It’s just grass, you may think at first glance. Yet Gertsch manages to find and express what is image-worthy in apparently unremarkable scenes. The longer we look, the more lively the picture becomes; we can almost feel the gust of wind that has arranged the grass in its unique and unrepeatable pattern, and that may be about to bend it in an entirely different direction. The monumental format chosen by the artist turns the small blades of grass into a jungle in which the viewers lose their bearings. Not only does the grass rule supreme in its own world – it appears to extend to infinity beyond the edges of the painting. And so it becomes a likeness of nature itself – wildly proliferating and yet organized in its innermost structure.
The painting ‘Gräser I’ from 1995 and 96 marked a turning point in several ways. Since 1986, Gertsch had devoted himself exclusively to woodcuts.
‘Gräser I’ was Gertsch’s first painting after a long pause, and it profited from his experiments with woodcuts. In the course of that work Gertsch had discovered mineral paints, which he uses here on unprimed cotton, with damar resin and beeswax as a binder. Another innovation that Gertsch brought from his woodcuts when he resumed painting was a stringent reduction of his color palette.
Gertsch followed ‘Gräser I’ with three other paintings with grass as a motif. They each show a close-up section of the original landscape-mode picture which Gertsch then – in ‘Gräser II’ for example –reverses and presents as its mirror image. By further magnifying the image he exaggerates the original photographic source to penetrate deeper and deeper into the essence of the motif.
Gräser I, 1995/96 Mineral pigments (bound in damar resin and beeswax) on unprimed cotton, 240 x 340 cm, museum franz gertsch, Burgdorf
Gräser II, 1996/97 Mineral pigments (bound in damar resin and beeswax) on unprimed cotton, 290 x 290 cm, museum franz gertsch, Burgdorf
Gräser III, 1997 Mineral pigments (bound in damar resin and beeswax) on unprimed cotton, 290 x 290 cm, museum franz gertsch, Burgdorf
The seasons are a popular subject in all artforms, whether literature, painting or music. Invariably the artist’s preoccupation with this eternal cycle also becomes a reflection on birth and decay in nature and in life itself.
Franz Gertsch had long had the idea of a monumental cycle about the seasons. In 2006 the decisive impulse came as he took a new look at the seasonal paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Just as these specialized in the depiction of the artist’s native Flemish landscapes, Gertsch selected a motif in the immediate surroundings of his own house in Rüschegg in the Canton of Bern.
All the photographs were taken from roughly the same spot. In contrast to Bruegel, who put scenes of peasant life into the various seasons, Gertsch confined himself to the nature motif. This is no impressive panorama, no romantically enchanted spot, but just a section of unremarkable forest that could be found anywhere – or nowhere. Its interwoven branches and scrub prevent the viewer from looking in – and thus it turns itself into a theme of the work.
Each of the ‚Season’ pictures measuring three by five meters took Franz Gertsch around a year to paint. In April 2011, at the age of 81 he finished his latest work, ‚Spring’. Sixteen years had passed from the first Autumnal photograph to the completion of the entire elaborate cycle.
And the life-time the artist invested in the Seasons cycle – like the long time each one of his pictures has taken to complete – gives the work additional authenticity and symbolic power.
Autumn, 2008 Acrylic on unprimed cotton, 325 x 490 cm, Collection Franz Gertsch and Maria Gertsch-Meer
Winter, 2009 Acrylic on unprimed canvas, 325 x 480 cm, Collection Franz Gertsch and Maria Gertsch-Meer
Summer, 2009 Acrylic on unprimed cotton, 325 x 480 cm, Collection Franz Gertsch and Maria Gertsch-Meer
Spring, 2011 Egg tempera on unprimed cotton, 325 x 480 cm, Collection Franz Gertsch and Maria Gertsch-Meer
The unwavering gaze pins the observer. Is it dismissive or melancholy? Defiant or disappointed? The young woman’s expression seems to unite all those characteristics to become nearly as indefinable as that of the Mona Lisa.
Between 1980 and 1986 Franz Gertsch exclusively painted large-format portraits of women. They are very different from his earlier likenesses, in which the models are more clearly shown as individuals, through their jewellery, clothing or the space around them. Back then, viewers invariably asked themselves, Who exactly is that?
In the portraits created since1980, that question is no longer important. They are clearly no longer intended to depict a particular individual: ‘Johanna I’ for example, represents a ‘girl-as-such’. Her presence extends beyond the moment and makes a timeless impression. Gertsch achieved this by reworking in paint the photograph he had taken as source material. He explored structures and relationships, struggling to attain coherence. In an interview, he once said:
‘Every detail, really, every single one – whether the nose or an iris or the background – has the same claim to a position of special importance in the picture.’
