I am constantly struck by the passion that other people, other countries – in contrast to our own – bring to the task of preserving their past, taking true pride in their heritage. Even a casual visit to all those countless sites and places in Europe, which wear with grace the patina of time, would tell one of this. There is an element of commerce in this, to be sure, particularly at places that have an obvious touristy charm. But, then, why not, one asks oneself? Especially when all of that is done with care and elegance, unlike here, where the greasy hand of commerce comes quickly to rule, soiling everything in sight.
I was at Gruyere, in the French-speaking part of Switzerland: drawn as much by accounts of the beauty of the landscape of that region, as by my fondness for the ripe, tangy cheese – bearing the same name –, which that region produces. The air there is remarkably fresh, and the landscape stunning, with vast green vistas which one sees from the height of the place, and limpid views of the snow-clad Alps rising behind.
But, at the heart of it all – after one has run the gauntlet of cheese and souvenir shops and chalet-like eating-places – stands the old castle of Gruyere, reminder of the power that the Dukes of the place once wielded, and of course of the scars that time has left upon it. But this was no empty, unpeopled castle, I was to discover. It had been turned into a showcase of art.
The visitor, after having registered on his mind carefully, through boards and pennants, the finely drawn stork-like bird that was part of the ancient family’s coat of arms, was first invited to pull at the cord that hung close to the outer gate – something that made a huge bell ring and reverberate in the valley below. And then there was the tour of the medieval castle in which one moved – there were streams of visitors – from room to spacious room, filled, even if sparsely, with artefacts that belonged to the past and were a part of its history: centuries old tapestries, elegantly carved furniture, fine weaponry, remains of fading frescoes on the walls, ageing paintings in oil, curling documents with flamboyant signatures and vivid seals. A distant age was evoked, every installation clearly explained, down to the names of the personages under whom additions to the structure had been made, or whose costumes still lay draped on beds.
But, finely done as all of it is, this was in many ways predictable. What gave to the place an altogether different air was the impressive range of contemporary art that filled some of the halls of the old castle, and its well-laid courtyards. This no visitor to the historic castle could have been prepared for: everyone was taken by surprise. But, curiously, there was no dissonance. All these twentieth century works seemed to merge remarkably well with their medieval surroundings: the old architecture and the new canvases or sculptures drew upon each other, in fact. This, because the works, or the artists – the designated rooms and courtyards are used as spaces for changing exhibitions – were clearly selected with great care. Not everything contemporary could have worked, I am sure, in that setting: selection must, therefore, have been of the essence. What was on view, when I visited the castle, was work mostly of a figurative, surrealistic kind, mysterious in many ways, embedded in dark layers of the mind. That of an Italian sculptor, Inglesi, comes vividly back to mind. Nearly everything of his was in bronze, and the pieces were life-size: bent, crawling figures of women rendered as if they were beasts of burden, gnarled hands pointing accusingly in some direction, young girls seated in resigned postures, or rising as if suddenly moved by some hidden fire, angered. The works were finely conceived, and executed with great skill, but they were undoubtedly enhanced by the stony, medieval setting. One sensed in them suggestions of what must have gone on, darkly, behind those solid walls, once; and it was as if they really belonged here, to this very specific space; Inglesi could not have been commissioned to do this work by the local authorities of Gruyere, but someone there did think of the idea of having changing exhibitions – in and around the castle – of "l’art fantastique", as the French call it. And Inglesi’s work fitted into the spaces as if it had been made for them.
So did the work of Milan Goldschmiedt, done in the ‘fantastic’ mode. A large number of his paintings were on view, displayed against uneven walls. Nearly all of them were richly coloured, like those stained glass windows in medieval churches, and nearly all of them contained subtle references to other works, to a different time.
Especially engaging, among what I saw, was a complete series by him, based on the twelve signs of the zodiac. Here he had taken images that are all too familiar – certainly to those who take interest in the stars, and read in them signs – and updated them, with wit laced by slyness. Virgo, the virgin, thus, stood coyly, like a fashion model, under an arch, against a fantastic, receding and desert-like, plain dotted with an odd vine or fruit, against a rich blue sky featuring the appropriate constellation.
Nothing seems, however, to be consistent in the image: the swaying movement of the body, and the lush orange-coloured hair, contrast starkly with her flattened, shrivelling arms; the dry branches she wields in her hands look like some medieval weapons; her doll-like form rises from, or merges into, a rocky formation even as an elegant purse is slung across her body, resting against a firm thigh. Dali-like, the painter throws out suggestions in everyone of these frames: Taurus, Aquarius, Leo, Scorpio, and the like, all partaking of the same intriguing quality, cutting across time, fitting into a new space.
Like at other places of its kind in Europe – not in our land – one saw quiet efficiency at work at Gruyere, too. If anyone wanted to pick up a memento, or a reproduction, there were of course the slightly noisy shops outside the castle precincts. But, inside the old castle, there was a little shop, too, where everyone moved with a smooth grace, and small objects immediately relevant to the impressions left by the visit could be had for very reasonable, not rapacious, sums.
There were reproductions, of course, and beautifully printed postcards. But also could be had little ‘activity’ things for the young. Such as the finely crafted, collapsed cardboard model of the castle made to exact proportions which a child, for whom I brought one, is working on re-assembling at this very moment: quietly, and efficiently.