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Franz Gertsch, Swiss Master of Photorealism Artist, Dies at 92

Franz Gertsch, a Swiss artist recognized as one of the masters of hyperrealist painting whose work often evoked a flash-like sharpness in subjects ranging from landscapes to punk rocker Patti Smith in the 1970s, has died on December 21 in a hospital in Riggisberg, Switzerland. He was 92 years old.

The death was confirmed by Arno Stein, managing director of the Franz Gertsch Museum in Burgdorf, Switzerland, which holds an extensive collection of his work. No cause was given.

For more than five decades, Mr. Gertsch explored painting and printmaking techniques to recreate photographs in large-scale works – around 11 feet by 16 feet or more – that were rendered in exquisite detail and could take longer. one year. , sometimes going ahead with only a postcard-sized portion each day.

His works have been exhibited worldwide and one piece, “Luciano II”, an over 7ft by 11ft acrylic painting by his friend, artist Luciano Castelli, has sold for over $3 million. in 2017.

Mr. Gertsch’s mastery of photorealism also intertwined with a photojournalist’s sensitivity to storytelling. “If an image has no spiritual background, it has no secret, no magic, no soul,” he once told Swiss arts and culture magazine Du.

While other Photorealist painters such as Richard Estes and Ralph Goings favored images such as sparkling dinner parties or glassy street scenes, Mr. Gertsch first came to attention as an observer of the counterculture Swiss. In the early 1970s, Mr. Gertsch took documentary-style snapshots among the fluid members of an artist community, including Castelli, which became the basis for a 1974 exhibition that rocked the then-established art scene. in Lucerne, Switzerland.

Mr Gertsch called them “situational portraits” – a series that includes Castelli and other androgynous friends putting on makeup and getting ready for a party. A cartoon-like butterfly, a sticker on a wall, appears to be floating across a scene. The paintings, done in a pointillism style, shimmered with the high contrast of a flash photo or an instant Polaroid.

“It was like seeing the past restored as a parallel present, through the almost mind-blowing precision of a photograph magnified to an enormous scale and the colors like neon,” Geneva-based artist Mai-Thu Perret wrote in an essay. of 2004 on the arts. Friesland website.

Timothy Leary, a former Harvard professor who became the “turn on, listen, drop” LSD guru, discovered Mr Gertsch’s work while living in Geneva in 1971, calling it a “new art form which was as “menacing and delightful as any new take on reality.”

In 1975, Mr. Gertsch was wowed by Robert Mapplethorpe’s photo of Smith, staring confidently at the camera in a crisp white shirt, on his debut album “Horses.”

“It was her face that first fascinated me,” Mr. Gertsch said.

Mr. Gertsch was on hand with his Nikon camera in 1977 when Smith performed at an event in Cologne, Germany, to commemorate 19th-century surrealist poet Arthur Rimbaud. A year later, Mr. Gertsch invited Smith to his studio for a series of portraits.

The photos were transformed into some of Mr. Gertsch’s most famous works, a series of five paintings that indelibly linked his visual legacy to the 1970s punk scene and the styles and energy of the time. Mr. Gertsch treated Smith not as an icon, but as part of a larger picture of music as a business bubble and islander.

It shows Smith crouching in front of stage amps with her back to the camera or hovering, like a waiflike, at the edge of a stage or in front of towering microphones. In “Patti Smith V,” Mr. Gertsch’s painting completed in 1979, she sits and gestures with her hands as if struggling to make a point.

Instead of singing, she used the microphone to talk about her dreams as a young girl to one day become the face of an artist.

“Paint the world,” Mr. Gertsch said, “like someone who just landed on the mountain from another planet.”

Franz Gertsch was born on March 8, 1930 in Mörigen on Lake Biel in Switzerland as the only child of a father who taught primary school and a mother whose family owned a local restaurant.

Mr. Gertsch dropped out of school to devote himself to painting and took lessons at a school in Bern run by the abstract impressionist painter Max von Mühlenen. After being released from compulsory Swiss military service due to heart disease, Mr. Gertsch traveled to places like Paris, Scotland and Italy to experiment with various visual styles, including woodcuts and collages.

In 1969, he completed his first large-scale painting based on a photograph, “Huaa…! a galloping horseman with a raised saber from a still from the 1968 film “The Charge of the Light Brigade”.

His 1970 “Portrait of Urs Lüthi” shows the subject in a blue blazer and sunglasses, seated next to a camera. Critics have described it as a modern take on a Dutch still life. 1971’s ‘Medici’ became a time capsule for the era – with five young men, hands dripping and bell bottoms swinging, leaning on a barricade.

He abandoned the photo-based style in the mid-1980s to exclusively pursue intricate woodcuts using tiny pigment-filled holes. The work, printed on large sheets of handmade Japanese paper, produced a vaporous effect in which images, such as portraits or plants, floated in a monochromatic wash of red, green or other colors.

Some critics considered his prints too antiseptic and clinical. “Gertsch may work with pear wood and the finest handmade papers, but his images taste like metal,” said a 1990 review in The Washington Post of nine engravings at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. “Making his portraits is like making machines.”

Mr. Gertsch then returned to photo-based paintings, many of which depict landscapes and nature. His series of four paintings, “The Four Seasons”, showed light and changing surroundings over a year on a sloping forest near his home and studio in Rüschegg, Switzerland.

His attention to the original photo was so precise that the earth and leaves closest to the frame were slightly blurred to reflect the imperfections of a camera’s depth of field.

In a 2011 oral history, Mr. Gertsch said his changing artistic styles were based on “intuitive” feelings about where to go next. “I didn’t do all of this with my head,” he said.

Mr. Gertsch is survived by his wife of 59 years, Maria Meer, and five children.

In 1999, Mr. Gertsch wrote an epilogue to the book “Franz Gertsch, Silvia: Chronicle of a Painting” by Norberto Gramaccini and Steven Lindberg. Mr Gertsch said painters have always faced a crossroads.

“Is the painting exclusively intended to refer to itself, or would it be better to deal with reality? he wrote. “I chose the radical path: reality as painting.”

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