Art full of Contrasts: A Museum Tour in the Engadin

The world of art and culture in the Engadin is full of contrasts. A weekend visiting three of the most well-known museums in the region shows that contrasts and harmony do not have to be mutually exclusive. Quite the opposite.
byCharlotte Fischli

During our autumn weekend in the Engadin, we wanted to focus on one thing in particular: art. At the top of the Julier Pass, travellers will find the first example of this: the breathtaking mountain panorama is like a painting that you can’t get enough of, even after countless crossings. In September, the mountains’ dark grey tones blend with the light colours of the stones underfoot, and the milky-white of the wafts of mist mix with the earthy greens of the meadows. The crystal-clear water of Lake Silvaplana, which opens up in bright turquoise on the home stretch, brings to mind Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous words: “I now have the best and most powerful air in Europe to breathe.” The philosopher spent his summers in Sils Maria from 1881, referring to the place as his “refuge”. We reach our destination in St. Moritz.

After the bright and busy mountain summer, the pace has slowed a little in the village. The hotels are gearing up for the new season, and the fashion stores are replacing summer dresses with down jackets. On the terraces of the mountain restaurants, you can now enjoy your pizzoccheri with a blanket over your shoulders. We plan our weekend as we sit in the “Trutz” Restaurant overlooking the stunning view of the lake and mountains.

The range of art on offer in and around St. Moritz is diverse. Rich history blends with contemporary art, and a short walk through the village centre confirms the community’s reputation as a new hotspot for the art scene: we walk past the Weltgalerie Hauser & Wirth, which opened its branch on Via Serlas in 2018, as well as the facades the galleries of Vito Schnabel and Andrea Caratsch – both sought-after addresses for contemporary art and culture. Our first destination, however, lies a little further towards St. Moritz Bad, in a stone building on the slopes overlooking Lake St. Moritz: the Segantini Museum, probably the most renowned address in the Upper Engadin.

Segantini: Man, Myth, Legend

Some say his works made the Engadin famous. Others refer to Giovanni Segantini as the “painter of the mountains”. The fact is, no one painted nature like he did. The domed building, designed by the architect Nicolaus Hartmann, is home to the world’s largest collection of Segantini’s works. The native Tyrolean’s talent is evident throughout: starting on the first floor, visitors can enjoy Segantini’s dramatic self-portraits, the iconic “Frühmesse” (Morning Mass, 1885), and the “Ave Maria bei der Überfahrt” (Ave Maria at the Crossing, 1886). We follow the development of his unique painting technique, and our appreciation of these magnificent works continues as we head up to the next floor.

The triptych “La Vita – La Natura – La Morte” hangs in the dome: three mountain scenes painted by Segantini between 1896 and 1899. Their energy is overwhelming, filling the entire room. Their backstory cannot be guessed from looking at them: originally intended for the Paris World Exhibition of 1900 as a multimedia “Engadin Panorama”, with an impressive circumference of 220 metres and height of 20 metres(!), the three paintings ultimately remained unfinished due to Segantini’s death. This does not detract from their effect, however. A sketch at the entrance showing a gigantic, domed building indicates his vision of what the stage for his incredible work should have looked like. Instead, the idea became the foundation for his memorial in the Engadin. Poignantly, the museum faces the Schafberg – the summit on which Segantini painted his last brush strokes.

Schloss Tarasp: Not Vital’s Refuge in the Lower Engadin

After a dinner at the modern Italian restaurant La Scarpetta and a night at the new boutique hotel Grace La Margna, we move on to the Lower Engadin the next morning. To Tarasp Castle, whose landlord, Not Vital, is considered one of the most recognised contemporary artists. As you get closer to the castle, which was built in 1040, you can’t help but notice the Not Vital silver sculptures that are dotted throughout the landscape; for example, Not Vital’s “Moon” in the middle of the village pond, then, just before the entrance, the “Pelvis” sculpture. We later saw his most famous work in the castle park: the “House to Watch the Sunset” is a 13-metre-high staircase sculpture whose extremely steep steps invite you to climb – at your own risk.

When we arrive at Tarasp Castle, the door is closed behind us. Although the house is open to the public, visitors are required to book a guided tour – a great idea, we realised, because the sheer variety of art and history here means that it would be easy to overlook precious features. In addition to Not Vital’s own works, the host displays a selection of gifts from artist friends and travel souvenirs throughout the countless rooms. A personal dedication by Jean-Michel Basquiat sits alongside antique furniture from the former owner, Karl August Lingner; lanterns from Morocco stand beside the iconic Not Vitals beef tongue sculptures. The castle’s architecture also shines: richly decorated wooden ceilings and doors, as well as artfully tiled bathrooms give an idea of what life was like centuries ago. The one-hour tour flies by. It culminates in the castle’s kitchen, where the walls are adorned with four Andy Warhol prints, a “trap picture” by Daniel Spoerri, and a photograph by the British land artist Richard Long. The end of the tour leaves us with one thought: Can we start again?

Muzeum Susch: One Building, Two Worlds

In Susch, a village of 200 inhabitants at the foot of the Flüela Pass, old meets young – provided you can find the entrance. The Muzeum Susch, which opened in 2019, is so well camouflaged that many visitors miss the door. When you enter the hollowed-out building complex that was once a monastery and brewery, a new world opens up: that of Grażyna Kulczyk, the Polish entrepreneur and art patron who set herself the goal of putting Susch on the cultural map.

This goal was achieved not least because of the breathtaking architecture of this building, thanks to the local duo Chasper Schmidlin and Lukas Voellmy, who restored the existing structures over three years, creating a stunning environment that works extremely well, both visually and functionally. A 1,500-square-metre area houses a sizeable collection of works of art – mostly by Polish citizens. A stainless-steel cylinder by Kulczyk’s compatriot Miroslaw Balka rotates in a natural grotto, leaving you wondering where architecture ends and art begins. A totem-like tower by Argentinian Adrian Villar Rojas stands in a 12th-century chamber and looks as if it has always been there. Only on the upper floors does the darkness give way to light: throughout numerous rooms, the variety of art on display in Wanda Czetkowska’s temporary exhibition is deliberately disorientating. The works are representative of Kulczyk’s leitmotif at the Muzeum Susch: primarily conceptual art and that of women who have been unfairly overlooked. “Art is not Rest” is the name of the current exhibition. Indeed, you will only find inner peace again outside.

The sun has broken through the clouds, and we treat ourselves to a traditional Engadin nut cake from the museum café before we leave. We reflect on how incredibly rich the contrasts have been between everything have seen over the last 48 hours: life and death at the Segantini Museum; old and new in Tarasp; intellectual in the earthy Susch. Perhaps there is harmony in opposites. Via the Vereina Pass, we leave the mountains behind us – but we have no doubt that the impressions will remain forever.

Charlotte Fischli is a writer, consultant and content creator exploring the worlds of fashion, interior and design.

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