Switzerland’s serene Engadine Valley has become the unlikely star of the European contemporary art world. We discover the revolutionary works in a fairy-tale setting. Text by Simon Willis, photographs by Clara Tuma
At first glance, the village of Susch looks sleepy and conservative. Sitting at the lower end of the Engadine Valley, Switzerland, it is little more than a cluster of Alpine dwellings, unchanged for centuries and housing just 200 people. Until recently, the main draw for visitors was a clinic for people with burnout, who chose to go there, presumably, because it is so quiet. It seems, in other words, an unlikely home for one of Europe’s boldest new contemporary art museums.
But, in 2019, that is what the village became, when the Muzeum Susch opened in two beautifully renovated buildings on the banks of the Inn River—one a 12th-century monastery and the other a 19th-century brewery. The museum was founded by Grażyna Kulczyk, a Polish entrepreneur who wanted a space to showcase works by female artists she felt had been overlooked by the art world. When I visited in December 2020, the main event was an exhibition devoted to Evelyne Axell, a Belgian painter who died in 1972 at age 37 and whose work shows off Kulczyk’s taste for radical expression. Axell studied with the surrealist painter René Magritte and embraced pop art before arriving at her signature style: joyfully erotic images of women’s bodies, painted in oil or collaged out of coloured plastic, through which she explored her own complex sexuality and ideas of female emancipation. Her pieces may have been executed in the psychedelic colours of the 1960s and 70s, but they resonate strongly in the era of #MeToo.
Disused and derelict when Kulczyk bought them, the monastery and brewery have been given a dramatic overhaul by two young Swiss architects, Chasper Schmidlin and Lukas Voellmy. On the monastery’s ground floor, formerly a stable, the alcoves where the horses were kept have been turned into chapel-like chambers for single works. Underfoot are the original cobblestones; a medieval stone horse trough runs along one wall.
Sensitive restoration in the monastery gives way to thrilling reinvention in the brewery. Schmidlin and Voellmy took advantage of the building’s large, industrial-scale to create soaring white cubes, the most spectacular of which is in a space where the brewers once stored the ice that kept their beer cool. They also used explosives to blast new caverns out of the mountainside, creating crepuscular exhibition spaces whose rough, bare-rock walls have been stained orange by the ferrous spring water that brought monks and brewers to the village in the first place. The result is a building that is partly a serene cultural temple, partly a mountain lair worthy of a Bond villain.
Muzeum Susch is just the latest addition to a growing network of contemporary art galleries that, over the past two decades, have turned the Engadine Valley into a dynamic corner of the art world. The region has a long artistic heritage, stretching back to the 19th-century Impressionist painter Giovanni Segantini, whose perfectly preserved house and atelier can be visited in the village of Maloja.
Contemporary art arrived in the valley in 1963 when Bruno Bischofberger, a Swiss dealer, opened a gallery in the ritzy ski resort of St. Moritz, about 40 kilometres from Susch. His reasons were not mysterious: St. Moritz was, and remains, a winter playground for the international jet set, and Bischofberger spotted an opportunity to sell them some art while they were on vacation. Among the names he represented were New York painters whose careers blew up in the early 1980s, including Julian Schnabel, David Salle, and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Until the early 2000s, Bischofberger was the only dealer in the area. But since then, more than 30 galleries and museums have opened. These include blue-chip establishments like Hauser & Wirth, which in 2018 added an Alpine outpost to its operations in Europe, Asia, and the United States. As Stefano Rabolli Pansera, the gallery’s director in St. Moritz, explained as he showed me around an exhibition of works by the late American painter Philip Guston, Hauser & Wirth’s founders were drawn by the mutually supportive ecology of the Engadine art world. “When the Muzeum Susch opened, it held an exhibition of work by women that included many of our artists,” he said. Among them was Monika Sosnowska, a Polish artist whose giant sculpture Stairs makes for a menacing mobile, hanging from the museum’s ceiling like a dinosaur’s skeleton. “If you come here as a collector,” Rabolli Pansera said, “you can have an incredible long weekend. There is nowhere else like this in the Alps.”
Other arresting spaces have opened in villages farther down the valley. Perched on a mountainside in Scuol is Tarasp Castle, a grand 11th-century fortification now run as a bastion of contemporary art by the eccentric Swiss sculptor, curator, and impresario Not Vital. More intimate are the galleries occupying traditional Engadine farmhouses between St. Moritz and Susch. At the Monica de Cardenas gallery, in the village of Zuoz, the art is exhibited in a warren of downstairs rooms originally designed to accommodate cattle, whose bodies, the story goes, helped warm the building. At Galerie von Bartha, in the village of S-chanf, an exhibition space has been built inside an immense old hay barn where farmhands used to sleep during the summer.
