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Kunsthaus Zurich presents the first Wilhelm Leibl retrospective in Switzerland
Wilhelm Leibl, Girl with a Carnation, Fragment of the Right Hand. Oil on wood, 13 x 17.5 cm. Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe.

ZURICH.- The Kunsthaus presents the first Swiss retrospective of the work of Wilhelm Leibl (1844–1900), one of the most important painters of the 19th century yet one who, today, is known only to a small number of artists, collectors and art enthusiasts. Leibl mainly paints portraits and interiors with rural figures; but for him and a group of like-minded artists known as the Leibl circle, the emphasis is invariably on the ‘how’ of painterly execution. For these contemporaries of Manet and Degas, academic and narrative elements are very much a secondary consideration.

Born in Cologne, Leibl goes to study in Munich, where his talents soon attract attention. In 1869, aged 25 and still a student at the academy, he achieves his breakthrough at the 1st International Exhibition in the Bavarian capital. He is discovered by no less a figure than Gustave Courbet and is invited to Paris where, at the salon the following year, he wins his first gold medal for his portrait ‘Portrait of Mrs Gedon’. A passionate painter and hunter, he settles in the countryside in 1873. From then on, he produces works largely based on the study of the rural population of Bavaria and is therefore often misleadingly referred to as a ‘peasant painter’. At the 1878 World’s Fair in Paris he offends the star critics of the Second Empire with the Holbein-like naturalism of his genre painting ‘The Village Politicians’, 1877, but nevertheless achieves an emphatic success.

His best works also include portraits of fellow artists, relatives and close associates from among the landed gentry and bourgeoisie. Regular participation in international exhibitions from the 1890s onwards in Vienna, Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Budapest, Basel, Winterthur, Zurich, New York and Washington cements Leibl’s reputation as one of the leading European realists. Van Gogh is profoundly moved by one of his key works, ‘Three Women in Church’, 1878–1882.

Leibl credited his rigorous adherence to truth with the emergence of a distinct and modern form of figure painting in which faithfulness to nature and the study of the Old Masters are fully translated into the medium of art. For Leibl and his circle, what matters is to ‘see well’ – to realise without embellishment and free from ‘isms’ and ideologies. His approach to art, in which self-criticism, destruction and innovation are the driving forces, has influenced artists right up to the present day, starting with Liebermann and Corinth and continuing via Buri, Kollwitz, Beckmann and Lassnig to Tillmans. In his rigour and uncompromising quest for truth, Leibl looks ahead to the portrait series of Giacometti. The exhibition at the Kunsthaus Zürich, which brings together over 100 works including loans from Germany, Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Switzerland and the US as well as items from the Kunsthaus Collection, accords the approximately 60 drawings equal status to the paintings. One of Leibl’s most expressive self-portraits comes from the collection of the Kunsthaus.

The exhibition will travel to the Albertina, Vienna after it closes in Zurich.

Bernhard von Waldkirch will be examining parallels and differences with the painting of Albert Anker in an event to accompany the exhibition at the Swiss Institute for Art Research SIK-ISEA.

Paintings by Albert Anker in the Kunsthaus Collection can be viewed in conjunction with the current Leibl exhibition, as can the works of artists who were inspired by Leibl – painters such as Lovis Corinth, Max Liebermann, Max Beckmann and Wolfgang Tillmans.

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