Phase 5: Summer 1908 – Suicide
By summer 1908, Gerstl and Schönberg appear to have developed a strong bond, and despite many scholars suggesting that Schönberg had become suspicious of Mathilde’s relationship with the young artist, he nonetheless extended an invitation for Gerstl to join them once again for their summer vacation in Gmunden. Others form Schönberg’s circle would join them, and as before, they occupied several farmhouses on the eastern bank of the Traunsee (click here for map of precise locations). Gerstl had not travelled with Schönberg as planned, but came down alone the day after on 27 June, settling in, as in 1907, at the Feramühle, perhaps half a kilometer from the Schönbergs’ farmhouse, Preslgütl. Zemlinsky, meanwhile took up residence in Engelgut, Traunstein 22, where the Schönbergs had stayed the previous summer.
As opposed to 1907, Gmunden experienced much fine weather during July, so that Schönberg, perhaps enjoying his family vacation, appears to have shown little urgency to return to composition, and only began sketching and writing his op. 10, Second String Quartet around 7 July, perhaps 10 or 11 days after he arrived. Gerstl, though, soon picked up his easel and began producing a series of progressively wild, radical, plein-air life-size portraits of members of the Schönberg circle (see below), culminating in his extraordinary Gruppenbildnis mit Schönberg, which he finished around 23 July. Within about a week, Schönberg, perhaps inspired by Gerstl’s instinctive and ground-breaking Expressionism, had returned to his Second String Quartet, finishing, in just a few days each, first the second movement and then the fourth, Entrueckung, in which Schönberg is acknowledged as having made the first leap to “atonality” in a large-scale work. He then spent the first three weeks of August preparing the parts for the work’s first rehearsals in Vienna. However, on 26 August, Gerstl and Mathilde were found in flagrante delicto, possibly in Gerstl’s farmhouse. After a confrontation, when Schönberg apparently refused to listen to his wife’s exhortations, Mathilde eloped with Gerstl. Too late to catch a train back to Vienna, the two stayed in a hotel, the Gasthof zur Stadt Frankfurt, in Gmunden overnight, before travelling to the city the next day. Here the lovers stayed three days in a pension in Nußdorf, in the northern outskirts of Vienna, before Schönberg tracked Mathilde down and she returned to the family home.
His love affair at a temporary end, Gerstl returned to his family’s home at Nußdorferstraße 35, where he painted a number of a number of works (see below), including perhaps his most astonishing self-portrait, Selbstbildnis (Akt in ganzer Figur) (see RG70 below), a life-size nude of himself dated 12 September 1908. Now ostracised from his friends in the Schönberg circle and excluded from the Akademie following a vitriolic letter to the Ministerium für Kultus und Unterricht (Ministry of Culture and Education), Gerstl takes an artist’s studio on the top floor of Liechtensteinstraße 20 (see Gerstl’s Meldzettel für Geschäftslocale), overlooking Freud’s building in Berggasse and precisely a kilometer from the Schönbergs’ apartment. His intentions appear to have been serious as he moved his works and materials in and may have painted there, too. In addition, it seems highly likely that Mathilde continued to visit him there. However, having been convinced by Schönberg’s student and Gerstl’s erstwhile friend, Anton von Webern to return to the family home, Mathilde appears to have left Gerstl at around the time that a concert of works composed by Schönberg’s student, from which Gerstl had been pointedly excluded, was taking place on the afternoon of 4 November 1908. It was now that Gerstl, who, according to Hammer, had shown no indications that he was suicidal, probably hanged and stabbed himself in his Liechtensteinstraße 20 studio.
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RG59 Herrenbildnis (grüner Hintergrund), summer 1908. Oil on canvas, 109 x 89.8 cms. Neue Galerie, New York. Long conjectured to portray Alban Berg, who did not visit Gmunden in 1908, this has clear affinities with those that Gerstl painted there, notably in its broad brushstrokes, subject representation and background. Since this displays a thinner application than the heavy paint deposits seen later, it was probably amongst his earlier works of the summer. Kallir 38 – exhibited at Neue Galerie from 17.10.1931. Thesis – pp. 293-294.
