Franz Gertsch (b.1930, Switzerland; lives in Rüschegg, Bern) painted two portraits of Johanna, the teenage daughter of a German industrialist, in 1983–84 and 1986 respectively, the first one on commission and the second on his own initiative. The first is now at the Gertsch Museum in Burgdorf, Switzerland, and the second is in the Hess Art Collection in Napa, California. Measuring 330 x 340 cm and 330 x 290 cm, these enormous portraits are almost the same, apart from a black T-shirt instead of white, and the negligible difference in size.
Gertsch plowed the photorealist furrow long after Richter and other European contemporaries had decisively undercut their practice of that style in a turn to abstraction. Unlike many of the American photorealists, Gertsch’s subject matter was nearly always people, increasingly interspersed, in later years, with scenes from the natural world. While his American contemporaries depicted hot chrome and fried chicken in scenes of postwar consumerism, Gertsch portrayed an alternative culture populated by beautiful androgynes, notably the performer and artist Luciano Castelli, in large-format getting-ready-to-go-out scenes, and rock star Patti Smith in the studio. These were the works shown at Gertsch’s “breakthrough” moment: “Questioning Reality — Pictorial Worlds Today,” the Harald Szeemann-curated Documenta V of 1972. Over time, his work changed more in subject matter than in style, and with the exception of a decade immersed in woodcut techniques, he remains invested in photorealism. In other words, Gertsch’s use of photorealism is not reactionary: he doesn’t treat his painting practice as a series of stylistic phases, each one providing dialectical correctives to that which came before. What is unusual about his practice is this steadiness of genre: he never seemed to deploy photorealism as one style among others, putting it into play as an overt way to explore abstraction or painting’s other possibilities. Unlike Martin Kippenberger, for instance, who characteristically took his method of interrogation to the extreme by hiring a professional poster painter to execute his mocking 1981 Lieber Maler, Male Mir series, Gertsch didn’t pursue photorealism only to abandon it as a trope. Nor did he use photorealism for broader historico-documentary purposes as did Richter. Instead his work seems deeply serious, mostly in its singular commitment to skill.
By the 1980s, Gertsch’s lens had narrowed considerably. Pulled out of a contextual scene, the Johannas I & II are more passport photographs than picture-postcards, and the focus is on the minute observation of their faces. The surrounding party of the 1970s works is gone, leaving only the huge, close-up of the girl’s face as the field of detail and potential consumption. Here Gertsch’s debt to the Renaissance portrait is clear. The clear-eyed quality is Dürer’s, the smile is Leonardo’s and the disposition is Botticelli’s. But, although Gertsch may have shared some of their techniques, the Johanna paintings are thoroughly of their time. Johanna is Botticelli’s Venus looking up — there is something downright pugnacious about her, although it is virtually impossible to say why. While not made with an airbrush, her quality is very much what we now call airbrushed, referring to the post-production photographic technique used predominantly in fashion photos of women for advertising. The resulting smoothness is unreadable, an absolutely unlined, unwrinkled, unblemished face and moistly reflective eyes that don’t portray pathos but glassiness.
Gertsch’s work proceeds more as a method rather than as a set of critical questions about painting. One of these questions, explored by European artists particularly in the German-speaking world, was how to address the problem of expression in painting in the postwar period; a conflicted stance articulated by Samuel Beckett as: “The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.” [“Three Dialogues” in Disjecta, London: John Calder, 1983. p.139] The teenage girl is lately a critical site in which to place these questions, and in many ways Gertsch seems to have anticipated a particular discourse ahead of time with the Johannas. Looking at her again in these two versions, one is reminded of nothing so much as the socio-political emblem theorized by the collective Tiqqun in their 1999 text Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young Girl, a lengthy description of the French standard-issue cold young girl type who becomes a prostitute because she wants to, collaged together from the culture that they were supposedly about to smash (at the time). “The Young-Girl is an optical illusion. From afar, she is an angel, and up close, she is a beast,” [Los Angeles: Cambridge, Mass: Semiotext(e), 2012. p.45] in other words, “a total Monet” [Amy Heckerling, Clueless, 1995]; “Deep down inside, the Young-Girl has the personality of a tampon: She exemplifies all of the appropriate indifference, all of the necessary coldness demanded by the conditions of metropolitan life” [Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl, p.103]; “Precisely because of her nothingness, each of her judgments carries the imperative weight of the entire sovereign order, and she knows it.” [Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl. p.103] In a Radical Philosophy review of the English translation, Nina Power wrote that, although Tiqqun claimed the young girl was merely a “stand-in” for whatever other embodied images of capitalism there might be, it precisely wasn’t called Theory of the Old-Man or any other emblem. [“She’s Just Not That into You,” Radical Philosophy 77, Jan–Feb 2013] Gertsch’s paintings of Johanna show a girl we could easily read as a haughty haut-bourgeois, mildly repelled by the attention, peach fuzz scorched by hot golden breath. The inscrutable source of scorn, the projected sense of power and agency, the indefinable knowingness that misogynists perceive as taunting, and the imaginary curl of the lip are all here. Her reception in the catalogue literature was deeply sexualized: “I want to kiss you but you’re too vast / I want to put my hand into your shadowy places, but I may not.” [Dieter Ronte, “Franz Gertsch: Mit Einem Essay von Jean-Christophe Ammann,” 1986] Gertsch shows the face of someone young, beautiful and getting ready for a lifetime of this type of interpellation. The acknowledging, aware female face as a contested site of agency and hostility has been interpreted as such through outraged reactions to Manet’s Olympia among others; the criminal statement in these faces is “I know.” In this case, it is particularly shot through with the teenager’s special brand of blasé inflection.
Charles Darwin thought, in the case of embarrassment at least, that expression has little to do with the expulsion of emotion from the inside and everything to do with the impression, from the outside, of what others thought of us. Perhaps unintentionally, Johanna ironizes painting by using a supposedly expressive medium to depict what is culturally coded as the most expressionless vacancy. The Johanna paintings stand the Young-Girl in the middle of a two-way street interrogation of expression, intersecting what is supposedly the least expressive genre of painting with the least expressive subject. In other words, the idea that this painting is inexpressive says as much about our conception of the teenage girl as banal poster fodder as it does about our critical responses to photorealism.