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Special Issue: Basel

Swiss Peaks

Three Must-Reads from the Alpine Country

Postcards from Harald Szeemann’s collection of Pataphysics material, ca. 1960s-1970s. Image credit: Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles

BY Christian House
freelance writer for the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph

In Books

Harry Lime, the antihero played by Orson Welles in the 1949 British film noir The Third Man, was a harsh art critic: “In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance,” observed Harry. “In Switzerland they had brotherly love—they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

In honor of the pilgrimage last week by many in the art world to Basel, this column aims to redress the balance by celebrating three books that detail a few dynamic artistic achievements of the Swiss.

The Orson Welles of the Art World

Today, everyone is a curator, but in the mid-20th century, curators were an exotic breed. None more so than the Swiss pioneer Harald Szeemann, one of the few to have curated both Documenta (1972) and the Venice Biennale (1999 and 2001). Cigar-chomping, bearded and bulky, he was the Orson Welles of the art world. “Harald was like a movie director,” recalled the artist Christo. “He would sell his vision like a movie director, and then everything would be part of his movie, his exhibition.”

Seeing Szeemann in a gallery was like finding a sommelier in a vineyard. In the foreword to the kaleidoscopic homage Harald Szeemann: Museum of Obsessions, Thomas W Gaehtgens, Director of the Getty Research Institute, describes the Fabbrica Rosa—an archive that Szeemann created in a former watch factory in Maggia—as the “laboratory of a visionary”. Szeemann was a fanatical collector of the arcane paraphernalia connected to exhibitions. His rooms were an “almost incomprehensible mass of books, brochures, photographs, boxes of papers, piles of documents, and rolled-up posters”.

Balthasar Burkhard, Last night of Documenta 5 (1972). Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles

This volume has all the esoteric charm of its subject: it is a jumble of pictures and scribbled notes, records and logs, floor plans and letters. It also includes interviews with collaborators, such as the Arte Povera veteran Gilberto Zorio and performance artist Tania Bruguera, which provide personal insight. Although produced by the Getty Institute to accompany a travelling exhibition of Szeemann’s archive, this is, appropriately, less of a catalogue than a cabinet of curiosities.

*Harald Szeemann: Museum of Obsessions, edited by Glenn Phillips and Philipp Kaiser, with Doris Chon and Pietro Rigolo is published by the Getty Research Institute

A World Away

A beguiling new monograph on Christian Tagliavini, an art photographer working out of an atelier in Lugano, proves as dramatic as the Reichenbach Falls. Tagliavini’s highly stylized portraits blend historical detail, contemporary styling and creative staging. Having been educated in Italy as well as Switzerland, Tagliavini draws heavily on Renaissance imagery. To this he adds elements of sci-fi cinema and epic 19th-century novels. His photographs are enigmatic worlds unto themselves.

Tagliavini is an old-style auteur. His work owes more to the films of Wes Anderson, Luc Besson and Tim Burton than any tradition of fine art portraiture. A self-confessed jack-of-all-trades, he has worked as an architect, engineer and graphic designer. As a photographer he is involved in every stage of creating his images, from devising sets to conceiving costumes: “I want to be able to do everything and do it all myself—woodworking, design, handicrafts.”

Christian Tagliavini, La Sélénaute (2014) from “Voyages Extraordinaires” series (2014-15). Courtesy teNeues

His shots, reproduced beautifully here, deliver wacky mises-en-scènes. His “Carte” series (2012) frames figures within Alice in Wonderland playing cards. And in “Voyages Extraordinaires” (2014-15) Tagliavini creates a retro-futuristic narrative in the style of a Jules Verne adventure (characters peer through portholes and don beige spacesuits). The book also includes sketches of his ornate props, such as an astronaut’s neck-brace fitted with spotlights.

These portraits are dreamlike in their brooding beauty, subtle eroticism and overall sense of mystery. A crepuscular palette only adds to the sense of a story just out of sight. Yet, each image is meticulous in its composition. The result is a fusion of Italian drama and Swiss precision. A combination, no doubt, that would have totally confounded Harry Lime.

*Christian Tagliavini is published by teNeues

Gruesome and Dazzling Histories

Looking through the other end of the telescope, 26 Things: A Time Travel Through Switzerland uses objects as evidence of a national rather than personal history. The titular items, all plucked from the collection of 850,000 artifacts kept in the Swiss National Museum, represent Switzerland’s 26 cantons (the member states that make up the Swiss Confederation). The selection is as varied as the topography.

Basel puts its best foot forward—literally—with a 15th-century silver reliquary. We learn that “it is shaped like a foot to reflect its contents—what were believed to be the foot bones of a little boy murdered in Bethlehem on the orders of King Herod”. It is gruesome and dazzling—its surface decorated with gemstones and pearls and a window of colored rock crystal for viewers to peek through to the bony bits.  

Foot Reliquary (1450) from the Basel Minster treasury. Canton of Basel-Landschaft

Timepieces appear as regularly as clockwork, including an Omega wristwatch manufactured in Bern and later taken to the moon by Buzz Aldrin. Some regions are represented by ornate objects (a whitework embroidery made for the 1851 “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations” in London), while others are purely functional (the geometrically accurate 19th-century Dufour Map of Switzerland).  

This slim book illustrates how a cultural artifact can provide “an entrance ticket to the past”. It also provides a tantalizing flavor of the pleasures to be had in exploring the repositories of yesteryear. 

*26 Things is published by Scheidegger & Spiess

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