AIronically, in the politically turbulent 1970s, a book of art history that had long been considered outdated came back into favor in artistic circles: Alois Riegl’s standard work “The Dutch Group Portrait” from 1902. Many painters, inspired by Riegl, portrayed their friends, comrades, collectives in oil. The same applies to the Swiss painter and printmaker Franz Gertsch, born in 1930, who celebrated his international breakthrough with the history format “Medici” at Documenta 5 in Kassel in 1972. On a gigantic four by six meters, five young people lined up next to each other in the picture leaned against a red and white barrier. This is the entourage of Gertsch’s well-known artist, Luciano Castelli, who exude a sense of optimism. He wanted to capture life, Gertsch once said, and with “Medici” he succeeded in doing so. The emulsion paint on unprimed half linen, to which Gertsch remained loyal for a long time, provided the paradoxical game of deception between exaggerated, false-looking skin gloss and the honest brittleness of the carrier material absorbing the paint.
Even the work “Luciano I”, in which the same “Medici”-Castelli, who would have driven Thomas Mann into ecstasy with his tadzio-like nature, sits bored in front of a banquet table heaped with overturned cups and a red wine glass just precariously balancing on the edge of the table, points to this with the unmistakable traces of orgies to one thing: Many have celebrated here. However, one individual remains behind. And Gertsch’s large format “Vietnam” from 1970, in its chaotic entanglement of wounded GIs into a body, is more like Rembrandt’s Night Watch than an accusatory image.
A masterful level of detail
More group and individual portraits of artist friends and family portraits followed, as well as a complete series of music icon and rock poet Patti Smith in the late 1970s, along with self-portraits. From 1980 onwards, Gertsch devoted himself to hyper-realistic individual depictions of young women, made from his own photographs, whose flawless faces he stretched out to the size of a meter with a blow-up effect. Gertsch was thus the reflective Renaissance painter of the 1968 generation, who, contrary to the zeitgeist, sought beauty in faces that had been increased to a monumental format, and also made music and dance in figurative form the subject again.
But not only the inexhaustible fascination of the human face drove him throughout his life; in his “Grass Pictures” the beauty of what is usually carelessly trampled on became evident through a hundredfold enlargement. At the same time, however, the oversized and complex tangled stalks, which to a certain extent placed the viewer in the perspective of Maya the Bee and the grasshopper Flip, once again belonged to an old artistic tradition, namely that of baroque Sottobosco painting, which gives us the forest floor still lifes of the undergrowth in a masterly manner A wealth of detail from the smallest snail to the most peculiar growth, as it were, microscopically. With the decisive difference that with Gertsch it was often the much more complex technique of the woodcut in which he portrayed the mass of blades of grass in just one color.
Nobody before him captured such monumental nature in woodcuts
He developed his own technique for these woodcuts of the eighties and nineties. On the basis of photographs he had also taken himself, he emphasized point by point of light with the lime wood gouge, which then appear bright in the monochrome print. From a distance, the countless small points of light pointillistically draw together to form a representational image.
When Gertsch opened a museum of his name in Burgdorf, Switzerland in 2002, which was expanded in 2019, some (who did not know the naturally modest man) feared that it could become a hypertrophied mausoleum and close the work like a grave slab. Fortunately, the opposite was the case. The artist felt inspired to create new works and even cycles for the house over the years, which were shown first in the many exhibitions there.
Similar to Pierre Soulages, who died recently at the age of 102 and continued to paint until the end, Franz Gertsch was also able to paint until shortly before his death. One can imagine the man who died at the age of 92 as a happy person.