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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Fritz Puempin

January Morning, Eital, 1961, Fritz Puempin
Fritz Puempin Self-portrait, ca. 1936.
Unless an artist has a very narrow range of content, he or she seldom knows during their lifetime what work or works they're likely to be remembered for. The art world is funny like that. I've painted virtually everything in the world (not quite, but almost), so I'm totally at a loss in making such a prediction. I've done hundreds of pencil portraits, but quantity isn't necessarily a factor. I'm especially proud of some of the intricate still-lifes I've done but no one else seems to be much interested in them. I've traveled and painted scenes of Europe but I haven't a clue as to whether anyone really cares. I've done some pretty major large-scale works, which, for most artists, tend to be considered important, but that doesn't necessarily mean mine will be. That's pretty much the case with the Swiss painter, Fritz Puempin, too. All his adult life he was professional artist, painting portraits, landscapes, a few still-lifes, etc., much the same content as myself. Yet today, it's his drawings during the five years of WW II when he was a Swiss Army field artist (below) for which he is best remembered.

Field Service, Fritz Puempin. (Notice the censorship number in the lower right corner.)
Ruth Puempin, ca. 1936,
Fritz Puempin.
Fritz Puempin (no idea how to pronounce that name) was born in 1901. His father ran a wine business in Gelterkinden, Switzerland (in the North, near the German border) where young Fritz began studying art around the age of fifteen with the Swiss artist, Janet, in Colombiers. Later he studied art at the School of Arts in Basel, Switzerland (on the border where France, Germany, and Switzerland meet). However, as so often happened then, and perhaps even today, Fritz's father had other ideas. He should become a businessman and take over the family business. Reluctantly, Fritz did just that in 1929, but found it unfulfilling. So, having married in 1936, he and his wife (left) decided to make a break for the artist's life, turning full time to painting. He also took up a hobby--archaeology--for which his skill at drawing was often useful. Unfortunately, about the same time, Europe decided to go to war. And, although it was smack in the middle of the conflict, Switzerland was neutral, but much in need of a standing army in order to stay that way.

Howitzer position on the Gempen , 1944, Fritz Puempin
A period of military service for all young men in Switzerland is mandatory (a longstanding requirement). As an artist, Puempin was ordered to the border where he was charged with literally drawing history, in his case, in and around Basel. As you might guess, situated at a point where three countries come together, there was a lot of history being made. Paintings (but mostly drawings) of the Red Cross organizing the transfer of French children to neutral Switzerland (below), of the arrival of French and American troops at the Swiss border; and sketches of the erroneous bombardment of Basel in 1945; are among his most notable works.

Flüh, November 22,1944, Alsatian children at the border crossing, Uebertritt,
Fritz Puempin
Baselbieter Laedli, 1952, Fritz Puempin
After the war, being Swiss, Puempin was in the enviable position of being able to travel all over the continent, at a time when people of the war-torn countries could barely put food on the table. One of his few still-life's, Baselbieter Laedli (left) from 1952 is one of his few non-floral paintings. You would expect, being Swiss, that Puempin's landscapes would be full of rugged, picturesque mountains, lakes, and all the other scenic beauty of his tiny country. You would be wrong. In all of Puempin's landscapes that I've seen, there's not a single mountain to be found. It would seem he much preferred to paint the urban landscape, scenes of deeply rutted, slushy, snow-covered streets and roads--the ugly worst a Swiss winter had to offer (below). His military obligation satisfied, Puempin continued painting in his loose, Post-impressionist style for the next twenty-seven years until his death in 1972 at the age of seventy-one. Even the less-than-pristine can be beautiful.

Slurp Road, Schweizerhalle, 1958, Fritz Puempin.


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