RG60 Traunseelandschaft, July 1908. Oil on canvas, approximately 100 x 80 cms. The only knowledge of the large-scale landscape comes from a photo of Gerstl (Breicha Archive) which shows him painting the peaks rising to the south of the Traunsee from the east bank of the lake, probably in early summer, 1908. The work has not been seen since, although there is some conjecture that Gerstl overpainted it for his portrait of the Schönberg family, RG64 (q.v.). Not known to Kallir. Thesis – p. 247.
RG63 Doppelbildnis (grüner Hintergrund), Gmunden, July 1908. Oil on canvas, 110.7 x 90.2 cms. Leopold Museum. Although unconfirmed, it has been mooted that the woman has similarities with Mathilde. Certainly, the work’s expansive brushwork, swirls and loops and background meadow are all consistent with Gerstl’s approach in Gmunden 1908. Stylistically, the work plainly came before Gerstl’s group portraits (see RG64/65 below), so probably early summer 1908. Kallir 47 – exhibited at Neue Galerie from opening, 28.9.1931. Thesis – pp. 252-254.
RG61 Bildnis Alexander Zemlinsky, Gmunden, July 1908. Oil on canvas, 170 x 74 cms. Signed: “Richard Gerstl” Inscribed verso: “Richard Gerstl, IX, Nußdorferstr. 35”. Stiftung Sammlung Kamm – Kunsthaus Zug. Amongst the first of five portraits from Gmunden 1908 that Gerstl almost certainly painted within a window of three weeks before the end of July. Seizing an opportunity to capture Zemlinsky one morning on the bank outside his 1908 farmhouse, Engelgut, Gerstl portrays the life-size Zemlinsky, who was due to depart to visit the Mahlers in August, with a touch of vanity and a downcast look. He painted him quickly, with a ghostly halo and the Traunsee waters merging with his body, using the reverse of the larger half of the dissected RG8 Fragment eines lachenden Selbstbildnisses, (see also RG62, Mathilde im Garten). Applying the white background by palette knife directly from the tube, Gerstl further develops here his broad, almost sketch-like brushstrokes and loops. Kallir 40 – exhibited at Neue Galerie from opening, 28.9.1931. Thesis – pp. 250-252.
RG62 Mathilde im Garten, Gmunden, July 1908.
Oil on canvas, 170 x 61 cms.
Verso RG8 Fragment eines lachenden Selbstbildnisses (see Zemlinsky above).
Painted verso the narrow half of the dissected canvas, this, too, is a life-size work. The portrait has a marked air of spontaneity, with Mathilde seemingly caught in motion, apparently oblivious to the presence of the artist, going about her day in Preslgütl’s grounds. Whilst, as with Zemlinsky, Gerstl somehow retains recognition of the subject, he hardly hints at Mathilde’s eyes and mouth, a technique seen to greatest effect in his group portraits from that summer (see below), with which it also shares their almost disdainful brushstrokes, determinedly non-specific backgrounds, hands painted with thick, elegant strokes and heavy ochre-brown skintones.
Kallir 39 – exhibited at Neue Galerie from opening, 28.9.1931.
Thesis – pp. 250-252.
RG64 Die Familie Schönberg, Gmunden, late July 1908 (see introduction above). Oil on canvas, 88.8 x 109.7 cms. Signed: “Richard Gerstl”. MUMOK, Stiftung Ludwig. Clearly painted over another work, possibly RG60 Traunseelandschaft (q.v.), the work displays all the stylistic techniques that typified Gerstl’s Gmunden portraits from summer 1908. Kallir 33 – exhibited at Neue Galerie from opening, 28.9.1931. Thesis – pp. 254-260.
