ALPINE AVANT-GARDE
Travel+Leisure India|January 2022
Switzerland’s serene Engadine Valley has become the unlikely star of the European contemporary art world . Simon Will is discovers revolutionary works in a fairy-tale setting .
Simon Will

AT FIRST GLANCE, the village of Susch looks sleepy and conservative. Sitting at the lower end of the Engadine Valley, in southeastern 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.

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