One of the highlights of the Nude Men exhibition we saw at the Leopold Museum was a series of self-portraits by an artist I’d never heard of before, Richard Gerstl. And then further up the gallery, I came across this painting, also by Gerstl, and simply titled, Mathilde in the Garden.
This time it wasn’t just the artist who made me pause, but the subject too. Why was it so powerful? And yes, erotic. Although not obviously so like the Peter Lely exhibition currently at the Courtauld which features amongst others, this painting once hidden from the view of Dulwich schoolboys for reasons that aren’t too hard to fathom!
I think it was something about the gaze that caught me. It feels that the Mathilde in this garden was used to being stared at by the artist, and to be that comfortable around someone else is always pretty attractive.
And then I read more about the relationship between Richard Gerstl and his model, Mathilde, who turned out to be the wife of the Viennese composer, Arnold Schonberg, and mother to his two children. Briefly it seems that Schonberg invited Gerstl to teach both himself and his wife to paint. Even though Richard Gerstl was only in his early twenties, his talent was being recognised and he was welcomed into the circle round the Schonbergs. Mathilde seems an unlikely siren, she was barely five foot and six years older than Richard, but they fell in love, and on 26th August 1908, the couple were found by Schonberg in a ‘compromising position’. Orginally they ran away together, and then Mathilde was encouraged back to the family home ‘for the sake of the children.’
Abandonded, Gerstl kept painting at first, but then on 4th November Schonberg held a concert in Vienna for his students and Gerstl was not included on the guest list. That night, he stabbed and hung himself in front of his mirror. The ultimate self-portrait. He was just 25.
You can read more about this couple at this marvellous website maintained by Raymond Coffer, which includes letters from Mathilde and Arnold. A line from Mathilde to Richard’s brother made me cry. She said that she wouldn’t come to the funeral but ‘I would ask you, as soon as you know it, to tell me the number of Richard’s grave.’
It’s worth noting though that the painting, Mathilde in the Garden, was painted just a month before Richard’s suicide. When they were in the midst of their secret love affair. No wonder it feel so tender. The garden was at Preslgult, the Schonberg’s waterside farmhouse in the lakeside resort of Gmunden.
Gerstl’s family apparently were so upset that they kept all of his paintings from public view until recently, which is probably why he isn’t as well known as he should be. After Mathilde died in 1923, never having recovered fully, Schonberg married again, more happily, and is now known as the ‘father of modern music.’ This video archive shows his second wife.
And, in the spirit of Gerstl’s series of self-portraits, here are two poems from different angles…
Because we can no longer breathe inside
I hear the homely smell
of morning bacon cooking
when you speak, my mouth
tastes your breast soft
under my palm, the feel
of your skin the salty
shock of an oyster slipping
down my throat, orchestras
reach a crescendo
with just a scent of your hair,
but when I look at you,
the only thing I see is you.
Self Portrait in the Garden
Less a lullaby
but let’s leave the fat lady
jokes, start at the ankles,
(actually not there.)
Those witness-bearing eyes
as cold as a glacier lake,
is the value most underrated.
hair’s good, jaw no second string
to the chin cleft.
yes, they always made him pause,
hips that still swing
like earth chasing another planet’s air.
But it’s not what’s outside
that tells their secret,
it’s the way he’s caught her off-guard,
she forgetting to pose, and for how long
he must have known
she carried the number of his grave.