Unger II - 1905|
Much to the chagrin of his instructors, Gerstl was interested in the latest trends in painting and readily experimented with the stylistic innovations of the avant-garde. At the end of the nineteenth century, post impressionism and pointillism would have been the most radical styles to develop within the European artistic venue, the work of Van Gogh and Seurat being particularly influential.
|Gerstl - Portrait of Emil Gerstl (father) - 1906|
Similar to what Edvard Munch experienced when experimenting with a pointillist technique, Gerstl found the rigid system of patterning dots too restrictive and mechanical and began using broken brushwork to infuse his paintings with a frenzied energy more conducive to his personal inclinations. In a relatively short span of time, Gerstl mastered the latest techniques, filtered these influences through the prism of his unique outlook and transformed them into a new vocabulary, which would eventually become known as “expressionism”.
|Gerstl - Portrait of a Gentleman - 1907|
|Gerstl - Portrait of Arnold Schoenberg - 1906|
|Gerstl - Woman in a Green Dress - 1908|
|Gerstl - The Fey Sisters - 1905|
|Gerstl - Self-Portrait - 1904 to 05|
|Gerstl - Man in a Meadow (Alban Berg) - 1907|
|Gerstl - Portrait of Henryka Cohn - 1908|
|Gerstl - Nude Self-Portrait - 1908|
Until recently, I had never seen any of Gerstl’s landscapes. They capture the sense that the world is in volatile flux, that our presence here on this orb careening through space is precarious and transitory. I think that these landscapes are masterful and merit greater attention than they have received previously.
|Gerstl - On the Danube Canal - 1908|
|Gerstl - Traunsee with the Schlafende Griechin Mountain - 1908|
|Gerstl - Lakeside Road near Gmunden - 1907|
By 1907, Gerstl was working in near isolation, having little contact with other artists. Instead his interest in music led him to establish contact with composers Arnold Schoenberg and Alexander von Zemlinsky, who lived within the same building. Through Schoenberg in particular, Gerstl found himself admitted into a supportive intellectual and social community. The two men developed a close relationship based on a respect for each other’s art. Gerstl gave Schoenberg art lessons, painted his portrait on several occasions and was accepted as a regular visitor to the composer’s household. Gerstl painted portraits of many contemporary composers associated with Schoenberg and the composer’s family as well, including his wife, Mathilde. At some point, an extended affair developed between Gerstl and Mathilde, which was discovered by Schoenberg in the summer of 1908. At that point, the lovers fled to
briefly, until Mathilde was persuaded to return to her husband and children. Vienna
Gerstl lost his lover, was excluded from his only circle of friends, saw his connection to an intellectual fellowship severed and, looking ahead, could anticipate few prospects for his art. Unhinged by his circumstances, Gerstl set a fire in his studio on the night of November 4, 1908. It appears that in an attempt to eradicate all evidence of his existence, he burned almost all of his drawings, letters, notices and personal writings. Miraculously, most of his canvases survived the blaze. While the fire consumed his possessions, Gerstl positioned himself before his studio mirror, hanged himself and somehow managed to put a knife through his heart. He was 25 years old. We would know nothing at all of this man’s art had not his family preserved his undamaged paintings in a warehouse for 22 years, at which time his brother presented his work to the art dealer, Otto Kallir, who agreed to show it at his Neue Galerie.
Perhaps my favorite work of Gerstl is his laughing self-portrait. It has a very contemporary and spontaneous feel to it – like a Polaroid taken with a flash. Few portrait painters have addressed laughing subjects because of the difficulty in having a model pose over a long duration of time while maintaining a natural expression. A genuine laugh lasts but a fleeting moment. Gerstl has captured his expression expertly. But his laugh is not one of joy or camaraderie or drunken debauchery. His smile is excessive, his mouth open and drawn tautly back exposing an endless array of teeth. From the first time I saw this painting, I got the feeling that the artist’s face was lit by a roaring fire. There is a knowing and demonic glint in his eyes. The broken brushwork behind the head suggests a fracturing, disjunct space which we cannot penetrate, a place that we cannot share. Even if the artist’s perspective results from insanity, he is our superior; he inhabits a realm of heightened emotion which we, his pedestrian audience, will never understand.
|Gerstl - Self-Portrait Laughing - 1907|
As always, I encourage readers to comment here, but, for those who would prefer to comment privately, I can be emailed at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Note: The American Work-Study Program is a federally-funded program that permits eligible college students to work on campus for minimum wage between classes. Without Work-Study, I don’t believe I would have made it through my undergraduate years at a state university. Schools benefit by securing cheap, enthusiastic labor, while granting an opportunity for talented students for whom a college education might otherwise be out of reach. Today most children of moderate income families no longer qualify for the program, another indication of our country’s immoral and misguided assault on the middle class.