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Richard Gerstl

RICHARD GERSTL/OSKAR KOKOSCHKA

Richard Gerstl (1883-1908) and Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980) are perhaps the two most idiosyncratic artists to emerge from the cultural ferment of fin-de-siècle Vienna. Unlike Egon Schiele, whose essentially linear Expressionism was a direct outgrowth of the tradition established by Gustav Klimt, they achieved a decisive break with the past. In this, Gerstl and Kokoschka were intellectually (and, as it turned out, socially) allied with the enclave of self-styled iconoclasts who gathered around the architect Adolf Loos and the composer Arnold Schönberg. This group was firmly committed to bridging the gap between truth and pretense by extricating artistic expression from the superficial dictates of conventional structure.

 

In many fields of endeavor (not just architecture and music, but also in such areas as psychology and linguistic philosophy), Viennese iconoclasts revolutionized modern thinking. The contributions of Gerstl and Kokoschka to the visual arts were no less groundbreaking. Both artists liberated the means of artistic expression (such as color and brushstroke) from the stranglehold of academic verisimilitude, creating paintings that captured the very soul of their subject matter. Gerstl, twenty-five when he committed suicide in 1908 , was possibly the most advanced artist in Europe, inventor of a style that directly anticipated the Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s. Kokoschka, whose life was as long as Gerstl's was short, had a career comparable in scope to that of Picasso, and no less central to the long-term evolution of modern art.

 

Given the pivotal importance of Gerstl and Kokoscka, they are today surprisingly underappreciated. Kokoschka, who enjoyed a robust reputation in the 1940s and '50s, fell into something of an eclipse during the last years of his career, which (again like Picasso's) was just too complex and varied to be easily graspable. Gerstl, on the other hand, has been handicapped by the relative paucity of his work, which until now has never been seen in any substantial quantity outside Austria.

 

Of the two artists, Gerstl was probably the most overtly rebellious. From an early age, his schooling was disrupted by chronic discipline problems, and this situation was only exacerbated when, in 1898, he entered the prestigious Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. Here he had the ill fortune to be admitted to the class of Christian Griepenkerl, a notoriously harsh disciplinarian. After three years of intermittent sparring, Gerstl left in 1901 to pursue his studies independently. He returned briefly to Griepenkerl's class in 1904, but soon transferred to a more liberal professor, Heinrich Lefler.

 

It is partly owing to his innate belligerence that Gerstl is not better known, for he succeeded in evading all opportunities to publicly show his work. He is said to have cancelled at least two exhibitions, once because he refused to have his work seen alongside that of Klimt. Disdaining contact with most artists, Gerstl was instead drawn to the company of musicians. Thus it was that, around 1905, he entered Schönberg's circle.

 

Gerstl's encounter with Schönberg was to be crucial in more ways than one. Schönberg, during the period of their friendship, was in the final stages of "emancipating dissonance" from the confines of structural harmony, and Gerstl must have sensed a parallel in his own efforts to free brushstroke from the strictures of realistic representation. The only major Austrian painter to fully assimilate the lessons of Impressionism, Gerstl found a key expressive tool in Pointillism's painterly flecks. Gradually, his brushstrokes became looser, his forms increasingly fragmented until, toward the end of his life, they verged on abstraction.

 

Unfortunately, just as Gerstl was reaching his creative peak, his personal life began to disintegrate. For an indeterminate period of time, he had pursued a secret affair with Schönberg's wife, Mathilde, but in the summer of 1908 the two were discovered. Forced to break with both his lover and the Schönberg circle, Gerstl plunged into suicidal despair. On the night of November 4, he dropped a noose around his neck and thrust a butcher's knife into his heart.

 

Kokoschka, who made his public debut at the 1908 Kunstschau (Art Show) can hardly have known Gerstl, yet he was, nonetheless, pursuing a similar road. During the preceding four years of study at the Vienna School of Applied Art, Kokoschka was very much under the influence of the Wiener Werkstätte, whose principles dominated the curriculum there. However, some time between 1908 and 1909, he developed a raw, primitive painting style totally at odds with the Werkstätte's decorative proclivities. Eschewing all attempts at flattery, Kokoschka's innovative portraits honed in on the subject's inner essence.

 

Loos, sworn enemy of the Wiener Werkstätte, sensed in Kokoschka a kindred (and perhaps ideologically useful) spirit. He encouraged the young artist to break with the Werkstätte and helped him obtain portrait commissions. In 1910, he also arranged for him to collaborate on the avant-garde Berlin periodical Der Sturm. Partly as a result of the increased exposure provided by Der Sturm, and in part through Loos's connections, Kokoschka also began to exhibit regularly in Germany.

 

During the years prior to World War I, Kokoschka enjoyed enviable access to a number of prominent portrait sitters, but this patronage was to some extent illusory. It often turned out that these sitters were dissatisfied with the artist's finished paintings, and Loos ended up buying many of them. Then, too, Loos had a tendency to capitalize on his protegé's outsider status, so that in the end Kokoschka was trapped between a pretense of revolutionary rebellion and a very natural desire for acceptance. In later years, Kokoschka would exaggerate his squabbles with the Austrian authorities--for they formed an appealing legend--but at the time, such attacks hurt.

 

Artistically, Kokoschka moved rapidly to the forefront of Expressionism following his 1909 stylistic breakthrough. The muted, scraped surfaces of his first canvases were soon replaced with a more buttery impasto, in which can be detected the influences of such varied artists as El Greco, Titian, Romako, Kirchner and Meidner. Koksochka, essentially self-taught as a painter, passed instinctually through a series of past and current styles, which he immediately transformed into a personal idiom. After World War I, he settled in Dresden, and it was here that he first fully assimilated the bright, Fauvistic palette of the German Expressionists. With this, the long process of self-education was complete. From here on, color would be a central aspect of Kokoschka's work, which became progressively freer and more spontaneous. His style was consolidated during a period of protracted travel from 1924-34. Painting outdoors or from his hotel balcony, and constantly racing the changeable light and weather, the artist developed a rapid shorthand approach that combined the spontaneity of watercolor technique with the complex paint densities possible only in oil.

 

Even as Kokoschka enjoyed increasing fame and prosperity, the world which had nurtured him was coming apart. He had, in some ways, felt homeless ever since the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1918. The political instability of Weimar-era Germany did not offer a secure refuge, and with the rise of Hitler in the 1930s, he saw his work banned as "degenerate." In 1934, Kokoschka settled in Prague (then one of the most prosperous capitals of central Europe), but following the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938, it became clear that Czechoslovakia was doomed. Later that same year, Kokoschka emigrated to England with a young Czech law student, Olda Palkovská, whom he married in 1941.

 

Following World War II, Kokoschka again saw his star ascendant, as many in Austria and Germany sought to disassociate themselves from the Nazi past by singing the praises of a "degenerate" artist. Nevertheless, he resisted ardent pleas by the Austrians to reclaim his citizenship, and instead settled in the Swiss town of Villeneuve. His achievement would eventually find a resonant echo in the Neo-Expressionism of the 1980s, but during the last years of his life Kokoschka suffered from the relative marginalization of the Germanic tradition. Were Expressionism to be accorded the same prominence as ancillary developments in France, Kokoschka's central role in shaping the former movement would probably be more fully appreciated. As it was, he died in 1980 an inveterate outsider, still somehow following the rebel path laid out by Loos so many years earlier.