Franz Gertsch (1930–2022) – Artforum International

Swiss Photorealist Franz Gertsch, renowned for his massive canvases depicting subjects ranging from rivers to rock stars as though caught in the white-hot glare of a flashbulb, died on December 21 in Riggisberg, Switzerland. He was ninety-two. Aiming to “paint the world like someone who has just landed on the mountain from some other planet,” Gertsch frequently worked from photos on canvases measuring up to eleven by sixteen feet in a comparatively tiny studio, creating paintings so true to their source material that, as described in the Washington Post, details in some instances appeared slightly blurred, reflecting the imperfections created by a camera’s depth of field.

Gertsch was born 1930, in Mörigen, Switzerland. From a young age, he was taught to play piano, encouraged by his father, who hoped he would grow up to teach the instrument. A singer and grade-school teacher, the elder Gertsch feared his son would be left impecunious if he pursued his other passion: art. However, the younger Gertsch soon dropped out of school altogether to learn painting from Max von Mülehnen. Discharged from mandatory service in the Swiss military owing to a heart condition, Gertsch traveled throughout Europe working in various styles, most notably the bright-hued Pop art style that was ascendant in the late 1950 and early ’60s.

He would apply the vivid colors that characterized the movement in his earliest large-scale hyperrealistic works, which typically showed regular people in everyday situations. His early love of music and his later embrace of counterculture found expression in his landmark portraits of punk poetess Patti Smith, made in the 1970s and, during that same decade, his images of gender-fluid members of an artists’ commune, sporting bright lipstick, faded denim and black leather. Gertsch photographed his subjects himself before painting them, often capturing them in the middle of such mundane acts as smoking, getting ready to go out, or tuning a guitar. Each work might take up to a year to complete. In 1972, Gertsch took part in the fifth Documenta; the cover of Artforum’s October 1972 issue depicts the artist’s Medici, 1971, dwarfing a pair of spectators at the Kassel exhibition.

In the mid-’80s, he left his hyperrealistic style behind in favor of minutely detailed woodcut prints, which he rendered on handmade paper. Artforum’s Joanna Fiduccia in 2008 described one of these works, appearing in a group show, as “rippling with innumerable, minutely rendered wavelets, is so stunning that no curatorial conceit need buoy it.” He eventually returned to realism, but—thanks to a mid-1970s move with his family to a ramshackle farmhouse in the Schwarzenburg region of Switzerland—with a second subject: the natural world, which would prove an endless source of fascination to him. “How is this diversity possible in nature?” he asked. “When you look at a tree covered in snow, who has the imagination to be able to create these structures, these movements?”

In 2002, with Swiss industrialist Willy Michel, he established the Museum Franz Gertsch in Burgdorf, Switzerland, with galleries proportioned to provide the best display of his work. The museum, which includes in its holdings all Gertsch’s works from the 1980s and ’90s, borrows his work from other institutions and stages exhibitions of other contemporary artists as well. His work is additionally held in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; and the Kunstmuseum Lucern, Switzerland.


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