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The National Gallery Podcast

Episode 85

A rare chance to see a lapis lazuli masterpiece, plus career guidance from Bellini and a tragic self-portrait by Gerstl.

11 min 17 sec | November 2013

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): This is the National Gallery Podcast and I’m Miranda Hinkley.

We start with our autumn exhibition – Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900 – and a passionate story of love, betrayal and death. Among the many glamorous images of Vienna's elite on display, Richard Gerstl's raw, naked self-portrait comes as a visceral shock. Many have seen its harsh colours and slashed paint as angst-ridden. It was painted in September 1908, soon after Gerstl’s affair with Mathilde, the wife of his great friend and avant-garde composer Arnold Schönberg, was discovered... and just a few weeks before the artist took his own life. So is this a suicidal self-portrait? Cultural historian and Gerstl expert, Raymond Coffer:

RAYMOND COFFER: I think when he painted this, there were no thoughts of suicide – in fact, quite the contrary, I think that this is a painting that is slightly artificial in its concept because he has elongated his legs and cut them off at the shin, which enables his sex to become the centre, which he deliberately paints dark. This is the thing that shocks people – and more than that, his stance where he stands slightly at an angle with his elbow cropped into his hip is very provocative and I believe that this is the painting of a man who was crowing about his sexual conquest of the wife of a man who he considered to be a father figure.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: So if this isn’t a suicidal portrait, what did provoke Gerstl to take his life at the age of 25?

RAYMOND COFFER: It’s really quite simple. I believe that Mathilde returned to Gerstl and the affair continued and she may have spent some nights with him before a concert that was due to take place on 4 November, organised by Schönberg of Schönberg's students, which was by invitation only. And it was where his students Berg, Webern and others would premier several of their works. Gerstl was excluded, the concert was at 3 o'clock. It is almost certain that Schönberg, who probably could not face the dishonour of coming to this concert and sitting with his students without his wife, may have sent Webern to persuade her to return and, for the sake of the children, she did. I believe that Gerstl found himself excluded from the circle that he so enjoyed being part of and was excluded from the concert… was excluded from his affair, and for a man who had faced rejection throughout his life, there and then decided to kill himself, and did so by standing on his stool in front of his beloved mirror and pushing a kitchen knife into his heart with a noose round his neck and the stool fell away and he hung and stabbed himself. 

LEAH KHARIBIAN: Such a great pity because Gerstl, obviously as this exhibition shows (and there are several Gerstl pictures in the show), was a phenomenal artist and had he lived we might have had a wonderful body of work, which we really would remember nowadays.

RAYMOND COFFER: I would make the point that Gerstl is one of a number of artists, even up to the present day, including people like Nick Drake, Kurt Cobain, who had no idea of their own talent, but killed themselves without any reference to what they did as artists. And I think Gerstl fits into that class and we can’t really complain that he was more interested in his personal feelings than his artistic feelings, because that’s something that goes through history I’m afraid.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Raymond Coffer, talking to Leah Kharibian. 'Facing the Modern: the Portrait in Vienna 1900' is sponsored by Credit Suisse and runs until early January. Tickets can be purchased from the Gallery or online with a booking fee at And an audioguide written by Leah Kharibian and narrated by author Esther Freud, the great-granddaughter of famous Vienna resident Sigmund Freud, is also available.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Recent years have seen a few new recruits to the curatorial team and we’re devoting the rest of this episode to introducing two of them. Letizia Treves joined to become Head of the Curatorial Department and has a special interest in Italian and Spanish art. She took Cathy FitzGerald to see an early 17th-century work that’s also a newcomer to the National Gallery: 'David contemplating the Head of Goliath'. The picture was painted by Orazio Gentileschi, a Pisan-born artist who befriended – and was greatly influenced by – Caravaggio in Rome. It’s the only example on display in the Gallery of a practice that was highly fashionable in Italy at that time: painting on stone… a dazzling blue lapis lazuli. It’s also rather small – just 25 centimetres high by 19 across – but as Letizia explained that doesn’t stop it having an impact.

LETIZIA TREVES: When you see it in reproduction you think it’s going to be life-size and it’s astonishing when you look at it in the flesh – it’s such a small painting, yet it has such incredible wall-power, and I think that bright blue really intensifies the drama of the scene. Normally David is shown in the midst of the battle or decapitating – very violently decapitating – Goliath and yet here Orazio’s chosen a very quiet moment of contemplation and this very emphatic juxtaposition of the stone in his left hand and the sword in his right really underlines the virtuous image. It’s a young boy armed with a sling who’s defeated a giant armed with a sword.