RG65 Gruppenbildnis mit Schönberg, Gmunden, late July 1908. Oil on canvas, 169 x 110 cms. Signed: “Richard Gerstl”, inscribed verso:“Richard Gerstl, IX, Nußdorferstr. 35”. Stiftung Sammlung Kamm – Kunsthaus Zug. Schönberg stands top left, Zemlinsky seated below him next to Ida and Mathilde. The third couple may be Karl (Schönberg’s student) and Mizzi Horwitz, who were on honeymoon. A sunstrewn backdrop, applied with a palette knife, shares the rich ochres and greens that typified Gerstl’s Gmunden portraits from 1908. Here Gerstl stretched his techniques, distorting faces, so that indistinguishable close up, they become gradually recognisable as the viewer draws back. Kallir 49 – exhibited at Neue Galerie from opening, 28.9.1931. Thesis – pp. 256-261.
RG66 Akt im Freien, Gmunden, July 1908. Oil on canvas, 121.1 x 99 cms. Galerie St. Etienne, New York. The work’s brushwork, subdued, albeit, flatter tones and location have affinities to others from Gmunden, although its barely defined figures and facial features suggest that it came after the near-abstraction of Gruppenbildnis (above) and was the last of the series. Conceivably a self-portrait of the artist working plein-air, possibly in Preslgütl’s garden. Kallir 48 – exhibited as Komposition at Neue Galerie from 28 September 1931.Thesis – pp. 262-263.
RG67 Kleines Straßenbild (Nußdorferstraße), Autumn 1908. Oil on artboard, 35.3 x 29 cms. Private. Employing a palette-knife in parts for his broad, thick brushstrokes, this view of Nußdorferstraße, looking south towards a building on Bindergasse that was not constructed until 1908, was painted, as indicated by the window-ledge and the right-hand detail opposite in Säulengasse, from the balcony at Gerstl’s first floor apartment in Nußdorferstraße 35. Kallir 16 – exhibited at Neue Galerie from 17.10.1931. Thesis – pp. 293-294.
RG68 Zimmer, Autumn 1908. Oil on artboard, 49.8 x 35 cms. Private. As with RG67 Kleines Straßenbild, above, and RG5 Maria Gerstl, below, this was painted by Gerstl on artboard, almost certainly in Nußdorferstraße 35, to where Gerstl retreated in the aftermath of Mathilde’s return to Schönberg around 20 August 1908. Kallir 18 – exhibited at Neue Galerie from opening, 28.9.1931. Thesis – pp. 291-292.
RG5 Bildnis der Mutter Maria Gerstl, probably Autumn 1908, but never finished. Oil on artboard, 49 x 35 cms. Stiftung Sammlung Kamm – Kunsthaus Zug. Gerstl was unable to finish this work as he felt he never caught his mother’s likeness, although comparison with contemporaneous photos suggests that he may have done so. Possibly painted on artboard cut from the same 100 x 70cms piece as RG68 Zimmer, Gerstl portrays his mother with a benign smile and warm, grey eyes, adorning her with swirls and dabs characteristic of his style at that time. Kallir 31 – exhibited at Neue Galerie from opening, 28.9.1931. Thesis – p. 291.
RG69 Fragment eines Selbstaktes, [September] 1908. Oil on canvas, 36 x 34 cms (according to Kallir, but unconfirmed). Galerie St. Etienne, New York. Now lost, this may not only have been a bigger work, but also a blueprint for the much larger RG70 Selbstbildnis (Akt in ganzer Figur) (see below). Kallir 24 – exhibited at Neue Galerie from opening, 28.9.1931. Thesis – p. 291.
RG70 Selbstbildnis (Akt in ganzer Figur) Dated, lower right: 12 September 1908, almost certainly in Nußdorferstraße 35. Oil on canvas, 140.5 x 119.5 cms. Leopold Museum. According to Alois, Gerstl’s last work, its jagged, intense, elongated brushwork may reflect the speed of executing a self-nude in his home. Its same eerie blue aura acts as a conscious reference to his 1902 blue self-portrait. His legs, though, are disproportionately long, bringing his sex, painted in far deeper hue than the rest of his painfully pale torso, deliberately to the centre of the canvas. Kallir 42 – exhibited at Neue Galerie from opening, 28.9.1931. Thesis – pp. 291-294.
