Richard Gerstl (1883-1908)

Richard Gerstl (1883-1908)

When one talks of the triumvirate of Austrian Expressionism, after Schiele and Kokoschka, it's a pity that Gerstl doesn't replace the name Klimt. Despite the obvious linkage, Klimt was of another generation, even if some of his works were the very archetypes of Expressionism. Unfortunately, Gerstl killed himself at 25 and left behind barely 70 pieces of work. There's not much first-hand biography available--he destroyed all evidence of his life. The point of this page is not to expound on the man's life; there are words enough readily available elsewhere. But a brief grounding is helpful in looking at the work. Gerstl decided to become a painter, pleasing his father none. He performed somewhat erratically in his schooling. A professor, Christian Griepenkerl, who would famously exclaim to Schiele several years later, "The devil shat you into my classroom." had perhaps tried the phrase out on Gerstl first. He did declare to Gerstl, "The way you paint, I piss in the snow." Other than fellow student Victor Hammer, Gerstl didn't hang out with other artists. He was very much interested in music. In 1906 he met the composer Arnold Schoenberg and fell into his circle; thence the soap opera began. The two had a mutual admiration society going on, each inspired by the other's art. Gerstl gave art lessons to the family, and the man himself. The extended group summered together in 1907. And somewhere along the line Gerstl managed to insinuate himself into the carnal delights of Schoenberg's wife, Mathilde. An odd match up if ever there was. The affair went on and was discovered resulting in a crisis whereby the lovers fled to Vienna, leaving the composer to a suicidal depression while in the midst of a major work. After a few weeks, Mathilde was persuaded to return home for the children. Gerstl lost it all: lover, mentor, and everyone he counted as friend. It wasn't long before he went to his studio, burned the contents, and then, before his studio mirror, hung himself and stabbed a big knife through his even larger heart.

Gallery 1

Gallery 2

Gallery 3

Gallery 4

Photo Gallery

New Gerstl?

In death Gerstl nearly annihilated all traces of his existence. As for what Gerstl actually torched during his final frenzy, there is a matter of some conjecture. Letters, notices, writings--any paper trail was burned and what little is known of the man is second-hand and at quite a few years remove. That only 8 drawings on even fewer sheets of paper survive indicate a lot of his work did go up in flames. However, most of his paintings remained intact in his studio, so it's impossible to know whether any canvases were destroyed. I would guess not because that would imply a selection process governing the final hours of his life. Sixty some paintings representing four years' work may seem paltry (Van Gogh averaged about 100 canvases a year), yet not that paltry (Vermeer averaged 4-5). Afterwards, his family cleared out his studio; his paintings spent the next couple of decades stored in a warehouse, until his brother Alois brought them to the attention of the art dealer Otto Kallir in 1931.

A brief word on the material: this was originally intended as a sort of mirror site to one at btinternet, though of late it seems to have vanished. All images and related information came to me from there. It's hard to pin down Gerstl as he rarely dated or signed his work, much less gave them titles--nothing should be taken as carved in stone. Some of the Summer 1907 ascriptions are relegated to 1908 by Rudolf Leopold. The "K" numbers--given when known--refer to Otto Kallir's original cataloging of the material. As for the actual jpegs, the originals were often washed out; I have done some judicious enhancing. Perhaps the most difficult art of all is that of color reproduction. I've used several Kallir and Leopold catalogues as my primary guides, aided by my own knowledge as a painter, and memory from the several times I've stood before a few of the actual canvases. Nevertheless I can make no claims of accuracy in these representations. Having to choose, I'll always go for bright over drab. Given their age and history of poor treatment, I like to imagine how these paintings looked when the paint was fresh, the room reeking of turpentine and linseed oil.

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