I am looking up at three tall, strapping men who look like Greek gods, towering above a meadow, under dark, menacing clouds, one brandishing a sword high above his head. This gargantuan painting called “Oath on the Rütli,” by Swiss artist Johann Heinrich Füssli, portrays the iconic oath taken at the foundation of the Old Swiss Confederacy by the representatives of the three founding cantons (territories), Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden, dating back to 1307.
I am taking an unconventional, whistle-stop art tour at the Kunsthaus Art Museum in Zurich called #Letsmuseeum, created by Rea Eggli and her cultural event agency swissandfamous. It promises “useless details, weird stuff, little known facts about art works and an original perspective into art.”
We sit on the floor in front of the painting, as our young guide Cynthia Naef, who confesses that “she’s a fan and not an expert,” explains the story behind the painting. “This Swiss blockbuster was painted with an ant’s eye view in such a way that they looked elongated and powerful—they were after all the founding fathers of the Swiss Confederation,” she explains. “This meadow above Lake Uri still exists and kids go for picnics there,” she elaborates.
Our tour started outside the museum at a towering bronze cast of Auguste Rodin’s masterpiece “Gates of Hell,” inspired by Dante’s Inferno and Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise”—which weighs 8 tons, has 186 figures and took him 37 years to execute completely.
Cynthia exclaims, “37 years…is what takes many people through high school, their first heartbreak, a university education and finding a spouse and settling down.” She also shares a little known fact about the installation. This piece, one of eight casts, has been standing here since 1949; it was actually commissioned for the planned Führer Museum in Linz in the 1930s by Goering, paid for twice, but never picked up!
As we walk upstairs, she points to another striking painting that stretches across a whole wall of the landing that depicts five women in statuesque poses donned in blue costumes. Painted by Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler, the son of a carpenter, this painting called “A View into Infinity” was disliked by the second director of the museum, René Wehrli, so much that he put a curtain covering the painting as long as he was in tenure” says Cynthia.
We look next at Adriaen Isenbrant’s “Rest during the Flight to Egypt,” with Mary cradling baby Jesus on her lap, a brilliant interpretation of this popular theme. “The background which is supposed to be in Egypt looks like Belgium with its red roof houses, probably an effect of the Dutch painter’s nationality” quips Cynthia. For then, part of modern day Belgium was considered part of the Netherlands.
Moving on to a cordoned off side room, we peer into it to see stone tubs on the floor. It is an art installation called “Olivestone,” by the German artist Joseph Beuys, made up of five stone vats, which remind me of tombs. Used by the Durini family since the sixteenth century to decant olive oil, they have been placed in larger stone cuboids, and the sides filled with Italian olive oil. “Two hundred litres of olive oil fill the cracks and pores and seep into the stone till the liquid changes the nature of the stone,” says Cynthia. “It was moved for an art show to another city, which wasn’t a good idea because when it was tilted all the oil spilled out.”
Cynthia then shows us the most expensive art pieces in the museum. She leads us into a room where the walls are covered with two paintings from Monet’s famous “Water Lilies” series, six metres in length, in muted shades of purple and pink. And, of course, there’s a story. When Dr Rene Wehrli, the then Director of the Kunsthaus, went to Giverny where Claude Monet lived with industrialist Emil Georg Buhrle, he fell through a bridge and landed in the water lily pond represented in this famous series of paintings. Buhrle acquired three of the water lily paintings and cheekily presented two to the Kunsthaus for posterity.
We then peer through a glass door into a room that looks, at first glance, like an untidy garage. Our guide clarifies that this entire art installation (made by artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss), with its carefully simulated mess, is actually all carved from polyurethane! It was created in 1991 and called “Garage.” “Art is after all in the eyes of the beholder,” comments Cynthia.
Throughout the tour I feel the experience isn’t afraid to be interactive or challenge the group’s thought process. In one room Cynthia asks us to pick something from the paintings that represents us. It could be an object in the painting or a feeling. In front of another painting she pulls a few of us up front to help enact the story behind the artwork. Then, she hands out a small blue keychain with a mini photo frame. “Take a photo using the key chain as a frame, and send your perspective to me,” she asks.
The tour ends in the garden yard of the museum where one wall is covered with Spanish artist Joan Miro’s colourful tiles. When they were fixed here no one thought about the damage the weather winter could inflict upon the tiles. “Now they have a special system of heating behind which ensures they don’t crack in the winter,” Cynthia says with a smile. A little known fact, but certainly interesting!
Joining a tour costs 25 CHF (Rs1,800), which includes the entrance fee to Kunsthaus Art Museum as well as the guided tour, which lasts about 1.5 hr. Tours come with many themes, so make sure to check out letsmuseeum.com to get glimpse of what other fan-led adventures await you.
Kalpana Sunder is a travel writer, blogger, and a Japanese language specialist from Chennai. In her search for a good travel story, she has snowmobiled in Lapland, walked with the lions in Zimbabwe, and flown in a microlight over the Victoria Falls.