Richard Gerstl, at 24 years old, killed himself in 1908 by hanging. In his short life he completed some 61 paintings and predicted certain trends in painting to come. His breakout work is an allegory of Christ, whereupon Gerstl paints himself with a halo in the nude, with a sheet over his loins. His last works include a full nude self-portrait and a self-portrait of his face laughing, both paintings made as if to criticize the earlier humility.
Generally speaking, paintings can be criticized historically, or criticized conceptually. Just like a music critic’s job is easier for criticizing lyrics more than music, so too the art critic has a difficult time going for the beauty or the snap judgement.
In the year before Gerstl died, he painted a smiling self-portrait of his face in front of a halo of oranges and reds. The smile is maniacal, as if Gerstl was an evil villain in a movie, getting away with the gold. The symbolism is quite loaded here. In the first place, Gerstl was about to kill himself, so the crazy laughter was immediate and not just metaphorical -- he really was a maniac!!
The symbolism in conversation with art history is twofold. For one, smiling in a painting is difficult, because smiles take a bit of momentary effort, whereas paintings take hours of patience, sometimes years. Renaissance painters and painters of the Middle Ages often focused on how skulls naturally smiled as a replacement for actual smiles, and when you look at a skull it almost looks like it’s smiling naturally. This theme with the skulls is called “memento morti,” which is Latin for, remember you too will die someday, and to remember to be happy. This “memento morti” theme appears in lots of paintings, but probably most famously in Shakespeare’s “to be or not to be” speech in “Hamlet”, where the young prince talks to the skull of his friend Horatio.
The second comment on art history from Gerstl here has to do with how the audience is included in the painting. The way painters did this was with an “implication” whereupon one of the characters would look out from the scene of the painting, toward the audience. Implication here was also indictment, be it comedy or tragedy, because the viewer makes direct eye-contact with the subject of the painting. If you’re part enough of the scene to make eye contact with one of the painting’s characters, then you’re aware enough to know what the conflict of the painting is. In most paintings, it’s a self-aware drunkard or an out-of-tune musician. In this case, the artist himself was about to kill himself.
Things are more tender and persuasive in Gerstl’s portrait of himself as a teenager. Gerstl painted himself deathly skinny -- the starving artist -- with the chin stubble of a young man, and a toga covering his genitals. The metaphor here is for Christ, and maybe Christ’s march in the desert on the verge of starvation. The painting’s brush strokes are small and precise, and the painting is photographically life-like. The blue penumbra eclipsing Gerstl is the clearest comment on divinity in this painting, which could easily speak to dark oceans of feeling.
Gerstl’s facial expression is kind and gentle. Paintings of Christ deal with problems of how an all-powerful being meets problems. The Last Supper paintings, for example often wonder why, if Jesus knew who was going to betray him at the dinner, then why didn’t he stop his own murder? Whereas painters Caravaggio and Valentin de Boulogne would secretly use their own bodies for portraiture, at the risk of seeming hubristic, arrogant and pretentious, Gerstl here actively and willingly poses his own body and its infinite possibilities as Christ-like. The humility is the emaciation and the gentle expression Gerstl holds.
A third portrait, Gerstl’s later self-portrait of his full body in the nude is the artist’s version of Kendrick Lamar’s “Be Humble”, the hit song from this year. If Lamar’s chorus, “sit down, be humble,” is a sarcastic criticism of being humble, Gerstl’s painting here asks the same questions. Being quiet, humble, and nerdy doesn’t get one noticed. Gerstl’s full body portrait here trades humility for arrogance, and a subtle entreating smile for an angry and standoffish one. Gone is the toga and here Gerstl shows off his genitals like a real exhibitionist. The realism of the first self-portrait is exchanged for large, almost impressionist brush strokes, which blur and obscure the figure. This is an attack on the critic who would say the technique is not good enough, because it’s not realistic.
Expressionism, the art movement Gerstl predicted, is not so much about the smudge style or the highly technical pointillism of impressionism, but rather it’s about the deep emotions and the intensity of those emotions. Impressionists like Monet or Van Gogh were ready to talk about divinity and the problems with divinity, but to Gerstl, they didn’t involve the artist or the viewer in this conflict. Maybe Monet’s lily pads showed gratitude for all of Earth’s creation, but where is the viewer in this and how does she feel about it? What does it matter if the viewer, say, doesn’t like lily pads? Likewise, Van Gogh’s masterpiece “Starry Night” has questions about loneliness in a cold darkness, which could just as easily be death, or ignorance. But what does it matter to the artist or the viewer? Gerstl’s paintings are arrogant because he’s in the arena, fighting about these questions, and while the risk attacks the viewer, these questions help the paintings because one has to wonder about herself in relation to these questions.
Like a boss -- Gerstl’s emotional expressionism has a tie to problems of patronage in art. Patrons in art used to be strictly for the Catholic Church and Italian kings, who had specific rules for what paintings could be and what they could be about. In the 19th century, new wealth meant robber barons could directly hire artists. This was the case with James Whistler, who was only a generation before Gerstl. Whistler moved to London and befriended a robber baron named Leland. Whistler insinuated himself into Leland’s life, and taught Leland’s wife how to paint. Leland fired Whistler, but after doing so he also sued Whistler into bankruptcy and Whistler barely escaped London alive. Gerstl’s patron was the music composer Arnold Schoenberg, who was neither a king nor a robber baron -- so the question is if Gerstl didn’t have to pay homage to a king, a priest, or a robber baron, then who was he talking to? Gerstl may very well have been talking to all of mankind. As the rules of Kings and Priests fell away, the challenge for artists became how to think for oneself. Gerstl’s works seek to create a self that could be inspired in this way. From brush strokes precise and varied, Gerstl’s project was a success. The end of Gerstl’s exhibit gives the art critic a strange idea Gerstl knew exactly what he was doing by befriending Schoenberg and having an affair with his wife.
Some works referenced are below:
Gerstl, Richard. Self-Portrait, Laughing. 1907. Oil on canvas. Belvedere, Vienna.
(The Christ Allegory Painting)
Gerstl, Richard. Semi-Nude Self-Portrait. 1902. Oil on canvas. Leopold Museum, Vienna, Austria.
(Fully nude painting)
Gerstl, Richard. Self-Portrait, Nude. 1909. Oil on Canvas. Leopold Museum, Vienna, Austria.
In 1904 and 1905, Gerstl shared a studio with his former academy classmate and friend, Viktor Hammer. Although Hammer had assisted in Gerstl's admittance to Lefler's tutelage and their relationship was friendly, it is difficult to determine how close the two men were as Gerstl did not associate with other artists.