In 1908, at the age of 25, the Viennese painter Richard Gerstl killed himself after being caught in flagrante with the wife of his friend, the composer Arnold Schönberg. This retrospective of his brief career offers no masterpieces but does introduce a fascinating artist whose abbreviated career hit upon a psychologically inflected Expressionist style earlier than his better-known compatriots Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka.
Gerstl’s work is mostly portraits and self-portraits, and two of the latter bracket the exhibition. Semi-Nude Self-Portrait (1902–04) pictures the artist haloed against dark greenish-blue, like a Symbolist saint. He wears a white sheet as a sarong with the hint of an erection popping up above the waistline. In his Nude Self-Portrait of 1908, slashing strokes of paint form his ghostly pale and angular body while abstract, scrolling curlicues fill the background with nervous energy.
Gerstl’s other favorite subject, his mistress, Mathilde Schönberg, appears in a 1908 portrait wearing a big flowered hat and sitting in a room with yellow walls. Thick paint obliterates detail, especially in her pink face. In a group portrait of the Schönberg family from later that year, we can recognize the parents and two children seated outdoors, but only just. Figures and ground melt into a colorful blob, showing that Gerstl’s radical reenvisioning of painting was decades ahead of his time.