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Newsletter 308

Published October 14, 2019
Richard Gerstl, 'Self-portrait, laughing'

This week’s column looks at Steirischer Herbst (‘Styrian Autumn’) in Graz, one of the world’s most ‘out there’ arts festivals. I missed the typically anarchic opening ceremonies but still managed to pack in four days of art and theatre. The theme this year was Grand Hotel Abyss – which suggested that hedonism and apocalypse are closely related concepts.

Austria has a history of extremes and contradictions. Some would say it originates with the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire, when a sprawling sphere of influence devolved into a small nation of less than 9 million people. The Austrians have lost nothing though in terms of culture. Vienna remains one of the world’s most vibrant centres for art and music.

The city’s big attraction this time was a huge Albrecht Dürer exhibition at the Albertina. It probably felt larger than it was because there was so much eye-strain involved. As a draughtsman, Dürer is hard to beat, if you like your drawings fastidious and detailed rather than loose and expressive. There were plenty of examples of the latter tendency on show as well, including a large Maria Lassnig survey at the Albertina, and a Richard Gerstl show at the Leopold Museum.

Lassnig is one of those artists who has a permanent niche in Austrian art. She has some strong pictorial ideas but her sense of colour and her penchant for painting schematic images of herself with a flattened head makes her hard to love. I don’t think I’ll ever get it.

The Leopold is making great claims for Gerstl, who committed suicide at the age of 25, after a failed affair with Arnold Schönberg’s wife, Mathilde, but to see his slender output in depth is to see a largely unformed artist.

For every successful work, such as the laughing self-portrait, there are another 2 or 3 that look like he gave up on them at the half-way mark. Gerstl was definitely talented but his early departure means we are left wondering. If he’d only made it to 28, like Egon Schiele, we’d have a better idea of his abilities. Schiele, despite his untimely death and rather sordid life, is an artist for the ages, and one of Vienna’s top attractions, along with Gustav Klimt.

This week’s movie review looks at Judy, the Judy Garland bio pic that features a staggering performance by Renée Zellweger – almost literally staggering, considering how often Garland was whacked on pills and booze. It’s sentimental and manipulative, but not to an offensive degree. I ended up liking the film much more than I’d expected.

Returning to Sydney this week I find our compassionate, God-fearing Prime Minister eager to sell out the Kurds, following Donald Trump’s decision to allow Turkey to march into Syria. One wonders if he’ll be just as steadfast in supporting the President while an avalanche of criminal behaviour piles up in the current impeachment inquiry. Perhaps a quick personal consultation with Jesus (or Alan Jones) might be in order.