From Painting Patti to Cutting Wood

After seeing Patti Smith’s ‘Horses’ album cover, her jacket-over-shoulder ease of presence photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe, a young Swiss artist by the name of Franz Gertsch endeavored to immortalize the punk poet in a series of five larger-than-life paintings, presenting her as omnipresent yet authentic, while forging an auspicious, hyperrealistic start to his own career in art.

In the late 1970s, when these enormous paintings were created, as well as another series featuring the eccentric Italian artist Luciano Castelli, it appeared as if Gertsch would continue to deify those in the counter-culture with monolithic, exquisite paeans. He’d already broken through the young-artist scrim earlier when he was invited to show at Documenta V in Kassel in 1972, as well as the Venice Biennale in 1978 (and again in 1999).

But the Franz Gertsch of those massive works underwent a career transformation in the 1980s, positioning himself as a master not of painting, but of woodcutting — a rather abandoned technique in the modern era but one which, according to Gertsch, is every bit as expressive and deliberative as painting. And his woodcut prints are every bit as monumental, each piece taking about a year to complete, gouge by tiny gouge — tens of thousands of them, meticulously creating the impression, the feeling, that the viewer is one with nature, Gertsch’s preferred subject matter ever since.

Which is where a new exhibition at the MASI Museum in the art enclave of Lugano, a lakeside town on Switzerland’s southern edge, comes in. In the run-up to Gertsch’s 90th birthday this year, the MASI asked him to plan an exhibition of his oeuvre at the museum, which led to a surprising counter-offer. Gertsch wanted to create a visual conversation between his wood engravings and those of two other undisputed masters of the genre. And so, Gertsch – Gauguin – Munch (May 12 – September 22, 2019) showcases nine of Gertsch’s woodcut prints from 1988 to 2017 alongside those by Paul Gauguin and Edvard Munch in two adjoining galleries, selected by Gertsch with MASI director Tobia Bezzola.

Audacious, to be sure, and surprising. After all, Gauguin’s and Munch’s woodcuts are much smaller in size, and characterized by deep lines and sharp color contrasts. Gertsch’s, on the other hand, are vast monochrome surfaces marked by luminous galaxies of dots, each one pricked by hand. Yet, the three artists explore a number of shared themes, namely a deep sense of melancholy, the rejection of the trappings of society, and the overwhelming, mystical serenity of nature. 

Says Gertsch (who has his own museum, also in Switzerland), “[I see] a kinship with Gauguin and Munch as individualists and specialists in the art of the woodcut, since all three of us have seemingly developed an entirely distinctive language when applying this technique. There is nothing similar or comparable in our three woodcut oeuvres — they are all somehow uniquely singular.”

Franz Gertsch, Rüschegg, 1989

Franz Gertsch, Schwarzwasser, 1992

Franz Gertsch, Natascha IV, 1988

Franz Gertsch, Winter, 2016

Franz Gertsch, Grass II, 2004

Towards the Forest II, 1915, Edvard Munch

Women at the River, 1893-4, Paul Gauguin