René Groebli – The Magic Eye

Review by Wayne Swanson

Some artists are of their time. Others, like Swiss photographer René Groebli, transcend time. From the 1940s through the new millennium, he assembled a diverse and innovative body of work, often at odds with the conventions and expectations of the moment.

The Magic Eye is the first retrospective look at the career of this master photographer, now 93 years old. The images were selected by his longtime gallerist Mirjam Cavegn, and the book was published by her Gallery Bildhalle to celebrate his long and varied career. Included are classic black and white photographs as well as images filled with colors not found in nature. 

Groebli’s works show a fascination with motion blur and extreme grain, and some images would seem to be the product of Photoshopping although they all were created in the darkroom. As writer and curator Hans-Michael Koetzle notes, “Groebli proves to be the missing link between eras, times and traditions. What’s more, the idiosyncratic designer couldn’t care less about isms and has always charted a path of his own.”

Groebli’s journey began in the 1940s, when the cool realism of Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) ruled in Switzerland. Yet he quickly broke away, playing with motion, mood, soft focus, photographic grain, and atmosphere rather than graphic precision. His first two series, Rail Magic (1949) and The Eye of Love (1952), established his reputation for cinematic and romantic imagery. 

Rail Magic, his impressionistic chronicle of his train trips between Switzerland and Paris, showcased his fascination with movement, speed, and the romance of travel. The Eye of Love, a love poem to his wife Rita, captures the dreamy eroticism of young love. His work continued to evolve in the succeeding decades. In the 1960s and 70s his innovative use of color took inspiration from Op Art, Pop Art, Action Painting, and Color Field Painting, resulting in colors and compositions that today look like the product of digital manipulation, but were all the result of his own darkroom alchemy.

The book surveys the wide spectrum of work created between 1946 and 2001, drawing from his background in photojournalism, advertising, and fine art. Rather than a strict chronological presentation, the organization is more impressionistic. Theme, gesture, and mood dictate the pairings and progressions throughout the book.  A black and white steam engine detail from Rail Magic seems to mirror a brightly colored advertisement of a mechanical detail from 1959 on the facing page. An early nude from The Eye of Love is followed by two 2001 nudes. Portraits and landscapes from different time periods and locations follow one another in seamless progressions. The 122 works are beautifully reproduced with most presented as full-page or full-spread images on 9 x 13 pages. Critical essays by five curators and critics, as well as quotes from Groebli, provide insight and context.

Being by nature romantic, I take pictures of moods and emotions, reinforcing them, if necessary, through manipulation in the darkroom,” Groebli notes in the books epigraph. The Magic Eye is a sumptuous collection of his lyrical imagery.

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The Magic Eye, René Groebli

Photographer: René Groebli, born Zurich, Switzerland, resides in Switzerland 

Publisher: EditionBildHalle (Zurich, Switzerland, copyright 2020)

Essays: Stefan Zweifel, Daniele Muscionico, Guido Magnaguagno, Hans-Michael Koetzle, and Daniel Blochwitz

Text: English and German

Cloth-covered hardcover book, sewn binding, four-color lithography, 9 x 13 inches, 200 pages, 122 black-and-white and color images, printed in Amsterdam, NL

Photobook designer: Mirjam & Andreas Cavegn

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Articles & photographs published on PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).

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