German Expressionist painter Richard Gerstl was a friend of Schoenberg’s and taught both Schoenberg and his wife to paint. They became quite close, spending summers vacations together and even sharing a studio. However, in the summer of 1908 a romantic affair developed between Gerstl and Mathilde, coinciding with the time Schoenberg was writing his Second String Quartet. Mathilde actually left Schoenberg for Gerstl but was persuaded to return for the sake of their children, after which Gerstl was excluded from Schoenberg's inner circle. This chapter in their history came to an especially tragic end on November 4, 1908, when Gerstl burned all the paintings in his studio, plunged a knife into his chest and hung himself in front of the mirror he used for his self portraits.
Gerstl: Final Self Portrait
Schoenberg told Dika Newlin, one of his last students, that the quartet had “deep emotional significance,” commonly interpreted as perhaps pointing towards the piece involving secret programmatic content regarding the affair. After the suicide, Schoenberg forbade those around him to speak of the matter and thereafter only referred to Gerstl in his writings via the letter “G." Gerstl's last self portrait (dated Sept 12, 1908) features him nude and standing in front of a mirror, perhaps a foreshadowing of his imminent, staged death.
Towards the end of his very short career, the faces Gerstl painted often dissolved into blotted smudges or smears. This print is based on Gerstl's final work: a portrait with the face modified and reduced to just a smudge and a shadow of the letter "G;” a figure blending into a background mirroring the uninhibited, chaotic abstract strokes Gerstl used. You can see a shadowy reference to Mathilde and to the previous print in this series in the mirror.
Richard Gerstl, Self portrait, 1908
Leopold Museum, Vienna, Austria