I spent my last days in St. Gallen, Switzerland walking through its tranquil streets, silently saying my good-byes. At the top of Guisanstrasse, I came across this woman. Fully alert, she was leaning in expectantly towards someone who was not there. Her hands were clasped fearlessly behind her against the folds of her bronze dress. Just when it seemed that I knew her every angle, she surprised me.
Relatively close to my home, is a museum dedicated to artworks from afar. Zürich’s Rietberg Museum is one of my favourite places to explore when in the city. Don’t be misled by the reference to “ars una,” (a new phrase to me – one I came across when researching the Rietberg’s history, which lead to — more research). The museum’s collection is wonderfully diverse. I stopped in one recent rainy Saturday and took some photos to share with you. I’ll tell you about a little scandal, too.
Originally opened in 1952, the museum’s foundation is a collection donated to the city of Zürich by Baron Eduard von der Heydt (1882-1964). The Baron, born in Germany and later became a Swiss national, was a banker with a passion for visual art. To him, “ars una” (or one art) meant all art – art embodying the diverse expressions created by people from around the globe.
The Rietberg complex consists of several buildings. Villa Wesendonck houses Indian sculpture, pre-Columbian art, works from Tibet, South East Asia and Oceania, and a collection of Swiss Carnival masks. The Remise Atelier, seen in the photos above, contains a Japanese tearoom and craft studio. Villa Schönberg holds a reference library. Park-Villa Rieter, a short stroll from the other buildings, displays paintings from India.
Villa Wesendonck, the main building, is a grand neo-classical structure, built for Otto Wesendonck and his wife, Mathilde in 1857. Both were originally from Germany. He was a silk merchant and she, a poet and author. They enjoyed hosting artists in their home. Among them was Richard Wagner. For a time, Wagner and his wife, Minna, stayed in the Wesendonck’s Villa Schönberg, located across the street from the house Otto and Mathilde lived in.
You enter the museum through a modern green glass pavilion, suitably named Emerald. The triangle pattern decorating the glass is reminiscent of the lush hill the complex sits on. This greenhouse-like cube is the only visible marker of the substantial museum expansion completed in 2007. Its architects, Alfred Grazioli (Berlin) and Adolf Krischanitz (Vienna/Berlin), cleverly created a spacious, two-level subterranean display area; leaving the original character of the villas and grounds intact. The underground section houses artworks from Africa, China and Japan, along with special exhibitions.
Ready to go in? Before we get to the artwork, I’ll fill you in on the scandal. The entrance way is a discrete nod to it.
During his stay with the Wesendonck’s, Richard Wagner became enamoured with Mathilde. He wrote many letters to her professing his love. It’s said, that his affair with Mathilde inspired him to compose Tristan and Isolde. The opera includes five poems written by Mathilde, one being “Im Treibhaus” (“In the Greenhouse” or “In the Hothouse”). You can read an English translation of the poem here. Including the writing of others in his work was uncharacteristic for Wagner. Does it suggest that they had an illicit liaison? More certainly, Wagner thought highly of Mathilde’s writing. Affair or no affair, Tristan and Isolde is considered a magnificent opera. Now let me show you some of the Rieteberg’s magnificent artworks.
I hope that you enjoyed the mini-tour. Do you have a favourite piece? As a collector of boxes, I’d love to add the silver melon-shaped box to my stash. Better yet, wrap them all up, please! A little something did make its way home with me. I’ll tell you about it in my next post.
You can view more of the Rietberg’s wonderful collection online. Throughout the year, the museum also hosts a number of special exhibitions. Until June 1, 2014, you can see a wonderful display of carvings, sculptures and masks by artists from the Ivory Coast. The works span 300 years and include a number of contemporary pieces. From mid-May through early August, works by the Zen master and painter Sengai will be on display.
