It’s seldom that an artist receives a first solo U.S. museum show decades after death. But then again, few artists have the haunting magnetism and drama of
, whose rarely exhibited work is currently on view at Neue Galerie in New York City.
A lesser-known contemporary of
, Gerstl was a bona fide rebel whose short life ended tragically in suicide. He was a man at odds with Austria’s fin-de-siècle
society, rejecting anything that smacked of tradition or discipline. For Gerstl, even Klimt’s controversial
movement—which sought to break the mould and move away from Austrian conservatism in the arts—was too haughty and bourgeois. (He refused any association with the group, and once declined participating in a show alongside Klimt.)
Some might argue that Gerstl’s proto-
style evolved in diametric opposition to his peers, but it’s not quite that simple. His amalgamated aesthetic was born out of a commitment to experimentation and irresolution.
The artist’s earliest self-portrait, Semi-Nude Self-Portrait (1902-1904), suggests the divergent influences that surfaced in his work. He indexes the diamond torsos of Greek Archaic and Egyptian sculpture, ordering his painting with rational proportions and anatomical perfection, but renders himself androgynous and flat. The young Gerstl is portrayed against an aquamarine background, with a bright halo around his head.
Is it a nod to
mosaics depicting Christ and Lazarus? And does this imply that Gerstl sees himself as a savior? Not necessarily. The halo also highlights Gerstl’s buzz cut—a conspicuously anachronistic hairstyle that was associated in his time with psychiatric patients. Mad or divine? Gerstl’s painting evokes the tortured genius trope of our greatest artistic masters.
And like so many great masters, Gerstl has a traumatic life story, one that culminated in a torrid love affair with Mathilde, the wife of his close friend and famous composer
, in 1908, and the artist ultimately taking his own life. After being caught in flagrante
, the young painter slumped back home, destroyed his papers, tied a rope around his neck, and plunged a knife into his heart.
It’s not like unstable men were a rare find in Vienna, however. After all, this era contained a number of tortured eccentrics who were well-versed in Sigmund Freud’s seminal psychological tomes. Schiele comes to mind: a man so driven by his erotic inclinations that the small Austro-Hungarian village of Krumau (now part of the Czech Republic) literally ran him out of town for painting undressed, nubile teens. Yet Schiele’s scandals are mere postscript compared to Gerstl’s provocations.