Franz Gertsch, the Swiss artist acclaimed for his huge hyperrealist paintings that captured the rapturous energy of ’60’s and ’70’s counterculture, died on December 21 at a hospital in Riggisberg, Switzerland. He was 92.
The death was confirmed in a statement by the Museum Franz in Burgdorf, Switzerland, which maintains a large collection of his work. Mr. Gertsch is survived by his wife, Maria Meer, and five children.
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Over more than five decades, Gertsch devised painterly and printmaking techniques to capture not only the likeness of his subjects in breathtaking detail, but their essence. His early, meticulous landscapes ceded to sociological studies of the margins of Swiss society — the punks, performers, and gender-nonconformers. His high-contrast palette lent a spotlight effect, like the flash of a Polaroid. There’s a crowded, kinetic quality to these tableaux — or “situation portraits” — that gives the impression of a memory, rather than memorial.
“It was like seeing the past restored as a parallel present, through the almost hallucinatory precision of a photograph enlarged to an enormous scale and the neon-like colors,” wrote Geneva-based artist Mai-Thu Perret in a 2004 essay on Gertsch in Frieze.
His most celebrated body of work is a five-painting series of the seminal rocker Patti Smith. He was mesmerized by Robert Mapplethorpe’s photograph of Smith, staring coolly in a crisp white button-down from the cover of her 1974 debut album “Horses”. In 1978, he invited her to pose in his studio and depicted her as perpetually active, sneering at the camera, fiddling with her amp, and seated and reaching to catch her trail of thought. He came to see her perform the year prior, shooting the show with a flash camera that annoyed Smith. She crumpled a piece of paper and threw it at him from the stage — another moment he recreated on canvas.
“Paint the world,” Mr. Gertsch once said, “like someone who has just landed on the mountain from some other planet.”
Franz Gertsch was born March 8, 1930, in Mörigen, Switzerland. He dropped out of school to study painting at a school in Bern founded by run by abstract-impressionist painter Max von Mühlenen, and later traveled through Europe to explore visual styles. In 1969, he completed his first large-scale painting based on a photograph, titled “Huaa…!”, and drawn from a still from the 1968 film “Charge of the Light Brigade.”
For almost two decades after, he pursed photorealist painting. In the early ’70s, the snapshots he took of nonbinary members of an artist commune formed the basis of his breakthrough 1974 exhibition of paintings in Lucerne, Switzerland. The paintings, shockingly detailed and composed with a photojournalist’s sense of storytelling, sent a shockwave through Switzerland’s sedate art scene.
In the ’80’s he dropped painting in favor of woodcut prints, which produces images by filling tiny punctures with pigments. His scenes appeared as monochromatic washes of color dotted with delicate depictions of people and plants. This style was not as well received, and he later returned to photo-based painting.
He touched on his fluid style in a 2011 oral history, saying that that his path between subject and medium was “always an intuitive one.”
“I didn’t do all of that with my head,” he said.