Ticino: the sun, the peace, the water, and…the Revolution


It is said that upon emerging from the Gotthard Tunnel on the Ticino side, one finds oneself in a new, tropical country, leaving the often cold and foggy northern region of Switzerland behind. However, when I first got out of the car in Canton Ticino – after a brilliant drive through warm sunshine that lasted until the entrance to the tunnel – I was knocked back by a cold, wet wind.

Was this the famous Ticino weather that so many tourists flock to, and so many of Europe’s great artists and intellectuals took refuge in?

However, as we continued down toward Ascona, the wind and cold started to subside, the sun started to peek out and I started to realise why this area has been a haven for so many decades. By the time we parked our car, I too had fallen in love with Ascona’s beautiful medieval streets, breathtaking view of Lago Maggiore and its surrounding mountains speckled by white houses, as well as the tranquil atmosphere of this small, but lively town.

In homage to this attractive and unique atmosphere, the Museo Comunale d’Arte Moderna of Ascona, housed in the Palazzo Pancaldi (a splendidly remodelled late 16th-century building), is now featuring an exhibit of work by many great European artists who lived and worked in Ticino for a large part of their careers.

museo comunale

Organizing the show, called L’Energia Del Luogo: Alla Ricerca Del Genius Loci, was a major undertaking. Not only did a great number of exhibition venues from the region take part, but there was also cross-continental collaboration with the Kettle’s Yard University Museum in Cambridge.

“The idea for the show was Sebastiano Barassi’s, the curator of the Kettle’s Yard collection of Cambridge … who wanted to focus on the relationships between the artists who lived in the Locarno region,” says Dr. Mara Folini, curator at the Ascona museum.

The exhibition features the work of modernists like Jean Arp, Hans Richter and Julius Bissier, whose work is also currently on exhibit in many other Ticino museums and galleries. Others like Italo Valenti, Mark Tobey, Ben Nicholson and Raffael Benazzi are featured as well. They came to Ticino in search of good weather, peace and beauty, and to form a community of artists that collaborated, exchanged ideas and created an artistic discourse that influenced future generations. Bissier wrote of this atmosphere as “the roundhouse of international spirits”.

Julius Bissier
3.9.56 II
Trempe à l’oeuf sur toile
32 x 37.5 cm
Museo Cantonale d’Arte, Lugano. Donation Lizbeth Bissier

This exhibit focuses on the period of the 1950s–1960s, and will be on view through July 5. At the Casa Serodine, where another part of the exhibit is on display, there is also a separate section devoted to Monte Verità and the early modernist migration to these parts of Ticino in the first two decades of the 20th century.


Monte Verità – an artist and intellectual colony – was established in 1889 by Swiss theosopher Alfredo Pioda, motivated to return to nature by the negative impacts rapid industrialisation were having on Europe. He called his group of followers Fraternitas, a secular convent governed by the belief in naturism, spiritism, vegetarianism and theosophical ideals.

monte verita
Sculpture by Jean Arp
Monte Verita
Photo by Olga Stefan

In 1900, Henri Oedenkoven and Ida Hofmann established a more modern community on Monte Verità, but based on similar principles.

Writers Hermann Hesse, Erich Maria Remarque, Thomas Mann and André Gide all spent time there. Isodora Duncan and other dancers, and artists like Marianne Werefkin, Alexej Jawlensky and Jean Arp were among those who participated in performances and collective painting exercises in the nude – creating scandals among the traditional residents of Ascona and Locarno who frowned upon the left-wing politics and the free-spirited ideals of Monte Verita’s occupants.

Monte Verita
Dance to the sun
Photo of photo in the exhibit

Many revolutionaries and anarchists also participated in Monte Verità’s activities. It is even rumored Lenin himself may have visited the colony while in exile in Zurich before the Russian Revolution, but that has not been confirmed.

The Baron von der Heydt, who owned the property beginning with the mid 20s, donated it to the Ticino government in 1956, and in 1989 it opened as a museum and tourist attraction. In 1992 it was renovated by local architect Livio Vacchini and remains a place of great beauty and tranquillity with a spectacular view over Lago Maggiore, as well as trails for short but pleasant hikes through lush woods.

Locarno, the nearest town to Ascona and another popular vacation spot, has a superb boardwalk, perfect for after-dinner promenades. Thanks to its location in the middle of the valley, it also accumulates the most sunshine hours anywhere in Switzerland.

Casa Rusca Pinacoteca Comunale, Locarno’s art museum, is sharing the role of host to the L’Energia Del Luogo: Alla Ricerca Del Genius Loci exhibit with the Museo Comunale d’Arte Moderna in Ascona.

In the exhibition catalogue, art historian and catalogue author Veronica Provenzale explains how the establishment of Monte Verità in 1900 and tradition of European migration “ … set Ascona, and its surrounding area, apart as a place where the individual can seek him- or herself, and [the] fresh paths through the unspoilt countryside and light-filled landscape, [became] the chosen destination of naturists, theosophists and utopians, of anarchists and political exiles, and also of artists, painters, sculptors and dancers.”

The exhibit will be on view at the Casa Rusca Pinacoteca Comunale and the Atelier Remo Rossi also until July 5.

