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Report 281: Daydreaming in Switzerland

By azwaniecki from Washington D.C., Summer 2003

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Page 3 of 4: Art and Ordinary Beauty in Vaud

Back in Lausanne we stayed at a small family-run hotel, Bellerive, in Ouchy, close to a beachfront park on the Lake Geneva shore. While not as picturesque as Locarno, Lausanne has the charm of its own.

We enjoyed the Old Town with Place de la Palud at its center and covered stairs leading up to the cathedral. We stayed away from the waterfront in Ouchy because it looked as it was hijacked by skaters and cheap-food establishments, but we did day trips to the posh resorts of Vevey and Montreux and the treasure of a city - Bern. We loved the beautiful waterfront promenade with beds of flowers and manicured trees in Vevey from where we took a boat to Chillon Castle (Lord Byron was a prisoner of that castle.) The town itself is so charming that we would gladly return there just to absorb its relaxing atmosphere. And we liked arcades and fountains of Bern, which was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

In both Lausanne and Bern, however, we were greatly disappointed by famous cathedrals. Both Notre-Dame in Lausanne and Munster in Bern are impressive and intricate structures. But being accustomed to ornate and intricately decorated interiors of Catholic churches, we could not find the beauty inside the cathedrals. From within they looked like empty shells, more cavernous storage rooms than sacred spaces. Nevertheless, we grew appreciative of believers who would pray and feel the presence of God in such austere spaces.

The only time a Swiss church made a strong impression on us was when we listened to a rehearsal of JD Zelenka's Missa Dei Patris in Temple de la Madeleine, one of the oldest churches in Geneva. We entered the church when the rehearsal was in process and sat quietly while the conductor, Geneva singers and French musicians from Annency did not pay any attention to us. Filled with magnificent spiritual music, Temple de la Madeleine was alive and beautiful.

The highlight of our stay in Lausanne was the Collection de l'Art Brut, the museum devoted to so called "raw art" or art created by ordinary people. We knew this kind of art before. But these works created by several dozen people from different parts of the world (mostly from Europe, though) made strong impression on us. Not only do they show the unsuspected creative power of human imagination, but they also are a proof that the border between the established art and the "raw art" is blurrier and less defined than it is normally admitted. In addition, the museum's collection is a testament to another blurry line - between inspiration and mental illness. Some of the artists had mental problems and some others were borderline cases. I am sure fans of Oliver Sacks' books would find this museum particularly interesting.

When we entered the museum, I started scribbling the names of artists, works of whom I found particularly striking for one or another reason. But after a while I stopped because they were so many. The temporary exhibition in the museum was devoted to paintings of Margueritte Burnat-Provins (1872-1952), the French poetess and painter who lived in Switzerland. She painted visionary, hallucinatory images of people and animals, sometimes in symbolic symbiosis.

Other good exhibitions we saw were those of Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele in Museo d'Arte Moderna in Lugano and the print and drawing collection of French artists and collector Alexis Forel (it included works by Renaissance artists, Rembrandt, and Impressionists) at Musee Jenisch in Vevey. However, the problem with Swiss art museums is that while they can count on rich sponsors (banks) to organize world-class exhibitions, they tend to be smallish. So whenever they mount a major show, they close their permanent collections. As a result, we couldn't see the permanent collections of any museum we visited in Lugano or that of Musee Jenisch.

The final stop on our itinerary was Geneva. We went there reluctantly for only a half a day discouraged by friends who viewed it as a boring, stiff, and unworthy. It turned out to be none of the above, at least from the tourist point of view. Perhaps, because the weather was beautiful, perhaps as a result of our expectations being so low, we found Geneva a lively, atmospheric city filled with sidewalk cafes, galleries and all other trappings of a European metropolis. We had only time to walk through the Old Town and visit Jardin Anglais on the waterfront. But that was enough to realize that we would rather have more time to explore the city. Maybe next time!

We were leaving Switzerland overwhelmed by its beauty and impressed by how civilized the Swiss are. Just to give you few examples of the latter. Drivers customarily brake well ahead of a pedestrian waiting on the sidewalk to encourage him/her to cross the street. In Washington D.C., drivers normally try hard to zip by just in front of your nose even if you are in the middle of a crossing. The Swiss trains (EuroCities and InterCities) have designated "quite cars" where cell phones are barred and loud conversation is discouraged. But the enforcement of these and other rules doesn't seem blind. When we entered the upper deck of a boat on the Lake Geneva without paying attention to the fact the deck was designated for 1st class passenger only, a conductor admonished us politely for our inattention but let us stay on it until the end of the trip. "This time only!" he said with a smile.


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