Franz Gertsch. Looking Back. A Ninetieth Birthday Tribute

1 September until 15 November 2020

The unknown Gertsch? The artist Franz Gertsch (b. 1930) is one of the most important artists of his generation, and his huge photorealistic paintings and woodcuts, emerging from 1969 onwards, belong to the most iconic works of art within Switzerland. Thus, can one refer to the artist as ‘the unknown Gertsch’? To mark the artist’s ninetieth birthday, ETH Zürich’s collection of prints and drawings has decided to dedicate an exhibition to his early work, which is not widely known so far. By doing so, it is offering a, for many, new view of his work.

The exhibition takes the visitors back to the beginnings, when the young artist experimented with different means of expression and various styles – although he always remained committed to the representational. The Graphische Sammlung ETH Zürich has collaborated closely with the artist in selecting individually themed groups of works from his personal collection and juxtaposing them with works from its own holdings. Studies, sheets from his sketchbooks, drawings as well as woodcuts and artist’s books are on view. All these works illustrate that Gertsch, from early on, developed a melancholic gaze onto the world. His affinity to romantic scenes merge with his intuition for specific moods and for atmospheres, which will also be characteristic for his major art works: These elements loosely link the early with the mature work. Such gazes lost in reverie, gazes into the distances, even gazes that span different spaces and times can be found in the monochrome color spaces of his highly respected later and in his early works alike.

The exhibition is presenting Gertsch’s works not in a chronological order but according to different groups of motives. One can discover his virtuosity in drawing in his fine nature studies. His landscapes – in the early work often inspired by the Romantic period or by Ferdinand Hodler – as well as his portraits, figures and interiors emerge in drawings as well as in linocuts and woodcuts. Sixteen years of age, he already started to work in these print techniques, for which he initially oriented himself on old German xylographs and the linear woodcuts of Aristide Maillol. The four artist’s books on view and various single sheets derive from Gertsch’s interest in fairy tales and legends. This interest was not least of all due to Gertsch’s contribution to the “Tägelleist”, a group of the Bernese subculture. From 1957 until the Sixties, he was, together with kindred spirits – among them his close friend Sergius Golowin and Maria Meer, who later became Gertsch’s wife – advocating a new appreciation of the folklore tradition. The members of “Tägelleist” collected myths of the Bernese Oberland und met regularly for speeches and lectures, which had an impact on some of Gertsch’s motives.

In addition to this part of the exhibition, a sumptuous array of color samples is on view in the corridor, stemming from the complex printing process involved in his large-format later woodcuts and providing an invaluable insight into another aspect of Gertsch’s oeuvre. The artist has collated these samples, which he describes affectionately as “études (de) couleurs”. They present a richly varied panoply of visual forms.

Curatorial Team: Dr. Linda Schädler and Alexandra Barcal

Due to the restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, the maximum number in the exhibition room is limited to 15 persons. Masks are compulsory.

The exhibition is accompanied by a varied programme. Find out more here.

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue published by Hirmer Verlag (German and English).

Kindly supported by the City of Bern and ‘SWISSLOS/Kultur Kanton Bern’ and Georges und Jenny Bloch-Stiftung.