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Richard Gerstl, Self-Portrait Laughing (1907)

It is all about putting your best face forward. Photographer captures the fugitive moment before it flees. Painter, like an envious sister of Photograher’s, constantly resents the ephemeral existence of a mesmerising smile, which often freezes into a stiff, twitchy line even before she applies onto the canvas a tentative stroke. But one day as Painter is doing half-heartedly another portrait and racking her brain trying to recall what ingenious sparks of spirit that just seconds before flash across the sitter’s otherwise stoical face, her paintbrush takes a sudden and willful sweep over the canvas, leaving a faint but perceptible line on the person’s forehead. Disgruntled at first when Painter sees what a careless mistake she has compounded with her clumsy toil, but then, after assessing the screwed portrait at several different angles, a mischievous smile plays upon her lips.

The sitter remains the same throughout the process of painting but the authority belongs to the painter, who holds the destiny of the sitter’s effigy firmly in his hands. How joyful it is to paint an unappealing portrait of your nemesis! Painter savours the inexpressive elation when one day she does a portrait of her aloof sister, Photographer, on the sly and successfully renders her an unprepossessing snob. In the end of the day Painter has a fitful night of sleep, incessantly disturbed by her own uncontrollable laughter.

But it is hardly a laughing matter when you are doing your own portrait. The experience often leaves an uncanny effect, as though the painter was virtually creating his twin sibling. You are staring into the mirror at yourself when doing the portrait and afterward you will see your own creation staring back at you, solitary on a canvas still devoid of a background. The photographer will most likely associate the connection of the gazes, the painter’s and his creation’s, with some sights that never fail to incite his curiosity- room within room, door opening to yet another door, a maze of corridors promising no imminent exit. “I do not doubt interiors have their interiors, and exteriors have their exteriors, and that the eyesight has another eyesight,” so says Walt Whitman quite literally.

The painter, Richard Gerstl, was one of the many Austrian artists whose portraits are noted for their psychological insights and expressiveness. Psychology, like sociology, is all about engagement. But rather of a more intimate engagement, psychology plumps for a one-on-one conversation invariably conducted in a muted, wordless manner. Therefore even when there is an expanding throng of viewers standing before an Austrian painting, the figures in which deal with one at a time, broodingly and patiently. Their gaze, instead of emitting shafts of blinding light that intent on poking holes in the viewers’ eyes, breathe a cold air that envelopes the little innocent crowd, like a lion appraising his wounded and writhing prey from afar, before making the fatal spring.

The same coldness permeates Richard Gerstl’s Self-Portrait Laughing (1907), but a more expressive and menacing coldness, as the painter is shown having a laugh, a mad and hearty laugh. The background is composed by golden and brown daubs, as though the sky is ablaze with flying flints. There are fires, too, burning in the painter’s eyes, but those flames do not assume a confident ferocity. They are rather like the candles that intermittently gutter, and spew out wax that moisten the eyes like tears that refuse to drop.

The smile is certainly not victorious, nor does it seem to me glorious. If this is what Gerstl reckoned as his “best face,” or at least, the face that he found the most impressive, then he surely made no bones about his madness, or illness. But by no means is the painter trying to elicit the viewers’ empathy and kindness for his dismal situation. He is simply having his good, and possibly, last laugh- at the fortune he is futile to change, at his unstable mentality he is too disdained to seek any remedies, or at any unnamed enemies he is next bent on destroying. The smile as all there is.


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