Tag Archives: Mathilde Wesendonck

Rietberg Museum: Ars Una

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.Rietberg Zurich Street Entrance - photo Sara Lynne Moffatt


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.Rietberg Museum Blossoms and a Cyclist Photo by Sara Lynne Moffatt

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.

Looking Out Rietberg Museum Photo by Sara Lynne Moffatt

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.

Rietberg Japanese Watercolour - photo by Sara Lynne Moffatt

Japanese watercolour, Woman with Brush and Poem Card. Japan, Edo period, 1832. By Totoya Hokkei (1780 – 1850).

Top detail of a carved wooden mask from the Baga area of Guinea, Africa, ca. 1900. The expertly carved patterns add a wonderful texture to the mask.

Top detail of a carved wooden mask from the Baga area of Guinea, Africa, ca. 1900. The expertly carved patterns add a wonderful texture to the mask.

Sculpture Rietberg Museum Photo Sara Lynne Moffatt

Sculpture of the Hindu Goddess Durga Fighting with a Demon. Indian, Karnataka, probably Mysore, Dynasty, 11th century. The Goddess protects her believers from evil.

Rietberg Maori Carving Detail - photo by Sara Lynne Moffatt

Detail of a carved wooden house post depicting a tattooed figure. Of Maori origin, New Zealand, pre-1900.

Rietberg Chinese Silver Box Detail - photo by Sara Lynne Moffatt

Silver melon-shaped box with a mouse. China, Tang Dynasty (618-907). This intricately detailed box is about 5 centimetres tall.

Amorous Couple Rietberg Museum Photo by Sara Lynne Moffatt

Sandstone relief sculpture of an amorous couple. Central India, Chandella Dynasty, 11th century. The Rietberg’s literature notes, “according to the shilpashastras (ancient art manuals), the main purpose of an artwork is to create emotions (rasa). In this context eroticism, the queen of all rasas, plays a central role.”

Rietberg Ganesha Sculpture - photo by Sara Lynne Moffatt

Sculpture of Ganesha, the Hindu deity of beginnings. Ganesha also aids believers in overcoming obstacles. India, Bundelkhand, Chandella Dynasty, 11th century.

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 Blossoms Rietberg Museum Photo Sara Lynne Moffatt

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)