Richard Gerstl, Semi-Nude Self-Portrait, 1904/05 © Leopold Museum, Vienna, Inv. 637

Richard Gerstl, Semi-Nude Self-Portrait

This “Self-Portrait Before a Blue Background” of 1904/05 probably numbers among the most unusual works of Austrian painting created during the early years of the twentieth century: One sees the figure from the front, positioned amidst the background’s deep blue. The blue colour bordering the painter’s upper torso is noticeably lightened and produces an aura. Gerstl’s upper torso is naked, and around his hips he wears a white loincloth. The artist does not portray himself in his studio, as it was traditional to do, but instead elevates himself to the status of a near-messianic figure. Art as a replacement for religion is a generally observable phenomenon in modernism, in which the artist can be regarded as the creator of an independent world.
The abstract treatment of the background colour contrasts with the realistic depiction of the artist’s face. The painter’s rigid gaze meets that of the observer. At the same time, however, he seems as if he were actually looking through the observer and losing himself esoterically in the distance.

The clearly demarcated, coloured surfaces and the symmetric arrangement of the pictorial composition formally reflect the planar art being created around the turn-of-the-century. The painting’s unrealistic appearance, emphasized by the transparent use of colours and the suggestion of an aura, allow this painting to be classified as a symbolist work.
Gerstl’s passionate and unhappily broken off love to the married Mathilde Schönberg still lay ahead of him at the time he painted this self-portrait. Three years were still to pass before he committed suicide, years during which he would passionately search for his personal form of modernism and struggle with his own sexuality—a struggle which, in the end, he was doomed to lose.


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