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Exhibition of works by Swiss artist Franz Gertsch opens in the Abattoirs Museum in Toulouse
Visitors look at a monumental painting by Swiss artist Franz Gertsch in the Abattoirs Museum in Toulouse, southern France, as part of Toulouse's International Art Festival, on June 1, 2014. AFP PHOTO / REMY GABALDA.

TOULOUSE.- Held in leading German and American museums among others, the immense realist canvases of Franz Gertsch are like icons. In Switzerland, a museum has been built specially to house his work and bears his name. In France, however, with the exception of an exhibition of prints at the Centre Culturel Suisse in 2001, the show at Les Abattoirs is his first exhibition. The ensemble of paintings constituted for this occasion reflect his range of both themes (close-up portraits, group scenes, landscape and plants) and media (paintings after photographs, woodblocks). It covers the full extent of the artist’s career, from the late 1960s up to the most recent, new works that will be shown for the first time in Toulouse.

This detail is significant: the catalogue raisonné of Gertsch’s works runs to no more than sixty-odd items, for over forty years of artistic practice. But this seems less surprising when one becomes aware of the size of his formats and the stunning precision of his realism – the artistic vein he chose to work in as of autumn 1968, after a number of unsatisfying experiments, first in sculpture and then in painting. It was this approach that led Jean-Christophe Ammann to choose Gertsch’s work for his section on “the interrogation of reality” and contemporary images at Documenta V. Gertsch’s painting Medici was sensation at Kassel. It synthesises several characteristics of his practice: painted after a photograph taken by the artist and enlarged to giant proportions by projection of the transparency, it shows five young people leaning on a barrier in front of the Kunstmuseum in Lucerne. Their clothes and postures, as well as their expressions, all suggest a group of friends out on the town together. Which is indeed what they are: Gertsch always chooses his subjects, whether persons or landscapes, from his immediate and everyday environment. At the time of this painting he was living in Lucerne, not far from the museum where, in 1969, he saw the exhibition organised by Harald Szeemann, “When Attitudes Become Form.” In 1971 he moved into the orbit of Luciano Castelli, a leading figure on the Lucerne art scene, whom he represented on a number of occasions, making his works testimony to a certain period and part of society. He took the decision to paint from photographs when he realised that “reality can no longer […] be grasped other than with a camera, because man has grown used to considering photographic reality as the maximal capture of the real.” His paintings show this contact between painting and photography, with “the structural laws of photography manifest everywhere” (H. Szeemann), and especially in the contrasts between clear and blurred, and in the transparency that carries over from the slide. Distance now becomes an essential question: at what distance is the subject legible? For him, woodcut technique, using the old criblé method, is as epic a process as painting, and on top of that there is the care that Gertsch takes over the choice of paper (Japan paper) and colours, for which he makes his own pigments. This duration only makes the immediacy of his images – of images – that much more striking.

FRAnz GeRtsCh was born in 1930 in Morigen (Switzerland). He works and lives in Rüschegg-Heubach. Acclaimed at Documenta V (1972), the work of Franz Gertsch was shown in the exhibition Hyperréalistes américains – Réalistes européens in Paris (CnAC) in 1974 and in 1975 in a solo show that toured to Berlin (Akademie der Künste), Brunswick, Düsseldorf and Basel. The Franz Gertsch Museum opened in Burgdorf (northeast of Bern) in 2002. In 2005 it co-organised what is to date the artist’s biggest retrospective with the Kunstmuseum in Bern.

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