I could visit the Museum Frieder Burda,Baden-Baden to see a show by swiss artist Franz Gertsch, realist painter. I learned about Franz Gertsch through a small Benedikt Taschen publication on contemporary painting many years back, but was not too impressed with his paintings from the seventies and eighties. At that time Gertsch became famous with paintings in hyper or photo realistic style. I thought photorealism in painting was in fashion at the time and Gertsch just followed people like Richard Estes or Chuck Close, who had done it all much better already in my opinion.
Gertsch certainly has reached international reputation in that field and he is following his path very consequently. I started to appreciate the works by Franz Gertsch only when I saw an exhibit of his monumental woodcuts, also at Baden-Baden sometime before 2000. Those works are breathtaking. I bought the inspiring exhibition catalogue then. Gertsch pointed out in the catalogue to a famous Albrecht Dürer quote, that his father had cited to him already when he was a child: “Art is truly in nature, those who can cut it out will own it” (apologies for my humble translation).
You can see the works of Frank Gertsch on the website of the Frank Gertsch museum in Switzerland.
The show at Baden Baden now included some of the most famous works from the seventies and eighties, some of his woodcuts (unfortunately the hanging in the basement was not under best light conditions) and in the largest room with best light seven monumental recent works. I liked the forest views depicted in four paintings one for each season best. The same spot in a typical European, medium old, mixed hardwood forest with a path in the center could be seen in paintings titled spring, summer,autumn and winter (see Franz Gertsch museum website,works paintings).
The realistic paintings are viewed best from a distance of 15-20 meters I would guess. The closer you get the less detailed and accurate the works seems to get. With looking closer and closer at the canvas (mostly acrylic or tempera works) the secret of the trompe-l’œil effect, the illusion of a real forest or person vanishes and dissolves into banal patches and brush strokes of color. There are no clear or sharp lines, all colors contact each other in blurred zones. With the given size of the works one could get the impression that there is not much of craft needed to put down the colours that way, it all looks a bit like painting by numbers.
Certain areas in portraits for example imitating a fully detailed hairdo mutate to a humble bundle of seemingly careless executed brush strokes. An intriguing network of branches in snow changes to a fairly simple and dull pattern of colours in stripes and patches on close sight.
Gertsch has come very close to a perfect reproduction of the looks of nature. But is that art? That question is still unanswered. No doubt that those works require an immense amount of discipline and perseverance. As far as I understand Gertsch has been working on those paintings for years. The forests view series of four paintings was done in three years from 2009 to 2011 for example. As to quantity his production is comparatively small not to say tiny to other artists. Götz Adriani, art historian and curator of the show, explains in the exhibition video (see further below) that Gertsch has created about 60 paintings and 18 woodcuts in 40 years.
But when looking at the forest paintings I thought :”Yes this is the forest, once and for all times!” Instead of producing many small paintings of landscapes or forests Gertsch has decided to throw all his energy in a few, monumental and perfect pieces. He once compared his work and motivation with a mountaineer who seeks the challenge of the highest peak.
This atelier video sheds some light on the painting process, which is based on a projection of an image on the canvas or wood panel
More than in his paintings I see the highest peak of the craft reached in the woodcuts by Franz Gertsch. Those incredibly detailed works are composed of uncounted more or less tiny marks in the size smaller than the nail on your fifth finger incised in the surface of the wood panel with a wood cutting tool. The general form of those marks are the same in one particular work, but change from one work to the other. The size and the density of marks varies to create the illusion of a three-dimensional subject, a face or a plant, by illusionistic representation of light and shadow. The pattern on close sight looks very similar to a digital image file enlarged to pixel size.
Gertsch interrupted his painting activity for seven years,which he devoted exclusively to a set of unique woodcuts. These works are unique in art history from my point of view.
Gertsch does not celebrate his capabilities in realism as other artist have done or do. His works are not aggressive or try to put the viewer in awe with merely optical effects. Realism in these works is not an end in itself. His works celebrate the wonders of reality,of looking, seeing and of our existence in general. They question the way we look at humans and nature, how (superficial) we see or look at them too often. Finally connected with the question of existence there is the question of time and finiteness in our lives. So in the end it is art indeed cut out of nature?