RG35 Sitzender Frauenakt, Autumn 1908. Recto RG13 Bildnis einer jungen Frau Tempera on canvas, 166 x 116 cms. Leopold Museum. Most likely painted in Gerstl’s final studio at Nußdorferstraße 20, this, according to Breicha (presumably from Alois), is a life-size depiction of Mathilde, whilst Heimo Kuchling claims that Alois said that this and not RG79 above was Gerstl’s last painting. If so, Schönberg’s recent ban on Mathilde visiting Gerstl would explain the thin, speedily applied brushwork, the patchy background and the obliteration of the subject’s face. Kallir 51 – exhibited at Neue Galerie from opening, 28.9.1931. Thesis – pp. 127-129, 297.
Watercolour on paper. 40 x 30 cms.
Lost since being exhibited as Kallir 57 at Neue Galerie from opening, 28 September 1931.
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1906-June 1907: Trude Geiringer ♦ ♦ Schönberg ♦ ♦ Mathilde und Gertrud ♦ ♦ Frau mit Federhut ♦ ♦ Grinzing ♦ ♦ Emil Gerstl ♦ ♦ Selbsbildnis mit Palette ♦ ♦ Diez ♦ ♦ Alois Gerstl ♦ ♦ Smaragda Berg ♦ ♦ Mutter und Tochter ♦ ♦ Selbsbildnis Drawing/1 ♦ ♦ Selbsbildnis Drawing/2 ♦ ♦ Selbsbildnis Drawing/3 ♦ ♦ Selbsbildnis Drawing/4 ♦ ♦ vor dem Ofen ♦ ♦ Selbstbildnis (Studie) ♦ ♦ Kleines Selbstbildnis ♦ ♦ Dame mit Federhut ♦ ♦ Kahlenberg ♦ ♦ Oberländer ♦ ♦ Herrenbildnis ♦ ♦ Kniestück ♦ ♦ Selbsbildnis Drawing/2
Gmunden 1907: Obstbaum mit Holzstützen ♦ ♦ Blumenwiese ♦ ♦ Gartenbild ♦ ♦ Baum im Garten ♦ ♦ Prillinger ♦ ♦ Uferpromenade ♦ ♦ Obstbaum ♦ ♦ Baumstudie ♦ ♦ Gartenzaun ♦ ♦ Mathilde Schönberg:II ♦ ♦ Traunseelandschaft ♦ ♦ Baum am Traunsee ♦ ♦ Schlafender Griechin ♦ ♦ Landschaftsstudie ♦ ♦ Selbstbildnis, lachend (1907)
Autumn 1907-Spring 1908: Self 15 September ♦ ♦ Self 29 September/1 ♦ ♦ Self 29 September/2 ♦ ♦ Liechtensteinpalais ♦ ♦ Donaukanal ♦ ♦ Nußdorf ♦ ♦ Sitzende Frau ♦ ♦ Sitzende Mann ♦ ♦ Mathilde im Atelier ♦ ♦ Halbfigurenportrait ♦ ♦ Henryka Cohn
Gmunden 1908-Suicide: Alban Berg? ♦ ♦ Traunseelandschaft 1908 ♦ ♦ Doppelbildnis ♦ ♦ Zemlinsky ♦ ♦ Mathilde im Garten ♦ ♦ Familie Schönberg ♦ ♦ Gruppenbildnis ♦ ♦ Akt im Freien ♦ ♦ Nußdorferstraße ♦ ♦ Zimmer ♦ ♦ Maria Gerstl ♦ ♦ Halbakt ♦ ♦ Selbstbildnis 12 September 1908 ♦ ♦ Frauenakt