If you visit, allow time to stroll through Rieterpark, a picturesque park overlooking Lake Zürich. On sunny days, pick up a bite to go from the Rieterberg’s café, head into the park, choose a shady spot under one of the majestic trees and enjoy a picnic. It’s almost as lovely to visit the park on rainy days.
Magnolia, the Lotus of Trees
Observing leaves: at first, I doubt they are persimmon—
looking at the blossoms, I doubt they are lotus.
How fortunate there are no fixed forms—
this tree has no comparison.
-Chin’gak Kuksa Hyesim (1178 – 1234)
Photographs by Sara Lynne Moffatt
Additional Articles of Interest
Museum Rietberg Press Release: From Buddha to Picasso: The Collector Eduard von der Heydt
Magnolia and Lotus: Selected Poems of Hyesim (peonymoon.wordpress.com)
What attracts you to artwork? For me, initial attractions vary. The lasting ones are those which trigger an emotional response. In addition, learning about the artist, the message they intended and the provenance of their work, either enhances or reduces a piece’s appeal to me.
This past spring, when in Venice, I spent an afternoon viewing The Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Below are some of my favourites. The last two were acquired by the museum after Peggy’ Guggenheim’s death.
While Peggy Guggenheim initially sought out the advice of art experts when building her collection, her selections were based on her own preferences. She often had a personal connection with the artists whose work she acquired. Art brought her a great deal of enjoyment.
The Antipope, Dec 1941 – Mar 1942. Max Ernst (1891 – 1976)
This Surrealist piece was the first to command my attention at the museum. I kept going back to it. It’s a fascinating, disturbing and sad painting.
Peggy Guggenheim and Max Ernst married in December 1941, the month Ernst began to create this painting. Peggy believed that Ernst had portrayed her as the figure third from the right, with Ernst representing himself as the black horse. Some scholars agree with this interpretation. Others suggest Peggy Guggenheim is the figure to the far left. You can learn about “The Antipope” via this link to the Guggenheim site.
“Just as the poet the has to write down what is being thought – voiced – inside of him, so the painter has to limn and give objective form to what is visible inside of him.” – Max Ernst
Silver Bed Head 1945-46. “Sandy” Alexander Calder (1889 – 1976)
The whimsy of the piece engages me. That it was a personal item of Peggy’s, rather than one commissioned for her museum, is also appealing. Calder created this work of art specifically for Peggy Guggenheim. There is a photo of Peggy in her bedroom at the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni in my previous post. Calder’s sculpture is on the wall, above her bed.
Best known for his amazing mobiles, it’s not surprising Calder’s background was in mechanical engineering. He studied the discipline at university, then worked in the field for about six years before becoming a sculptor. To learn more about Calder and his work, please visit the Calder Foundation website.
Sculptures after Picasso’s sketches, 1964. Egidio Costantini (1912 -2007)
It’s Costantini’s life story makes these sculptures of particular interest to me.
Born in southern Italy, Costantini grew up in Venice. After training to become a radio telegraph operator, he worked as a bank clerk. Later, he obtained a degree in botany. His interest in glass began when he worked as an agent for several Murano glass factories. Gradually, Costantini learned the art of glass blowing from the master Murano craftsmen and began experimenting with glass. He envisioned glass as an art medium rather than as a material suited only for functional applications. Through collaborations with artists and master Venetian glass blowers, he began to create his vision. He set up an artists’ co-operative in 1950 called Fucina degli Angeli (Forge of Angels). After achieving some success, he ran into financial difficulties and closed it in 1958. Costantini met Peggy Guggenheim in 1961 through a friend. She provided him with the funds needed to revitalize the company. You can read more about Costantini at fucinadegliangeli.com. The website is in Italian, Google Translate worked well for me.
You can see the grand Palazzo Corner della Ca’ Granda through the window screen behind the glass sculptures. Please refer to my previous post to read about the link between the Corners and the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni which houses The Peggy Guggenheim Collection.
