The Schönbergs’ letters – post Gerstl’s suicide

Letters written by Mathilde and Schönberg to Alois Gerstl immediately after Richard Gerstl’s suicide in November 1908

Now alone, Gerstl naturally returned to his own family’s apartment at Nußdorferstraße 35, where he painted a number of works (see Summer 1908 – Suicide), including perhaps his most astonishing self-portrait, Selbstbildnis (Akt in ganzer Figur), a life-size nude of himself dated 12 September 1908 that is an open self-expression of his sexual frustrations with the loss of the woman that he proclaimed to love. He appears, however, to have reacted positively, for, although now ostracised from the Schönberg circle and excluded from the Akademie following a vitriolic letter to the Ministerium für Kultus und Unterricht (Ministry of Culture and Education), he took an artist’s studio on the top floor of Liechtensteinstraße 20), about a kilometer from the Schönbergs’ apartment. He moved his works and materials in and may have painted Sitzender Frauenakt, a nude with an obliterated face that some have claimed was of Mathilde, who, according to her second letter to Alois (see below), intimates that she had visited Gerstl in his new studio and indeed, had left some of her things there.

However, shortly after Gerstl had taken up occupation of his new studio, Mathilde was evidently persuaded by Schönberg’s student and Gerstl’s friend, Anton von Webern to return to her husband “for the sake of the children”. Mathilde acceded but may well have left Gerstl around the time that a major public 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. Perhaps the two were not unconnected, for it was before 5pm on that day that Gerstl, who, according to Hammer, had shown no indications that he was suicidal, hanged and stabbed himself in his Liechtensteinstraße 20 studio. Since the cause of death was given by his doctor, Otto Paul Gerber as “Unzurechnungsfähigkeit” i.e. unsound mind, Gerstl was afforded a Catholic burial at Sievering cemetery on 7 November 1908.

It must be assumed that both Arnold and Mathilde Schönberg were advised of Richard’s death by his brother Alois, for both wrote to him in the aftermath. Each though had a different purpose, as will be seen from their original letters, whose transcriptions and translations can be accessed via the following three links, which open in a separate window:

1. Mathilde to Alois Gerstl – 6/7 November 1908

2. Mathilde to Alois Gerstl – 8/9 November 1908

3. Schönberg to Alois Gerstl – ca. 7-9 November 1908

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Click for one of the four periods of correspondence:
June 1907 ♦ ♦ June 1908 ♦ ♦ August 1908 ♦ ♦ November 1908

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