Imagine walking into a completely empty gallery full of the most stunning collection of paintings that you have never seen before by all of your favourite artists. That’s what I did this week. I’m in Zurich and yesterday took a half hour train trip to Wintertur where a colleague had insisted that I went. There are so many galleries in this small town that there is a special bus from the station that can drop you off at any of the five major art collections – I managed three.
Oskar Reinhart, a business man who made his money from importing Indian cotton, starting collecting pictures in his early twenties. He began with paintings and drawings from Germany, Austria and Switzerland from the late 18th century and then became fascinated with French Impressionists and Post Impressionists. The collection that he made never leaves the Swiss city, so apart from one or two in reproduction they can only be viewed by going to Wintertur.
As I walked into the gallery at Romerholz, where the most interesting part of the collection is housed, I remembered what it is really like to look at a painting. My partner and I had the gallery to ourselves and we could see through a vista of rooms to all the delights to come. We had been greeted in the first corridor with a small blue Cezanne self portrait, hung much lower than normal, as I stood it was directly in my eye line, an experience I have never had in a gallery before. Cezanne, eyes slightly turned to the right, was looking straight at me. I could go very close and take in the thin straight brush strokes and then stand back and struggle to understand how those brushstrokes could make that intelligent gaze and receding hairline look as three dimensional as a sculpture. No one stopped me from peering at the painting from a few inches away, no one got in my way when I stood back. I could really look until I began to get to know the painting a bit. This experience was repeated throughout the gallery. A nativity by Bruegel The adoration of the Kings in the Snow was entirely mine for the ten minutes that I stood in front of it. I had never seen it before and tried to work out how the falling snow seemed so wet and partly translucent – often snow is painted as solid forms, which it is not. Grayson Perry when asked after his first Reith Lecture which painting he would most like to possess mentioned a Bruegel painting of snow. I don’t know whether he was referring to this one but I could imagine the brown figures in the snow happily wrapped around one of his large pots.
It is often said that some collectors have a good eye. Oskar Reinhart had an exemplary one. He wasn’t interested in having a Van Gogh or a Renoir or a Cezanne because they were great painters, he was only interested in the painting that was really good and he knew one when he saw it, and would sometimes wait years to acquire it.
It is vey rare to see a collection of paintings where each one represents the best work of the artist. Van Gogh’s portrait of Augustine Roulin is an extraordinarily daring painting. It is a painting in three colours, yellow green and red brown. Madame Roulin is wearing a green dress; she sits in a wooden chair against an ochre and acid yellow background. Through the window behind her are enormous bulbs bursting out of earthenware pots. Madame Roulin herself seems to be bursting out of her clothes. There is something odd and compelling about it. There seemed to be no glass in the painting. I could have touched the paint if I had wanted.
There were ten paintings by Corot, the most I have ever seen together except in a special exhibition. The smallest of them Bridge Near Mantes captivated me. Two feathery, pollarded willows stand in front of a creamy green bridge. Above the bridge there is a small house with large chimneys and on the bridge is a small figure dressed in red on a pony or donkey, the essential tiny spot of red typical of Corot. I wanted to live with this picture, to take it home and own it and to see it every day. I stood very close to it to take in the wispy willows and the perfectly positioned person on the bridge. The whole was simply perfection, everything was in exactly the right place to satisfy my brain patterns. I wanted to slip it into my pocket. Every ten minutes or so a woman in a smart suit would look into the room where I was to check that I wasn’t doing exactly that, otherwise there was a stillness and peace that went perfectly with the concentrated act of looking.
I thought of all those hundreds of exhibitions I had been to where the process of looking is restricted to waiting in line to see a painting or of collapsing on a bench exhausted with the process only to contemplate the back views of those lucky enough to be in the right place. This is no way to educate one’s ability to look. A personal rhythm so essential for looking at paintings is completely lost in the throng of the modern art gallery going. In a desperate bid to outdo the crowds I often start at the end of an exhibition and go backwards, I run against the flow and towards the bottleneck of the start. I doubt that this achieves very much but it makes me feel that I have some independence in this collective mania. Of course this has nothing to do with appreciation and everything to do with an event ticked off the list. Anyone who understands about looking at pictures knows this of course but the valuelessness of overpopulated London exhibitions was brought home to me in Wintertur. A change like this needs savouring I shall go back again before I return to London.
On a second trip to Wintertur with a friend visiting from London, I wondered whether the effect would be so dramatic as the first time. There were some other people this time so the sense of owning the gallery space was different, but there was still plenty of room to look as one wished. The Bruegel was even more magical the second time around. This time the snow appeared to be on a different plane than the brown hues of the painting, standing out from the background as if in 3D. A small still life by Goya Still Life with Fruit, Bottles and Bread won my heart. After a while of looking at the painting I realised that it was making me vey hungry; the figs were ready to be peeled, the skin turning back to show the pink flesh beneath and the bread was solid and dense, good country bread. There was an ordinariness about this food and the pleasurable nature of hunger to be satisfied. Still Life with Salmon also by Goya, was hard to look at for long. Three cutlets of raw salmon ooze blood and are reminiscent of butchered human flesh. This is certainly ‘nature morte’ but symbolically about the brutality of the French-Spanish war. It would be hard to live with this extraordinary painting.
If you are in Switzerland for any reason make sure you make a trip to Wintertur.
To find out more visit the Museum web page.