If life hadn’t thrown the curveball of a pandemic, I should have been arriving in Switzerland around now to spend a week in a wonderfully rustic apartment with superlative views over the Bernese Oberland. Switzerland has become something of a salve over the past decade or so, somewhere I truly relax. There’s simply nothing like a day walking in spectacular scenery and then having a soak in a thermal bath. Leukerbad is a favourite with its open-air thermal pool surrounded by mountains but Scuol’s spa is pretty perfect, too.
There’s not much I dislike about Switzerland but that’s not surprising given I’m always a tourist there and in a happy state of mind. The worst thing I can come up with is being offered a plate of spätzli, the little twisty dumplings that accompany so many dishes. They’re horribly gluggy and heavy. But then, mountain cuisine is never light. I usually leave Switzerland feeling several kilos heavier and with a sore throat from eating too much cheese. My own fault. I never learn.
Anyway, this is a preamble ramble. I wanted to print the text for a couple of very short pieces I wrote for a radio feature about Zurich that went out last weekend (you can listen to it here). I wrote about a third building in Zurich but that will air later so I’ll add it then. The topic was Zurich, which is a city I have always enjoyed every time I’ve passed through. I was first there as an eight-year-old when we stopped for a picnic in a lakeside park, driving through to Austria for a family holiday. I remember the sun was hot, the park was lush and green, and we had a big bag of juicy apricots. That positive combination of senses locked it into my memory. We’ve often flown there from Australia, thanks to Singapore Airlines, because it’s a perfect hub, so easy to move to other parts of the country and then on to France or Italy.
Last year we went down to nearby Lake Luzerne and then on to the Bernese Oberland where the meadows were chock-full of wildflowers. In Zurich, we visited Le Corbusier’s pavilion, which I’ve written about before (here) and which is also mentioned in the radio piece. And as we wandered through the backstreets and along the river and into the churches, I kept thinking yes, this is a very liveable city. I wouldn’t say no.
Standing on the Münster bridge in the heart of Zurich, the pepper pot towers of the Romanesque Grossmünster might grab your attention first. But look instead to your right to the tall blue-green spire of the Fraumünster. Its name – women’s church – is a reference to its origins as a church for a convent set up in the 9th century. In medieval times, it was the unofficial seat of city power, its abbess wielding such political influence that she was known as an imperial princess. That power vanished with the Reformation of the 16th century and the church was stripped of its ornamentation, the interior painted white and a high hipped roof added that fitted in better with the guild houses around it. Stained glass windows by Augusto Giacometti were added in the 1940s and in 1970, artist Marc Chagall designed stained glass for the five tall windows overlooking the original altar. Their colour, especially when backed by the morning sun, is so luscious that you have to sit to take them in. Dreamlike figures seem to float through Chagall’s famous ultramarine blue, golden yellow and effervescent green. The windows depict stories from the Old and New Testaments but they’re almost subservient to the sheer joy that these blasts of pure colour seem to arouse.
Chagall, who was born a Jew in Belarus, was fascinated by the stories of the Bible and also from folklore. He moved to Paris in the 1910s and mingled with painters like Fernand Léger and Robert Delaunay, developing a signature style of painting and a use of colour that would have Picasso hailing him as the best colourist since Renoir. His work seemed tailor made for stained glass and his first commission was for a small church in the French Alps in 1956. He went on to create windows for the great cathedrals at Metz and Chichester, as well as a powerful work called ‘Peace’ for the new United Nations building in New York. His blend of dreamy figures and saturated colour always suggests something magical, from another realm, tinged with the spiritual. Even more, despite being the work of a male artist, these windows in the Fraumünster seem to reinvigorate the feminine strength that has imbued this place for over a thousand years.
If you stroll up the hill from the Rathaus by the riverside, you might find yourself in Spiegelgasse. It’s a narrow little street with an absurdly picturesque church tower straight ahead of you. But pause at the first building, number one, and you’ll notice a sign painted on the wall above the café window there: Cabaret Voltaire. Here, in 1916, in the backroom of the tavern that occupied the ground floor, something akin to a cultural earthquake occurred. Here, the Dada art movement found its voice. And what a peculiar voice it was. If you think a lot of modern art is meaningless, then you’ll love Dadaism because meaninglessness was precisely its aim. Even the name sounds like something said by a baby. Performer Hugo Ball had invited performers to express themselves as they wished and by all accounts a night here was a wild affair. Ball himself would dress up in bizarre costumes, a famous photograph showing him encased in curved sheets of cardboard with gauntlets like lobster claws. Performers might sing songs that made no sense, or read poems of endlessly repeating words. The audience might moo like cows. The Cabaret ran only for a few months but it set into motion a movement that would take the art world by storm, with artists like Max Ernst, Kurt Schwitters and Tristan Tzara creating art that was shockingly chaotic and difficult to comprehend. As Tzara wrote in 1918, Dada was ‘an interlacing of opposites… and contradictions.’
The influence of Dadaism continues, through John Cage’s silent composition of 1952 and the 1970s punk movement to the performance work of artists like Marina Abramović today. So standing there in Spiegelgasse allows you a moment to reflect on how artistic expression often finds a way forward in the most unlikely places. Fascinating, too, to know that at the precise moment that the Cabaret Voltaire opened, a Russian couple moved into a flat up the hill at number 14. Vladimir Lenin and his wife would stay for a year before events in 1917 drew them back to St Petersburg. Anarchy and revolution in perfect harmony in a peaceful backstreet of Zurich.
Are you a fan of Switzerland?