CATHY FITZGERALD: And it’s painted on lapis, isn’t it, which seems rather a luxurious background…

LETIZIA TREVES: That’s right. So lapis lazuli is a semi-precious stone and it’s mined today as it was then, and also since antiquity, in Badakhshan, the north-eastern province of Afghanistan. But here the extraordinary thing is it's a very large piece of lapis made up of three pieces joined together and despite the extraordinary expense, Orazio's chosen to paint over three-quarters of the picture surface. But in the areas where he’s painted over, for example, on the distant vista and on Goliath’s head, he’s letting that coolness show through and you can see that sort of deathly pallour of Goliath's decapitated head. He’s hidden the blood – we can’t see the severed head – but he’s certainly indicated the onset of rigor mortis by letting the blue show through.

CATHY FITZGERALD: This work isn’t actually part of the National Gallery’s collection – it’s actually on loan, and the fact that it's here and that we get to see it in London is largely because of you…

LETIZIA TREVES: Yes, I mean it comes from a private collection in the UK and when I joined the Gallery in April it was really one of the first things that I did, that I tried to get this picture on loan. Orazio Gentileschi's a key, key figure in painting in Rome in the beginning of the 17th century. He knew Caravaggio personally – we know that because in a trial in 1603 we know Caravaggio was one of the witnesses and he told the court that he admired Orazio’s work…

CATHY FITZGERALD: Caravaggio was a fan…

LETIZIA TREVES: He certainly was. And we know that Orazio also stood up in court and explained that he lent Caravaggio a Franciscan habit and a pair of wings, which one can't help but hope that they were the wings on the angels in Caravaggio's masterful paintings in San Luigi dei Francesi.

CATHY FITZGERALD: And to make this one of your very first priorities when you got here suggests that there was more than just an academic curiosity…

LETIZIA TREVES: Well, this picture was discovered in 2012 – it was quite sensational – and it's still a picture that needs quite a lot of research because there's an old slate backing on it with an inscription – a 17th-century inscription – of a name and a number, which is probably relating to a 17th-century inventory, so it’s something that I’m really keen to work on and research while it's here.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Letizia Treves. You can find 'David Contemplating the Head of Goliath' in Room 37, and if you’re interested in Orazio Gentileschi’s work, do also head next door to Room 32, where a second, much larger, painting of his is on display: 'The Finding of Moses'.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): And now to a picture that inspired a career. Caroline Campbell, the Gallery’s Curator of Italian paintings before 1500, explains how a brief encounter with a National Gallery painting sparked a fascination that looks likely to last a lifetime.

CAROLINE CAMPBELL: I first came across Bellini's 'Agony in the Garden' on a poster for a music concert when I was an undergraduate at university studying history and it was a detail of the sleeping figures and I was absolutely intrigued by these figures… I didn’t know where they came from, their context, but the expression on the face and the way in which the body was as expressive as the face itself made me completely interested and I just wanted to find out more. I found out then that it came from this painting by Giovanni Bellini, an artist I’d never heard of, and it was a painting in the National Gallery, where I’d never visited, because I grew up in Ireland and I spent just a couple of years really just enjoying the image before I actually came to the Gallery and saw the picture for the first time.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: How did you find those figures fitting into the whole composition?

CAROLINE CAMPBELL: Well, the picture is a painting of Christ praying before the soldiers are about to come and pick him up and take him to Jerusalem for his tragic death. And I had not realised that these figures were just part of this large landscape and I was frankly so blown away by the picture, that I asked my tutor to see if I could start studying images in paintings and they gradually introduced me to this strange thing called art history.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: I don’t suppose there can be any reproducible formula for life-changing encounters like yours with Bellini, but I was wondering if there’s anything you think you as a curator can do to encourage those moments to happen for visitors?

CAROLINE CAMPBELL: We really want to encourage people to look more than anything else. And I suppose it's really creating an environment where people don’t feel there's one way of coming to a picture or that there's a lot of knowledge you have to have to do that. All you need is yourself and the time – the five minutes – to sit in front of something and then maybe you will have a life-changing experience too.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Caroline Campbell and Leah Kharibian, talking about Bellini’s 'Agony in the Garden' in Room 62.

If you’re visiting the National Gallery this month, we’re open 10 'til 6 daily and 'til 9 on Fridays, or you can get a closer look at all the paintings online at

Until next time, goodbye!