Locarno is also famous for its open-air international Film Festival, which takes place every summer in the Piazza Grande. The festival has shown the work of famous directors like Roberto Rossellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini and René Clair, even launching many of their careers in its more than 63 years of programming.

Piazza Grande
Photo by Olga Stefan

If visiting the city, the Santuario Madonna del Sasso, built in 1487, is a sight not to be missed. Perched high above the town centre overlooking the lake, this ochre-coloured monastery can be reached by funicular or a pleasant hike through the lush Torrente Ramogno ravine.

Photo by Olga Stefan

Ticino’s largest town, Lugano, has had its own share of famous residents, from rock stars like George Harrison and Robert Palmer to modernist writers like Hermann Hesse and James Joyce.

Currently the 100-year anniversary of the launch of the Futurist movement with Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto is currently being celebrated throughout Europe, and Lugano is hosting an exhibition dedicated to Milanese futurist artist Umberto Boccioni’s short but important career. The exhibition at the Museo d’Arte covers Boccioni’s career from prefuturism, when he dabbled in all the modernist movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Impressionism, Symbolism, and Cubism to Futurism, the style in which he settled and for which he is known. Complementing the Boccioni exhibition is a smaller show of the work of Primo Conti, also an Italian painter, who was much influenced by Boccioni, and whose work followed much the same path as his master’s.



Near the old centre of Lugano is the Museo Cantonale d’Arte. Here visitors can find a major exhibition with modern and contemporary work from the permanent collection, Opere dalla collezione, in a beautifully renovated palazzo from the 15th century. Many of the artists whose works are on display lived large parts of their lives in Ticino during the mid-to-late 20th century.

Some familiar names are Julius Bissier, Meret Oppenheim, Jean Arp and Hans Richter, part of the avant-garde movement. There are also contemporary art works from the post-minimalist period of the 1980s.

Meret Oppenheim
Besonnte Felder
Huile sur pavatex
50 x 70 cm
Museo Cantonale d’Arte, Lugano

As seen in the L’Energia Del Luogo show featuring Bissier, his work evolved from early Realist rendering to his characteristic abstract signs. Like most of his contemporaries, Bissier went through many stages of the modernist movements, like Impressionism and Surrealism, before finding his own style among Oriental philosophies and symbol-based calligraphies, thus reaching a simple and gestural language that he believed also brought him closer to truth and spirituality.

Artists Meret Oppenheim and Hans Richter are historically associated with the Dada movement. Richter was not only a visual artist, but a filmmaker and political activist whose creative impetus was of l’artiste engagé in opposition to war, and in support of progressive and revolutionary causes. His work also passed through many phases, including Cubism and Expressionism. In 1940 he moved to New York, but after 1958 he split his time between the United States and Ticino.

Hans Richter
Lokomotivseele. Visionäres Portrait
Huile sur toile
53.4 x 38.2 cm
Museo Cantonale d’Arte, Lugano

Oppenheim, strongly influenced by her aunt who had been married for some time to Hermann Hesse, was a very independent, liberated and non-traditional woman for her time. She was considered a Dadaist for many years, but due to her interest in aesthetics and several exhibitions with Surrealists like Man Ray and Max Ernst, she has since become accepted as an important figure in the Surrealist movement. Oppenheim was part Swiss and had a studio in Carona, near Lugano.

Another exhibition at the Museo Cantonale is a contemporary one of the powerhouse duo huber.huber. Reto and Markus Huber, twins from Zurich who have been winning awards and exhibiting around Switzerland in a frenzy of late, create exhibitions featuring several mediums, including collage, sculpture, installation, charcoal drawing and decoupage.

One of the most fascinating pieces in the exhibition, Lethe is an installation of thin fishing lines, hundreds of them, hanging down from the ceiling equidistantly from each other, onto which dead flies are attached at various lengths to create the impression of a swarm when looked at from a distance. You can catch this piece, and several other works by the duo, at the Kunsthaus Luzern in December 2009.

Lethe1 (Glarus-Lugano)
flies, fishing line
size variable
Courtesy of the artist

A third exhibition featured the works of painter Francis Bott, a compilation of a hundred or so pieces donated to the museum by the artist’s wife after his death. The show outlines Bott’s career, specifically the long years he spent with Surrealism, and ultimately ends with his work with geometric abstraction so popular in the 50s and 60s. But for me, Francis Bott was more interesting as a character than as a visual artist. His life reads like a novel as he passed through all of Europe’s most important historical events – political upheaval, war, and artistic revolution. He wandered through these episodes and was an actual player in many of them.

Near Lugano in the small mountain village of Montagnola is the Hermann Hesse Museum, featuring an exhibition focusing on three of the important women in his life. Not only artists in their own right, they also had a significant impact on Hesse’s writing.

“The aim of the exhibition is to show the work of these artists as well as to testify their relationship with Hermann Hesse through the story of their lives,“ explains the exhibition curator, Eva Zimmermann.

My trip to Ticino proved not only a wonderful vacation, full of warmth, sunshine, glistening lakes, magnificent medieval architecture and awe-inspiring mountain views, but a cultural escapade that brought me through the many chapters of the last century of European history.

So many of Europe’s luminaries created important work here that it is almost difficult to imagine what a major part of modern heritage would have looked like if Ticino had not been able to offer them this respite from urban alienation and anxiety, war and political turmoil, and the stresses of the modern world.

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