Curator's Choice: July 2011

Curator's Choice
July 25, 2011

Richard Gerstl (1883-1908)
Self-Portrait in Front of a Stove, 1907
Oil on canvas on board
Neue Galerie New York

Richard Gerstl is recognized today as a crucial figure in the Austrian Expressionist movement. Yet because of his small surviving body of work—fewer than 100 piecies—he remains under-appreciated, unlike his better-known contemporaries Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka. At fifteen, he began taking classes at Vienna's Academy of Fine Arts, where he studied painting under Christian Griepenkerl, known for his conservative teaching approach. The relationship between student and professor was tumultuous; Gerstl dropped out and studied independently for a few years. Gerstl later took classes at the Academy under Heinrich Lefler, who was connected to the Viennese musical world, but ran into conflict with him as well and did not complete his degree. Nonetheless, it was through Lefler that Gerstl met composer Arnold Schönberg, and their encounter proved fateful for the young artist.

Schönberg permitted Gerstl to paint his portrait, even though Gerstl had not established reputation as an artist. Before long, Gerstl was giving painting lessons to Schönberg and quickly became an accepted member of the family. In the summer of 1908, a love affair blossomed between Gerstl and Schönberg's wife, Mathilde, which had a disastrous conclusion. The couple was caught together in flagrante, and they fled together back to Vienna in August. Mathilde was ultimately persuaded in October of that year to return to her husband for the sake of their two children. Distraught, Gerstl destroyed most of the artwork in his studio and then committed suicide on the evening of November 4th, 1908. He was only twenty-five years old. 

Gerstl's oeuvre consists of self-portraits or portraits of friends and family members. He was influenced by the French Impressionists, the work of Edvard Munch, and Vincent van Gogh. After his death, when his work was first shown after sitting in storage for more than twenty years, he was dubbed the "Austrian Van Gogh."

This self-portrait, most likely painted in the artist's studio, dates to 1907. Notably, he is not wearing a painter's smock but instead depicts himself in a suit and bowtie, in keeping with his reputation for being dapper. In his right hand, he holds a palette, thus signalling to the viewer that he is in the act of creating his own portrait. His visage is dark and partially obscured by heavy shadows. The agitated brushstrokes in the area around his face and hair offer some insight to his psyche at this time. Fellow painters and acquaintances viewed him as irascible. In the background at the left looms another figure, who appears similarly attired to Gerstl himself. The figure's posture almost suggests that it is hanging, and has been interpreted as a sign of foreshadowing, as this is how the artist killed himself after the failed love affair.

Curator's Choice
July 15, 2011

Armchair from the Conference room of the Austrian Postal Savings Bank, Vienna 1906
Beechwood; bentwood, stained greenish black and polished; aluminum fittings; striped olive-green seat fabric
Private Collection

Otto Wagner (1841-1918) is considered by many to be the father of modern Viennese architecture. He was a professor of architecture at Vienna's Akademie der Bildenden Künste (Academy of Fine Arts), where his progressive ideas helped influence a new generation, including Josef Hoffmann, Josef Maria Olbrich, Josef Plečnik, and Max Fabiani. Wagner's lectures were collected and published in 1895 under the title Moderne Architektur (Modern Architecture). He promoted the concept that function, material, and technique should together define the shape of a building or object. Wagner called this approach Nutzstil, or useful style, and it was revolutionary for the time.

Wagner's most important public commissions in Vienna include the design of the stations and transport system for the Stadtbahn (1894-1900), the Church am Steinhof (1902-04), and the building and interior furnishings for the Postsparkasse (Postal Savings Bank, 1903-12). The façade of the Postal Savings Bank was clad in slabs of white marble. Large aluminum rivets were used to visually affix the marble to the building, though they actually played no functional role. Many of the furnishings of the bank also incorporated aluminum, such as on the armrests and the sabots, or shoes, of the chairs. Wagner selected aluminum in order to give these objects a modern appeal. Aluminum was not typically encountered in furniture during the period. It was an unusual choice but practical too because it required no polishing and due to its rarity appeared luxurious. This armchair from the conference room was made from bentwood, a lightweight, sturdy, and easily manufactured material. The horizontal bands at the back of the chair convey solidity. The linear quality of the design is reinforced by the square stretcher beneath the seat.

Curator's Choice

July 11, 2011

Gustav Klimt and Emilie Flöge in the Garden of the Villa Olleander on the Attersee, 1910
Photograph by Hans Böhler
Neue Galerie New York

Gustav Klimt (1868-1918) wore a blue cotton painter's smock while working in his studio in Vienna. Surviving photographs indicate that he owned a number of these smocks that bore embroidered decoration at the shoulders. He also preferred this loose style of clothing when he vacationed during the summer months on the Attersee with the Flöge family.

Emilie Flöge (1874-1952) was one of Klimt's closest friends and a designer of Reformkleider (reform clothing). The reform movement was intended primarily to free women from their corsets, but it eventually extended beyond its original scope. Intellectuals of the early twentieth-century adopted a version of the painter's robe, believing that a greater sense of comfort would induce relaxation and engender freer thinking. This style of clothing also harked back to the manner of dress favored by the ancient Greeks. 

In 1904, Emilie and her sisters Pauline and Helene established a chic fashion salon iin Vienna known as the Schwestern Flöge (Flöge Sisters). It is likely that the Schwestern Flöge made the robes worn by Klimt and Emilie. This photograph of Klimt and Emilie wearing these loose caftans was taken by artist Hans Böhler in the garden of the Villa Oleander on the Attersee. Other photographs show the pair wearing similar robes while boating together. Emilie typically paired hers with jewelry from the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshops).