Perhaps the best of these is Galerie Tschudi, also in Zuoz, which opened in 2002 and became the first gallery of its kind in the region. Much of the building dates back to the 16th century, but its foundations are several hundred years older. In 1499, an army from Austria invaded this part of Switzerland, and rather than leave their villages to the foreign forces, the inhabitants burned them to the ground and fled into the mountains. All that was left behind was a series of stone lookout towers, and when the villagers came back they used those ruins as the base for new buildings. On the ground floor of Galerie Tschudi, the wall of one such tower, which dates back to 1304, is still visible. Under visitors’ feet are the stones that once covered the medieval streets.
Until the art dealer Elsbeth Bisig Tschudi moved in, the farmhouse still functioned as it always had: there was straw on the floor and chickens running around. “The stench was incredible,” Tschudi told me. On the day I visited, a shallow well in the floor of the basement, once used for storing manure, was now occupied by a sculpture by South African artist Kemang Wa Lehulere. It included a car tire, a school chair, and a porcelain dog.
Upstairs, Tschudi was installing a series of works by Bethan Huws, a Welsh sculptor and videographer, including a calming piece of video art, Écoute. The title, which means “listen” in French, is a multilingual pun: the film shows coots paddling and squawking on a misty pond. On the floor below were two pieces made of neon tubes, also by Huws. Their bright yellows and blues popped against the rough stone of the 14th-century tower. As at the Muzeum Susch, the architecture of the gallery provides an ancient backdrop that gives new work extra impact.
As the Endagone art world has grown, hotels have gotten in on the act. Some of the region’s grandes dames feature work by famous guests. The Kulm Hotel St. Moritz has paintings and screen prints by Andy Warhol, who was represented by Bruno Bischofberger at his gallery up the street. (Today, Bischofberger’s building is occupied by a different gallery run by Vito Schnabel, son of Julian.) The Waldhaus Sils, in Sils Maria, displays two small works by Gerhard Richter, in which the artist painted over photographs of Alpine landscapes. Richter, who has stayed at the Waldhaus frequently over the years, has also painted the hotel itself. Perched precipitously on a mountainside, it is reputed to be one of the inspirations for Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel.
More intimate is the Villa Flor, in the village of S-chanf. The hotel, which has seven rooms and dates back to 1904, is owned and run by Ladina Florineth. She was brought up in the Engadine, where her father worked as a mountain guide and was friendly with Bruno Bischofberger. It was through Bischofberger that Florineth got to know artists like Schnabel, whom she taught to ski and who has been a regular guest at her hotel since it opened in 2009.
Several years ago, a friend of Florineth’s who runs a gallery in Germany asked if she’d like to collaborate on a small exhibition. Since then she has invited artists and gallerists to show at the hotel. When I visited, the corridors were lined with paintings by Marc-Antoine Fehr, a Swiss artist who specialises in loosely painted, enigmatic landscapes. The pictures, some of which were propped up on shelves alongside piles of art books, add to the hotel’s atmosphere of casual sophistication.
Not all of the art fits in quite so easily. Villa Flor also features Florineth’s own collection, which includes a huge abstract canvas by Julian Schnabel that hangs in her office on the ground floor. It is so big that she had to cut a hole in the ceiling to accommodate it.
Etihad Airways flies from Delhi to Zurich via Abu Dhabi. S-Chanf is around three hours from Zurich Airport.
Engadine’s grandest property has been in business for more than 160 years; doubles from INR 73,447.
This small hotel in the village of Sent exhibits works by Alberto Giacometti; doubles from INR 12,039.
This charming seven-room property in S-chanf is a 20-minute drive from St. Moritz; doubles from INR 24,230.
This luxurious, if eccentric, hotel in Sils Maria has an idyllic forest setting; doubles from INR 44,295.
One of the region’s first galleries occupies a 16th-century house in Zuoz.
This S-chanf gallery is housed in a 15th-century hay barn.
The St. Moritz branch of this international gallery has a 409-square-metre exhibition space.
An extension of the Milan contemporary art gallery in Zuoz.
Works by contemporary women artists such as Monika Sosnowska and Joanna Rajkowska, housed in a handsomely restored monastery and brewery.
A small gallery in St. Moritz dedicated to the landscapes of Giovanni Segantini.
Swiss artist Not Vital’s gallery, set in an 11th- century castle in Scuol.
A St. Moritz venue for contemporary art, run by artist Julian Schnabel’s son.