Despite the fact that Rodin’s Gates of Hell give onto a wall outside the Kunsthaus Museum in Zurich, they are an impressive welcome to an impressive gallery.
My three day Zurich card (40 CHF) with free travel within prescribed zones, also provides free access to a number of museums, including the big K so I ‘saved’ the 18 CHF admission. I was pretty excited as I strapped on my audio set (included in the admission price) and set off up the stairs to the Swiss late medieval gallery.
Gold glints richly here. Mary, Jesus and other notables on their wooden ‘canvases’, are surrounded by it. Coloured tempura paint, made with egg, apparently doesn’t lend itself to over-painting so the artists had to be very careful. There is often much detail in their work, as there is in the wooden statues.
In a 1460 painting by Pseudo-Pier Francesco, Mary appears to be wearing a ring rendered in a different style from the rest of the painting. The tiny red blob on the edge of her finger could have been a jewel or could have been a foreign object. I was tempted (in a parallel-universe kind of way) to touch it to ascertain which. Of course, I wouldn’t really do such a dreadful thing – even if the image of Mr Bean and Whistler’s Mother hadn’t popped into my head.
A few other things stood out for me. The fineness of Francesco Guardi’s (1712 – 1793) paintings where the delicate brushstrokes create, or provide the suggestion of, objects at a distance, is delightful.
On the other hand, I found the hide of a horse (it looked real but maybe it wasn’t), with some parts removed, stuffed and sewn, to be quite repulsive. It wasn’t the deadness that affected me; I’ve seen plenty of dead animals. It was the mutilation. The horse had only the suggestion of a head and its legs were stumps of varying lengths. Sightless, voiceless, deaf, immobile: lacking a lot of horse qualities. Death had obviously got in first on those scores but the changing of accepted form raised the spectre of suffering due to radiation, medical drugs and torture.
I watched a video of an artist creating a huge painting – black paint on massive sheets of off-white paper. The finished product was hanging on the wall behind the television. When I arrived, he had his head buried in his hands as if wondering what the hell to do next. I felt a bit as children at the theatre must when they shout, “Look out! He’s behind you.” I wanted to call to the artist currently slogging it out on the screen and call back through time to the real person he was then, “It’s alright. You finish it and it looks great. Add a few squirls above the writing and some doodahs over on the right.”
I watched a process of art as well as viewing a product. The piece was thus a work of art twice, using different media. Watching the artist fill the space that I could already see completed, time warped me. Further to that, when I approached the work, I saw that the paint shone and held bubbles as though the artist had just downed his brush and walked off.
Did my bearing witness amount to participation in the creative process or am I always, a viewer? Did the artist’s knowledge of future viewers affect his work so that we become a subliminal part of the process? By extension, can we all ask, “Do I have a piece of art in the Kunsthaus?”? How far does our co-creation extend in the world, if at all?
One of my must-see items was a Degas of horses warming up near the racetrack. I love the movement. I love the colours. I love the pastel-strokes. Try as I might, I could not capture these on camera. Nor are they completely captured by the camera used to take the photo in the link. (Kunsthaus policy: photography without flash is permitted for personal use.) I was aware of the irony of taking a photo to capture a painting in which the artist had aimed to capture the sort of images created by that new invention, the camera.
My Kunsthaus visit was seven hours spent amongst sublime beauty, serenity, pathos, quirkiness and challenge: just how I like my art.
Go here for some pictures and information about the different sections within the Kunsthaus collection. Remember, like many Euopean museums, the Kunsthaus is closed on Mondays. Take tram 3,5,8 or 9 or bus 31.
By the way, if no-one sees a piece of art, is it still a piece of art? Is art absolute or defined and if it is defined – by whom?