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Reports and Interviews From: Switzerland

In Conversation:
Philippe Fretz with Patrick Schaefer

Philippe Fretz: Do you feel art criticism has to be educational?

Patrick Schaefer: To answer this question, one should make a distinction between the various types of exhibitions. On one hand, you have big thematic exhibitions dedicated to a group, a movement, or a famous artist. On the other, you have exhibitions dedicated to a contemporary artist or a small group of artists. For the latter I think the educational element is very limited or absent. It’s more about information, description, and expressing one’s reactions or feelings. For the former, usually newspapers or magazines take the opportunity to educate. A typical example is that, when writing about an exhibition dedicated to the Fauves, the critic will always explain the history of the name and mention the Salon d’Automne of 1905, before coming to a usually brief description of the exhibition. As far as I am concerned, I prefer to describe an exhibition and highlight its distinctiveness. Unfortunately articles are very often written before the opening of the exhibition, so that they have to be general rather than content specific.

Philippe Fretz, “Kugler 360°, South Facade,” 2010. Oil on linen, 110 × 180 cm.

Fretz: Who should be educated? Other art critics, artists, show viewers, or others?

Schaefer: The type of newspaper or magazine largely determines the type of public to whom it is addressed. Someone writing in Parkett addresses people working in the field—artists, critics, curators, collectors, and professors. Someone writing in a daily newspaper addresses the general public, but usually doesn’t really know who is going to read the article.

Fretz: Do you track the visitors to your website, with Google analytics for example?

Schaefer: Yes, I track the website traffic, but as I’m only using free tools, I don’t go very far into the information. And as I’m not a specialist, it’s difficult to understand and interpret the statistics.

Fretz: Do you relate your newspaper, magazine, and blog writing to a general art theory? If yes, what is it?

Schaefer: I don’t apply an explicit theory when I’m writing. Nevertheless, I’m conscious of a sociological, critical approach and I prefer a treatment that is more informative and journalistic rather than literary. I try to consider the theoretical thinking that lies behind the concept of the exhibition. If an exhibition is rather thematic, I will not fault the fact that they didn’t make it a retrospective, for example, but will focus on whether the chosen theme was developed well.

Fretz: What makes an exhibition interesting?

Schaefer: The relationship created by exhibitions is a real connection between the viewer and the show. Our own interests, our curiosity, contribute as much to the interest of the exhibition as what it offers as a presentation. I know that some highly specialized professionals in the field of art history usually don’t visit exhibitions and base their appreciation only on the quality of the catalogue. Personally, I love to visit exhibitions, to see how they are built, what connections between the works have been made, and how the space was used.

Fretz: What do you expect from a thematic exhibition, a retrospective, or a biennial?

Schaefer: I think these are all quite different types of presentations. Those large exhibitions organized every two, three, or five years, like Documenta for instance, are supposed to bring together new trends and show works that have been scarcely seen. Unfortunately it seems that this is less and less so. There is a general tendency, as they are growing in size, to make them more popular and show artists that are already quite familiar to a large group in the art field.

The retrospective is supposed to show the latest knowledge on an artist that is already well known or even very famous. This is often quite well done. The thematic exhibitions open large new fields. This type of show needs theory and an explicit frame. The development of database files allows the study of any possible theme. Some of these exhibitions can be really interesting, but sometimes you wonder whether it wouldn’t have been more relevant to write an article or a book with collected material.

Fretz: Would you say your work consists of letting people know what an artist tries to convey or do you focus on criticizing his attempts?

Schaefer: Since the 20th century, the question of the distance between the art critic and the artist has been an essential issue for art criticism. Very often we observe that today’s critics give up their own voice and prefer to adopt the interview as an alternative. Nevertheless I think that the written description remains very important. It cannot be replaced by photography or television.


Patrick Schaefer

Patrick Schaefer has been a freelance art critic and art historian since 1998 and has edited the website since 2001. He studied art history at the University of Lausanne and has been active as an art critic for the Gazette de Lausanne, as well as the Revue L’Oeil (1985 - 88). Schaefer was the assistant curator at the Fondation de l’Hermitage in Lausanne from 1988 - 1993 and the curator at the Museum of Fine Art in Lausanne from 1993 until 1998. His main focus is Swiss art from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries.

Philippe Fretz

PHILIPPE FRETZ was born in Geneva in 1969, where he currently lives. He is a painter, printmaker, and musician. He lived in the United States and in Marseilles for some time and, more recently, lived in Italy as well. Fretz is currently working on a large iconological project called In medias res.


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