Surrealism Switzerland

Is there such a thing as Swiss Surrealism? This first major survey exhibition on the subject answers the question with 400 selected key works and surprising new discoveries by some 60 Swiss artists. After a historical introduction the exhibition shows, in nine atmospheric themed rooms, how Surrealist achievements and pictorial inventions have shaped art into the present day. Surrealism – A magical, enticing concept. But what lies behind it? We might think of the melting clock faces of Salvador Dalí, the dream figures of René Magritte and the mysterious landscapes of Max Ernst. From the ranks of Swiss artists Meret Oppenheim’s fur cup is lodged in the collective memory. Alberto Giacometti, with his oppressive objects and cages, did much to shape Surrealist sculpture. But ‘Swiss Surrealism’? The exhibition “Surrealism Switzerland” includes around 400 sculptures, paintings, drawings and photographs as well as a video of some 60 artists. For the first time it is devoted exclusively and comprehensively to the theme of Surrealism in Switzerland.

The exhibition focuses both on the involvement of Swiss artists in the Surrealist movement founded by André Breton in 1924 and on the characteristics of this artistic attitude in the conservative cultural climate in Switzerland between the 1930s and 1950s. The inclusion of selected positions of subsequent generations also demonstrates the influence of Surrealism on the development of the post-War avant-gardes and the still contemporary nature of Surrealist pictorial inventions and artistic methods. The exhibition begins with a historical introduction featuring documents and major key works by the artists represented. Surrealism developed in Paris in the 1920s in the circle around the author André Breton. Unlike other avant-garde trends, it was characterised less by a recognisable style than by an artistic attitude. The intention was to bring repressed subjects, anxieties, desires and fantasies directly to the surface, borrowing on Freud’s psychoanalysis and using techniques such as écriture automatique. Various Swiss artists helped to shape international Surrealism, whether as predecessors (Paul Klee, Hans Arp) or as members of the movement in Paris (Alberto Giacometti, Serge Brignoni, Kurt Seligmann, Meret Oppenheim, Gérard Vulliamy, Isabelle Waldberg). They also established connections with the Swiss art scene and took part in the foundation of progressive artistic groups such as Gruppe 33 in Basel or, in 1937, the Allianz – Vereinigung Moderner Schweizer Künstler, which brought abstract artists and Surrealists together. Even more than in France, the Surrealists in Switzerland were met with violent criticism.

A conservative climate prevailed here in the 1930s. Official art had to submit to the credo of a ‘national renewal’ and ‘intellectual national defence’. The Surrealists vehemently rejected this repressive attitude as is clearly apparent in the work of artists like Max von Moos, Walter Kurt Wiemken and Otto Tschumi. After an outline of historical events, a cabinet provides a glimpse into the specifically Surrealist methods of the genesis of the works using different methods involving chance. The tour leads at last to the core of the exhibition: nine atmospheric, densely hung rooms devoted to the key Surrealist themes. They tell of dreams and fantasies, of the body as an object of love or a symbol of existential oppression, horror war and death, as well as of spiritual orders, the cosmos and nature as a metaphor for life and growth. Even if Surrealism had in a sense had its day as an era after 1945, many artistic developments in the post-War avant-gardes such as art informel or the movements of Fluxus and Nouveau Réalisme, in which Swiss artists were significantly involved, would have been unthinkable without Surrealism, its chance-related methods and its fundamental belief in the connection between art and life. The exhibition also sheds light on the corresponding contributions from Swiss artists like André Thomkins, Dieter Roth, Jean Tinguely and Aldo Walker – to name only a few – and integrates their works within the overall context of the themed rooms. The subject of Surrealism also provides an opportunity to focus attention on a series of Swiss women artists, even if not all of them would explicitly have identified themselves as Surrealists.

Their presence in the exhibition posits an acknowledgement that women were very much a part of the history of Swiss 20-century art. They include, among others, Anita Spinelli, Henriette Grindat, Ilse Weber and Eva Wipf. Last of all selected works by contemporary artists scattered around the themed rooms – Pipilotti Rist, Ugo Rondinone, Teresa Hubbard & Alexander Birchler, Valérie Favre, Not Vital and others – testify to the continued relevance of different forms of Surrealism in contemporary art. The Aargauer Kunsthaus is considered to be a centre of excellence for Swiss art. Its collection provides a good starting-point for an exhibition devoted to Surrealism in Switzerland. The project can claim to represent the subject comprehensively. For that reason it is able to count on the support of important lenders such as Kunsthaus Zürich, Zentrum Paul Klee, Basel, Bern and Luzern Kunstmuseen, but also private collections and galleries from Switzerland and Paris. The exhibition “Surrealism Switzerland” was initiated by Madeleine Schuppli, Director of the Aargauer Kunsthaus. She is continuing the exhibition activity of the Aargauer Kunsthaus over the past few years and decades, doing admirable work in the comprehensive examination of Swiss artistic themes.

Surrealism Switzerland was conceived and prepared by Guest Curator Peter Fischer, former Director of the Kunstmuseum Luzern and the Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, in collaboration with Julia Schallberger, curatorial assistant at the Aargauer Kunsthaus. From 10 February until 16 June 2019 the exhibition will be shown in a modified form overseen by Francesca Benini at the Museo d’arte della Svizzera italiana (MASI) in Lugano.

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