The New Gates of Paradise, 1960. Claire Falkenstein (1908-1997)
What a perfect name. The gates lead into the palazzo’s garden oasis, to the home Peggy Guggenheim lived in for 30 years (I think that the longest I’ve lived in one place is 4 years – my husband calls me a nomad – maybe I just need some gates to paradise). Falkenstein’s creation is both functional and fascinating. Their design makes me think of dense bramble bushes.
Peggy commissioned her friend, Claire Falkenstein, an American sculptor and painter, to create the gates. Claire had lived in Paris for a number of years. While there, she became interested in the relationship between space and matter. In this piece, welded iron rods create a multidimensional web around chunks of Venetian glass; instilling a sense of depth greater that the actual thickness of the panels.
Bird in Space, 1932-40. Constantin Brâncuși (1876 – 1957)
I find the deceptive simplicity of this sculpture appealing. This is another artwork that was close to Peggy Guggenheim’s heart. That it had such importance to her gives me a greater appreciation of it.
She had been friends with Brâncuși, and an admirer of his work, for sixteen years before she bought one of his sculptures. “Bird in Space” sculpture was the second of his sculptures added to her collection. Although she had long admired the series, she and Brâncuși had a bitter argument of the asking price when she first tried to buy it. They did not speak for months afterwards. Weeks before German troops invaded Paris during WWII, Brâncuși finally sold the sculpture to Peggy Guggenheim. It was an emotional moment for the artist. In Confessions of Art Addict, Peggy Guggenheim writes, “Tears were streaming down Brâncuși’s face. I was genuinely touched. I never knew why he was so upset, but assumed it was because he was parting with his favorite bird.”
Through the highly-polished, smooth bronze surface and elongated tapering shape of the bird, Brâncuși wanted to convey the “essence of flight.” By minimizing the physical attributes of the bird, we are left to focus on the its movement; its ability to quickly ascend into the sky. Please visit theartstory.org to read a short summary about Brâncuși and his work.
La Sibilla, 1947. Pericle Fazzini (1913-1987)
The sculpture shown in the photo below was one my favourites in the garden. Sibilla sits, lost in thought, with the warm summer sun on her back. Her serene smile captured my attention.
Please visit the Guggenheim site to read more about Fazzini. The sculpture was a 2012 bequest of art patron Hannelore B. Schulhof, who once said
“Art is almost like a religion. It is what gives my life dimension beyond the material world we live in.”
Savor Kindess Because Cruelty is Always Possible Later, 1983. Jenny Holzer (1950 – )
I first learned of American artist Jenny Holzer in the early 1990’s. I was living in Toronto, Canada at the time. She was in town to present and discuss her work. It was my first exposure to text being used as a standalone art form. The phrases she uses are provocative and unsettling. They make me stop, look and think.
Speaking about what motivates and inspires her work, Jenny Holzer says:
“I wanted to offer content that people – not necessarily art people – could understand.” (Interview Magazine, 2012) “I’m inclined to work on dark things. Sadly, the world is always offering up something dark and dreadful.” (The Guardian, 2013)
The bench shown below is part of her 1983 Survival series. Another phrase from this series is “Protect me from what I want.” On the series, Jenny Holzer says,
“I wanted to support things that are helpful to people and maybe bash what I think is dangerous.” (NY Times, 1989).
Jenny Holzer won the prestigious Leone d’Oro (Golden Lion) for her exhibition at the 1990 Venice Biennale. She was the first woman to represent the United States at the exhibition. While the Guggenheim connection with Jenny Holzer dates back to that Biennale, unfortunately, Peggy Guggenheim, who died in 1979, never met the artist. Knowing what we know about Peggy, it’s likely that she would have enjoyed meeting the artist.
Art (seeing it, creating it, learning about it, thinking about it, talking about it) makes my life richer and helps to keep my brain humming. How does art bring bring enjoyment to your life? Do you have a favourite quote about art or one said by an artist?