Richard Gerstl is not the first name that comes to mind when one thinks of twentieth century German art. Dead in 1908 at only age 25 after having first destroyed a good bit of his art beforehand, he is survived by (at least according to his Wikipedia biography) only sixty-six paintings and eight drawings, hardly a huge legacy by any standard. It was only in 1931, some twenty-three years after his death, that Gerstl was given his first one-man show by Otto Kallir in Vienna. The current exhibit at the Neue Galerie on Fifth Avenue is his first in this country.
If one reason Gerstl has been overlooked is the paucity of his oeuvre, another, at least in Vienna, was the scandal surrounding his name. In fact, through his association with the Second Viennese School, the artist is today far better known to music lovers than to art critics. The facts, as far as can be made out, are these: In 1907, Gerstl - who, though a non-musician himself, had a passionate interest in classical music - became friends with Arnold Schoenberg and his brother-in-law Alexander Zemlinsky, two of the most prominent composers of the day; and he eventually moved into the same building where they were then living. Gerstl instructed the talented Schoenberg in painting while the latter saw parallels in Gerstl's artistic breakthroughs and his own achievements in music as he composed the revolutionary Second String Quartet. Gerstl and Schoenberg's wife Mathilde, Zemlinsky's sister, also became close friends and then lovers until finally caught in the act by Schoenberg himself. Mathilde then left husband and children behind to flee Vienna with Gerstl, but Schoenberg soon followed and managed to convince Mathilde to return to Vienna with him. Gerstl too returned to Vienna but was unable to endure the scandal he had created. One evening, after having been refused admittance to a concert staged by Schoenberg's students, he returned home, destroyed as much of his art as he could lay his hands on, and then committed suicide by both hanging and stabbing himself to death. It doesn't get much more lurid than that.
All this melodrama makes it difficult to separate the man from the artist, and it's only in recent years that Gerstl's reputation has taken on greater resonance as critics have gradually come to see in his work one of the first great flowerings of the Expressionist movement. Commentary at the present exhibit goes so far as to state that Gerstl's portraits represent a bridge between those of Klimt and Schiele. Additionally, Gerstl was among the first to adapt van Gogh's signature paint-laden brushstrokes to the service of Expressionism.
The exhibit takes up the entire third floor of the museum and is divided into five galleries. The first is given over to Gerstl's self portraits as well as paintings of the artist's family and several photographs taken of the artist himself. The gallery is dominated by the large semi-nude self-portrait completed in 1902-1903. It's a visionary work and could be considered the artist's first mature masterpiece.
The second gallery is devoted to portraits completed by Gerstl in the years before his death. Among them is a piece entitled Mother and Daughter (1906) notable for the wide-eyed expression with which both sitters view the painter. Another work that stands out is the 1906 portrait of Smaragda Berg, sister of the composer Alban Berg. And, inevitably, there are several portraits of Mathilde. In that completed in 1907 where her features can be most clearly seen it's interesting that Gerstl made no attempt to idealize his subject. What we see here is a rather plain woman dressed in the voluminous fashions of her time and possessing no apparent sexual allure.
The third gallery (actually a long narrow hallway) features works by Schoenberg. A page of an autograph score is hung beside Schiele's portrait and several artworks on paper completed by the composer in an Expressionist vein. The most noteworthy of these is entitled Vision. If it is indeed a portrait of Mathilde, it shows her as a monstrous figure.
The fourth gallery (actually a walk-in storage closet) contains mostly works on paper, principally self-portraits, by both Gerstl and Schoenberg, the most notable of which is the latter's 1910 Gaze. But pride of place is here given to Gerstl's 1908 Seated Female Nude. The work is unfinished and the face left blank, so that it's impossible to state with certainty whether or not the sitter was Mathilde.
The fifth gallery is devoted to works completed in the final year of Gerstl's life. There are several landscapes with heavy impasto brushwork that stand in sharp contrast to those completed by Klimt of the same bucolic Viennese suburbs but in a markedly pointillist style. In addition, there is a Nude in Garden, Mathilde in Garden, and a group portrait of the entire Schoenberg family. In all these, the Expressionist method has been carried so far that it's difficult to make out any individual features. The intent here seems to be a complete break with prior academic and Secessionist styles in an absolute refutation of all typical norms of beauty. But the real focus of attention in this gallery are two self-portraits. The Nude Self-Portrait stands in contrast to the earlier semi-nude seen in Gallery No. 1. There's no modesty here as Gerstl reveals himself fully to the viewer and none of the calm detachment that characterized the artist's expression in the first painting. The other work, Self-Portrait Laughing, shows the artist with a maniacal smile that hints more than a little of madness.
All in all, this is a very well thought out show that makes a strong case for Gerstl as a major Expressionist artist. It deserves to be seen by anyone with a serious interest in twentieth century German art.
The exhibit continues through September 25, 2017.