Schiele, Reclining Semi-Nude, 1911

Curator's Choice
July 5, 2011

Egon Schiele (1890-1918)
Reclining Semi-Nude, 1911
Watercolor, gouache, and pencil
Private Collection

Egon Schiele often pushed boundaries in his life and with his art. The most famous episode in Schiele's career involves the case of a fourteen-year-old girl named Tatjana von Mossig, who ran away from home in April 1912. She sought refuge with Schiele and his model Wally Neuzil. Schiele was arrested on charges of kidnapping and also accused of having sexually molested her. Schiele was ultimately acquitted on both the count of kidnapping and sexual misconduct, but was found guilty of displaying indecent images where minors could have viewed them. In fact, he even led officials to a drawer where he reportedly stored over 100 similar works.

During his twenty-four-day imprisonment, known as the Neulengbach Affair, he executed a number of poignant sketches, many of which were self-portraits that had to be made from memory because he had no access to a mirror. During his trial one of his erotic drawings was burned in the courtroom. After this troubling experience, Schiele largely turned away from using children as models.

This 1911 work entitled Reclining Semi-Nude, which depicts a girl with her skirt lifted up, is the type of drawing that would have caused a stir in a staunchly conservative and primarily Catholic-bourgeois society. Her provocative pose and flushed cheeks raise eyebrows even today considering the age of the model. This watercolor would have held appeal for a small circle of collectors whose purchases helped support the young artist. Schiele once exclaimed, "Even the erotic work of art is sacred!"

Curator's Choice
July 4, 2011

Josef Hoffmann (1870-1956)
Brooch, 1907
Execution: Wiener Werkstätte, model no. G688
Silver, partly gilt; lapis lazuli
Private Collection

The Wiener Werkstätte (1903-32), or Vienna Workshops, was founded by Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser with the financial support of Fritz Waerndorfer. It was a collaboration of designers and craftsmen, who sought to create handmade goods appropriate for the modern age. Many were produced only once, or in limited quantities, this scarcity imbuing them with a preciousness that extended beyond any innate value of materials or workmanship. The firm's first goods produced were jewelry designs. 

Josef Hoffmann was one of the most prolific artists affiliated with the firm. He often combined silver and gold in his jewelry designs, and favored richly colored cabochon stones. His early brooch designs were square in shape and framed like paintings. They are often compared to the mosaic-like canvases of Gustav Klimt, a colleague in the Vienna Secession. In fact, Hoffmann designed the frame for one of Klimt's most famous works, the 1907 Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I.

The repeating stylized eye-motif in Hoffmann's brooch, also from 1907, made from gold and lapis lazuli, is evocative of the patterning on the dress in Klimt's painting, suggesting a fluid dialogue between these artists. The brooch was originally acquired by Berta Waerndorfer, the mother of Fritz Waerndorfer.

Curator's Choice
July 3, 2011

Gustav Klimt (1868-1918)
The Park of Schloss Kammer, ca. 1910
Oil on canvas
Private Collection

Gustav Klimt, renowned for his ornamental portraits of society women, turned to landscape painting relatively late in his career. He began vacationing in the Salzkammergut lake region of Austria with family and friends in 1898. He took up plein-air painting, and produced around fifty-five landscapes up until his death in 1918. These were non-commissioned works yet they account for more than a quarter of his total output. Klimt enjoyed working outside and being alone in the woods. 

From 1908 through 1912, Klimt and his close friend, the fashion designer Emilie Flöge, who ran the Viennese salon Schwestern Flöge with her two sisters, spent the summers staying at the Villa Oleander, a local guest house. The neighboring grounds included, parks, gardens, and footpaths. The villa and its surroundings were the subject of a few of his paintings. In this work, The Park of Schloss Kammer, Klimt focuses on the Attersee, reveling in the play of light and the reflection of nearby trees across the surface of the lake. Painted in a Pointillist technique, the choice of water as a subject was also one linked with the Impressionists and Symbolists. Water has traditional associations with rejeuvanation and was favored for its restorative abilities.

Klimt's landscapes are contemplative works. He invites the viewer to meditate on the subject at hand. The lack of human presence encourages a tranquil mood. There is an emphasis on the purity and stillness of the natural world. 

Curator's Choice
July 1, 2011

Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980)
Peter Altenberg, 1909
Oil on canvas
Private Collection

Peter Altenberg, born Richard Engländer, grew up in a wealthy family of merchants. He studied law and medicine but was unable to hold down a steady job. He made a name for himself as a writer who pursued a bohemian lifestyle, living primarily in small hotels where he stored his beloved collection of picture postcards and photographs. During the day he maintained a Stammtisch at Vienna's Café Central, where he even received his mail. Altenberg was renowned for his short and impressionistic literary sketches that were often satirical in their wit. He called his texts the "telegram-style of the soul," and said that he would like to "describe a person in one sentence."

Oskar Kokoschka vividly captures his characteristic walrus mustache and balding head. Strong splashes of red convey the force of his unconventional personality. Altenberg suffered from a variety of ailments, including eating disorders, fatigue, depression, and alcoholism. He was committed to Steinhof in 1913 by his brother, and while there wrote about his therapy. Kokoschka described his approach to portraiture prior to World War I in his autobiography: "I tried to intuit from the face, from its play of expressions and from gestures, the truth about a particular person, and to recreate in my own pictorial language the distillation of a human being that would survive in my memory."