Fa_001_2007 • 62,99 x 82,68inch • Munich

Article from the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, August 8, 2015

Don’t say cheese, please

The large family portrait is a relic of bygone times. Artist Frank Wurzer has reinvented it as an ironic arrangement.

By Harald Hordych

Something’s wrong with Lilli. The whole family is standing on the lawn and, as is expected of them, everybody is looking into the camera. Only little Lilli has turned her back on the photographer. But if something is wrong with Lilli, then something is wrong with the family. After all, families are intact only if every member of the family is intact. That is the logic of family, at least when it presents itself in a photo or painting. Everybody should look their best and nobody should step out of line. Disruptions destroy the moment that is meant to be captured for eternity. 

So according to the rules of the traditional family portrait, the family of Bernd, who was born in Munich and runs his own textile business, has a problem – apart from the fact that the clothes they wear in this photo don’t match at all. The portrait as a whole gives a disparate impression of the family – and measures 2.40 metres by 1.80 metres to boot. The family disaster fills the wall next to the dining table in the large, beautiful home in Grünwald. “I have always found this picture to be extremely harmonious. We all love it,” says Bernd. He then takes a look at the art-filled walls and adds “But then, we do have a penchant for the bizarre.”

Maybe this is the right approach to understand why Frank Wurzer’s unusual Cinemascope-size family portraits work as well in your home as in an art exhibition. For the beholder, they are a journey of discovery into other families; for a family, they are a journey of discovery into the past. 

Wurzer’s family portraits are works of art, even though he sells them at five-figure prices. Which is something he attaches great importance to. That’s why they are so big. Normal family portraits of such a size would be embarrassing at least. They would be oversize presentations of something that would be hard to bear even in a small format, namely the longing to demonstrate harmony and togetherness. And that would look comical because nothing is as vulnerable as a group that is composed of parents and children.

After all, that is how it all started with the family picture, in the 15th century, with paintings depicting Jesus of Nazareth, his mother Mary and his foster father, Saint Joseph, as a family. Things couldn’t get any holier. Later, rulers also claimed this kind of exaggerated presentation for themselves. So it was only right and proper that the middle-class family of the 19th century also wanted to be presented in this ideal light to demonstrate that “we are somebody, too”. 

When Frank Wurzer sits in a café in Berlin-Mitte and speaks about his family portraits, he – just like many artists who are asked to explain what they want to express through their works of art – finds it tiring and stressful. Wurzer, a lively and vivacious man, is looking for, as he calls it, the codes of wealth, the signs that luxury leaves behind in families. It is these signs what the arrangement of the family is all about. “I turn the families into art,” Wurzer says, “but that is also something they can hide behind. Because it is abstract. Nobody pretends to depict reality, let alone a normal family scene, where you would not show the back of a child.” That sounds quite liberating – if you don’t take yourself too seriously. 

It is sufficient to take a look around Bernd’s house with the white-washed walls or the large garden with the swimming pool to understand that Frank Wurzer is, above all, a great ironist who takes pleasure in spoiling our idea of reality. Wurzer plays with conventions and agreements, he creates breaks that make the whole arrangement tip the other way. A large white clock by Wurzer is hanging in the kitchen, the hands are not working. Guests keep reminding Bernd that the clock does not work and ask him whether he hasn’t noticed it yet. Some even try to repair it straight away. A sack is standing in the garden. Does it contain soil? No, Wurzer’s sack itself is made of soil. 

That’s the kind of games 53-year-old Wurzer likes to play with reality – and that’s exactly what he does with the families he is allowed to portrait. They let him into their homes and give him the permission to rummage through their lives. The whole day long. They sit or stand just the way he wants them to sit or stand. That’s his deal. “It only works if I have the tools,” he says, meaning the family’s equipment, their clothes, their accessories, their original surroundings. „I will only come if you show me your closets. And they do, because it is not a photographer who is coming but an artist.” He is not at all interested in photography, which is only the medium that allows him to address his topics: wealth, luxury, family, which he sees as a place “where respect and fairness rule – or should rule at least.”

Wurzer felt the breaks in the world and in the family at a very early stage. His natural father left his mother when he was two; his stepfather was “absolutely incapable” of handling the wild son, who attended eight different schools and even left the Jesuit boarding school without a degree at age 17. The young man, who stuttered heavily as a child, made Super 8 movies but then decided to first become a master in the art of living and went to Spain as an odd-jobber. At age 27, he moved to Düsseldorf, the city of art, to work for sculptor Tony Cragg. He produced plaster moulds for bronze sculptures. He calls the following three years the most important ones, as he learned “to ask myself over and over again how to best put an idea into practice.”  

The cooperation with Cragg ended with a great dispute. For many years, Wurzer then worked as a commercial photographer, a job which gave him the freedom he needed for his projects. For the past four years, he has concentrated on art. He has no such thing as a centre of life. “I am where I am.” Berlin, Munich, Düsseldorf, America.

Breaks in life are not new to Frank Wurzer. After a long night at the Oktoberfest in 2007, the photo of Bernd’s family is created in an elated hangover mood. Wurzer arranges the family the way that he thinks is right. Not in the traditional way, with the parents in the centre as in the “Godfather” wedding photo. And the typical “click” is missing, too, the good old sound that indicates that the photo has been shot. The picture is the result of a long process. It often takes up to eight hours. Wurzer makes collages, joining several photos together to produce a single one in order to combine moments that “you could never capture in a single shot”.  

Nobody is laughing or gesturing in such a photo. The expression is neutral and deliberately artificial, with the situation as a whole looking clearly arranged – no matter whether the male members of one family are shown wearing tuxedos or the family in another photo actually attaches greater importance to the awkward way in which their pets are arranged around the sofa. “What I do is possible only with rich families who appreciate art,” says Wurzer. Not only because of the prices but also because of the irony, which rids the photos of the blasé and “the posh”, as Bernd puts it. “And above all of the artificial look of the traditional family photo, this arranged naturalness. Nothing is ‘put on’ or false.” All of his guests loved the oversize photo, nobody found it embarrassing or pretentious. Some immediately made an appointment with Wurzer.  

Eight years after donning a combat dress for Frank Wurzer, Bernd’s son says “All my friends find the photo absolutely funny!” 

That’s something you can live with. The family is now considering having a second photo made by Wurzer. Lilli has already promised not to walk away this time.