The Tragic Richard Gerstl

I recently visited the Neue Galerie in New York. This was my second visit to one of my favourite spots in the city, indeed a sort of pilgrimage to the outstanding first portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer by Gustav Klimt. The exhibition space is quite limited, and crams together several masterpieces by the major German and Austrian painters. Klimt and his follower Egon Schiele are indeed the highlights of the collection and their works perfectly fit into the exquisite architectural surrounding. The museum’s second floor (or third floor, for our American readers) hosts temporary exhibitions. Currently, it is occupied by the works of Richard Gerstl (1883-1908), a talented but short-lived Austrian painter. The exhibition will run until the 25th of September and I encourage anybody passing by New York in the near future to visit it.

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I – Gustav Klimt

Richard Gerstl was born in Vienna from a Jewish family but, following his mother’s will, he was educated as a Catholic. His father was a successful businessman, and desired his son to follow the same career path. Indeed, Richard’s choice to become a painter must have been disappointing, but he never stopped financing him. On the other hand though, Richard’s memories show distinctly that he wanted to gain indepence from the family and live selling his artworks. He was a student of the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, and his early works show notable skills. Actually, he always refused to conform the academic standards and had to leave eventually.


Alois Gerstl (brother, detail) – Richard Gerstl

Gerstl’s brushstrokes are distinctly fragmented, broken and reassembled onto the canvas in vivid patches of thick impasto. Indeed, his style greatly differs from that of Klimt, the most famous painter of the time, whose paintings are embedded with a sensual, decorative allure. In Klimt’s works, the pictorial surface is flat and lines create an even design. On the contrary, Gerstl’s figures are often on the edge of disintegration, as if the canvas was moved by a violent and sudden shake. Interestingly, the young painter was given a chance to exhibit his works along those of Klimt, in one of Vienna’s most fashionable galleries. He refused, surprisingly, although to the eye the incompatibility between the two artists appear self-evident.

Laughing Self-Portrait – Richard Gerstl

Richard Gerstl is now classified as an Expressionist painter. His life violently ended when he was only 25, after a scandal involving the wife of the composer Arnold Schoenberg. He committed suicide by stabbing and then hanging himself in his studio, naked. Medical reports confirmed his mental instability, and he obtained religious burial. One of his late self-portraits shows the young man laughing. The surrounding dissolves in broad strokes, colours merge in an unsettling whirlpool, the mirror of madness. Gerstl died one year later, leaving behind a visual memoir of his own search and his own anguish.

Self-Portrait – Richard Gerstl

I strongly recommend to pass by the Neue Galerie to visit its wonderful permanent collection and the valuable Gerstl exhibition. The visitor is accompanied throughout the painter’s personal drama, that can be envisaged through a wide variety of paintings and drawings. The audioguides are quite exhaustive, although little attention is given to Gerstl’s technique and painting method. As said, the curator’s main interest seems to be his personal history, and art as an open memori of it. Whether this method truly helps the visitor to delve into the significante of the artist’s oeuvre or not is questionable, but definitely it is an understandable and enjoyable introduction. 


Featured Image

Adele Bloch-Bauer

Alois Gerstl

Laughing Self-Portrait 



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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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