Must-See: The Extreme Realism of Franz Gertsch

The artists comprehensive retrospective at Louisiana Museum of Modern, Denmark, pays homage to the visual clarity of photorealism 

BY Alice Godwin in Exhibition Reviews | 27 JUN 24

This review is part of a new series of Must-See shows, in which a writer delivers a snapshot into a current exhibition 

The scale of Franz Gertsch’s ambition is inescapable in this new exhibition at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. Each brushstroke and notch of wood is a detail with which he builds a meticulous, towering whole. The exhibition, the last Gertsch organized before his death in 2022, introduces the artist as the definitive Swiss representative of photorealism, a movement which emerged out of pop art in the US in the late 1960s, in which painting techniques are used to emulate the visual clarity of a photograph. The show neatly skips Gertsch’s early career, when he toyed with pop collages and romantic painting, to focus on his signature technique of translating photographs, enlarged with a projector, into paint.

Franz Gertsch, Medici, 1971–72, dispersion on unprimed half-linen, 4 × 6 m. Courtesy: © Franz Gertsch AG and Dominique Uldry (2020) 

The highpoint is his colossal Medici (1971–72), which hung in the same place at Louisiana in the 1973 group show ‘Extreme Realism’. Beyond its astonishing verisimilitude, close inspection reveals the textures and touches of Gertsch’s brush. Featuring five grinning men with bootcut jeans and shaggy hair, the painting launched his international career at documenta 5 (1972) during photorealism’s zenith. Gertsch was captivated by the artist Luciano Castelli (second from the left in the image above) and his bohemian circle, known for their bacchanalian parties at the Villa Reckenbühl in Luzern (At Luciano’s House, 1973; Marina Making up Luciano, 1975). Close by is another rebel, the American poet and songwriter Patti Smith, who snarls at Gertsch for distracting her with his camera (Patti Smith II, 1978).

Franz Gertsch, Summer II, 2019, woodcut, print by hand on Kumohadamashi Japan paper by Heizaburo Iwano, 1.4 × 1.3 m. Courtesy: © Franz Gertsch AG

During the 1980s, Gertsch made a pivot to monochrome woodcut prints on handmade Japanese paper. Though this seems like a rupture, he saw his cutting tools as a continuation of his brush – both create a faithful reimagining of a photograph on a tremendous scale that injects new life into a mechanical reproduction. Having moved to the foothills of the Bernese alps, Gertsch became inspired by the subject of nature, conjuring the details of trees and dancing water (Schwarzwasser, 1991–92). Each of these laborious works is an entryway to another world. And therein lies their magic – Gertsch makes it seem so effortless.

Franz Gertschs retrospective is on view at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk, until 10 November

Main image: Franz Gertsch, Urs Lüthi, 1970, dispersion on unprimed half-linen, 1.7 × 2.5 m. Courtesy: © Franz Gertsch AG and Dominique Uldry 

Alice Godwin is an arts writer, editor and researcher based in Copenhagen, Denmark