Because each element is accorded the same importance, but also because of its monumental size, the portrait is no longer closely bound to the original person depicted and becomes more of a 'face landscape', as Franz Gertsch puts it. The eye could also be a lake; the shadow on the neck, perhaps the edge of a dark forest.
With Johanna, the earliest work by Franz Gertsch on show, dating from 1983-84, the artist had attained a peerless mastery of hyperrealistic depiction.
Shortly thereafter, he began to work only with woodcuts. One reason for that was that he found the portraits, in their perfection, too present and vivid – even unsettling. He sought a way to make faces appear less familiar and to veil them. So starting in 1986 and again in the late 1990s he created a series of large woodcuts depicting women. In 2000 Gertsch resumed doing portraits in paint.
Johanna I, 1984 Acrylic on unprimed cotton, 330 x 340 cm, Private collection
Silvia III, 2004 Mixed technique (egg tempera and resin oil paint) on unprimed cotton, 315 x 290 cm, Collection Franz Gertsch and Maria Gertsch-Meer
Natascha IV, 1988 Woodcut (1 plate), 232.5 x 182 cm, Hand-pulled print on Kumohadamashi Japan paper made by Heizaburo Ivano, 276 x 217 cm, Red (intense), ea, Collection Franz Gertsch and Maria Gertsch-Meer
Dominique, 1988 Woodcut (1 plate), 234 x 181 cm, Hand-pulled print on Kumohadamashi Japan paper made by Heizaburo Ivano, 276 x 217 cm, Violet, 1/18, Dr. h. c. Willy Michel collection
By the mid-1980s Gertsch had reached a pinnacle in terms of painterly perfection and realistic rendering. In 1986 he began to devote himself exclusively to woodcuts. In them Gertsch saw a way of maintaining his realistic style while distancing himself from the model to focus on the depiction of the essential nature of the motif.
And he took up another challenge, as well.
‘It is Yin and Yang, or action and inaction. I’m fascinated by the reduction of being able to say either ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ There’s nothing in between. Either you make a point of light or you make none. It can’t be corrected. That’s important for me; I spent long enough making corrections to my pictures during the time that I was searching – back before I was 40. Now what’s decisive for me is not to be able to make corrections.’
‘Making photorealistic prints using woodcuts – really there’s nothing less suitable. So for this purpose I had to re-invent the woodcut. The points of light, the lighter sections created by denser grooves, the darker sections with just a few or no grooves – that didn’t exist before.’
‘In the process of creating a woodcut I don’t so much pounce on the object as approach it in the rhythm of my cutting. It’s as if I were the water pouring over the stones, and I move over things with the chisel.
So while I’m joining tiny shape to tiny shape I try to keep sight of the whole thing, the large-scale. The main thing is for me to consciously perceive the picture growing outwards from the centre and expanding toward the edges. I’m aided by my particular woodcutting technique: starting with my first groove I move from the detail to the entirety – and usually the entirety is already laid out in the detail – the macrocosm comes to light in the microcosm.’
As in his painting, the work begins with a photograph. He projects it as a slide onto a wood block, usually made of basswood. Before that, Gertsch has coated the wood with a layer of dark blue paint so that both the silhouette of the motif and the millimetre-long grooves he carves with his gouge will stand out, light-coloured, against the background.
He does the carving in part during the projection, and in part from memory under natural light. The lighter the section of the picture is to be, the more grooves are required.
Once the motif has been carved in months of work, the equally painstaking process of colouring the wood block begins. Then a sheet of paper is rolled onto it. Since there are no printing presses in the monumental format that Gertsch prefers, the paper has to be pressed onto the block by hand. This is only possible with the help of a team – and the team includes the artist’s wife Maria, the printer and often another assistant. The dot-like grooves on the wood block remain paint-free and become visible as white regions on the print; only the uncut sections take on the paint.
Gräser ‘Ausblick’, 2007 Woodcut (2 plates), each 268 x 183 cm, Hand-pulled print no. 7 on Kumohadamashi Japan paper made by Heizaburo Ivano, 276 x 380 cm, Lapis lazuli, Collection Franz Gertsch and Maria Gertsch-Meer
Pestwurz ‘Ausblick’, 2005 Woodcut (2 plates), each 268 x 183 cm, Hand-pulled print no. 9 on Kumohadamashi Japan paper made by Heizaburo Ivano, 276 x 380 cm, Ivory black, Collection Franz Gertsch and Maria Gertsch-Meer
Pestwurz ‘Ausblick’, 2005 Woodcut (2 plates), each 268 x 183 cm, Hand-pulled print no. 8 on Kumohadamashi Japan paper made by Heizaburo Ivano, 276 x 380 cm, Turquoise, Collection Franz Gertsch and Maria Gertsch-Meer