Society for Art History in Switzerland

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The Society for Art History in Switzerland (German: Gesellschaft für Schweizerische Kunstgeschichte (GSK), French: Société d'histoire de l'art en Suisse (SHAS), Italian: Società di storia dell' arte in Svizzera (SSAS)) is a Swiss learned society dedicated to promoting the understanding of Swiss art history and particularly of Swiss topography of art, including the study and maintenance of Swiss cultural heritage sites.

The society founded in 1880 publishes a wide range of monographies, guides and inventories. These include the series Art monuments of Switzerland (German: Kunstdenkmäler der Schweiz, French: Monuments d'art et d'histoire de la Suisse), which includes more than hundred volumes, the first of which was published in 1927. It also publishes the quarterly journal Kunst und Architektur in der Schweiz.

The origins of the «Gesellschaft für schweizerische Kunstgeschichte» (Society for the history of art in Switzerland)[edit]

Precursor of the Swiss National Museum and the Federal Commission of Historic Monuments[edit]

The «Gesellschaft für schweizerische Kunstgeschichte GSK» (Society for the history of art in Switzerland SHAS), named thus since 1934, was founded in June 1880 in Zofingen under the name of the «Vaterländische Gesellschaft für Erhaltung historischer Denkmäler» (Patriotic Society for the preservation of historic monuments). Its creation was due to important personalities, members of the Schweizerischer Kunstverein (Swiss society of fine arts), and its first president was the Genevan painter, Theodore de Saussure, grandson of the celebrated naturalist Horace-Bénédict de Saussure. The vice-presidency was held by the Zurich art historian Johann Rudolf Rahn. The «Patriotic society for the preservation of historic monuments» had as its aim to preserve and restore architectural monuments, but also to save scattered works of art by bringing them together in museums, to arouse a better understanding for the «fine arts» and to support artists, painters and sculptors. In the statutes adopted at the meeting of this committee on 20 June 1880, the name of the society was altered to «Verein für Erhaltung vaterländischer Kunstdenkmäler» (Association for the preservation of artistic monuments of the fatherland). The regulations stipulated that the sums received must be divided and entered in the accounts in two equal shares to be used, on the one hand, to finance publications and, on the other hand, to buy works of art and old objects of value. This second part of the fund was also allocated for the restoration of historic monuments that were at risk of being destroyed or falling into ruin.

The association changed its name once more at the general meeting in Lausanne in 1881 to become the «Schweizerische Gesellschaft für Erhaltung historischer Kunstdenkmäler» (Swiss society for the preservation of historic art monuments). It then dealt mainly with buying items and buildings of national importance, without neglecting its publications. A brief treatise on the reliquary cross of Engelberg (end of the 12th or beginning of the 13th century) appeared in 1881 from the pen of the art historian Johann Rudolf Rahn. The same author wrote a description of the stained glass window dating from 1530 in the Reformed Church of St Saphorin (Vaud), then an article on the Casa Borrani (or Serodine) in Ascona with its baroque façade.

At the general meeting in 1882, a request was made to set up an inventory of buildings requiring preservation or restoration works and of objets d'art which were at risk of being destroyed or sold.

In March 1884, the Federal Department of the Interior responded to a motion on the subject of the creation of a Swiss National Museum and entrusted the «Society for the preservation of historical art monuments» with the acquisition of a certain number of objects of its choice, but the ownership of which would revert to the Confederation. In the implementing ordinance of 25 February 1887, a Federal Commission for the Preservation of Antiquities of Switzerland was created and its competences and duties were passed to the committee of the «Society for the preservation of historical art monuments». In the same year, the statutes of the latter were adapted to its new function.

Creation of the Swiss National Museum[edit]

In 1891, the Federal Council (Swiss Government) founded the Swiss National Museum with its head office in Zurich and the purchase of antiquities then no longer came within the competence of the «Society for the preservation of historical art monuments». This decision was confirmed on 12 March 1892. The Society continued its inventory, preservation and restoration work on historic works of art, and excavations. In 1896, Karl Stehlin, then President of the Society (1895–1898) who had succeeded Julius Kunkler (1888–1895), was called on to take charge of a new subsidiary research commission relating to the Roman period. Josef Zemp (1898–1904 and 1915–1916) and Albert Naef, who took over the presidency from Zemp between 1904 and 1915, pleaded for equality of treatment of the different old styles, rejecting any organisation of the periods into a hierarchy. They attached great importance to as complete a job of preservation as possible of the authentic work and a distinction between what was original and what was reconstructed, in order to avoid any pastiche. Starting from 1899, the «Anzeiger für schweizerische Altertumskunde» (Directory of Swiss Antiquities), published by the Swiss National Museum, served as the official organ of the «Society for the preservation of historical art monuments», complemented from 1901 on by the publication of the Communications in two editions, German and French. The first issue of this series was devoted to the stained-glass windows of the chancel of the church in Oberkirch near Frauenfeld and the Weinmarkt (wine market) fountain in Lucerne, with texts by Johann Rudolf Rahn and Josef Zemp. The state archivist Robert Durrer edited the statistics of the monuments of Obwalden and Nidwalden, published in a supplement to the «Anzeiger für schweizerische Altertumskunde» and reprinted in 1971.

At the same time, in 1900 Paul Ganz suggested the establishment of a directory with photographs of old stained-glass windows in Switzerland, as well as working drawings and designs of stained-glass windows. Appointed director of the Art Museum in Basle, he succeeded in building up a small collection by 1902 which became the starting point of the «Archiv für schweizerische Kunstgeschichte» (Archives of the history of art in Switzerland). At the same time, Johann Rudolf Rahn began to draw up an inventory of Switzerland’s art and history monuments.

Creation of the «Eidgenössische Kommission für Denkmalpflege» (Federal Commission of Historic Monuments)[edit]

In 1915, the Department of the Interior created a Federal Commission of Historic Monuments and the Society’s activity in the field of the preservation of monuments thus had to come to an end. Funds of 2000 francs – later 3000 – for «small restoration works» were, however, granted to the Society as consolation. These funds were paid until 1960. Having thus been successively relieved of two essential tasks, that is the acquisition or works of art and the preservation of monuments, the Society devoted itself from then on more intensely to the publication of works.

The «Inventar der Kunstdenkmäler der Schweiz» (Inventory of Monuments of art and history of Switzerland)[edit]

In 1920, under the presidency of the Genevan architect Camille Martin (1916–1922), the scholarly inventory of Switzerland’s art and history monuments was able to commence: Samuel Guyer undertook the architectural inventory of the canton of Zurich, Linus Birchler that of the cantons of Schwyz and Uri. The Society’s committee submitted a request for grants to the federal authorities and drew up rules in 1924 to determine the organisation of these far-reaching works. In 1925, in agreement with the Department of the Interior and various scholarly associations, the Society undertook the publication of the national inventory of the Monuments of art and history of Switzerland in close collaboration with the cantons. The first volume, devoted to three districts of the canton of Schwyz, that is Einsiedeln, March and Höfe, appeared in 1927. It was the work of the architectural historian Linus Birchler, the first president of the Federal Commission of Historic Monuments.

Since then, more than 120 volumes of this collection have been published. They were complemented between 1982 and 2004 by the «Inventar der neueren Schweizer Architektur, 1850-1920 INSA» (Swiss inventory of architecture), a collection of eleven volumes. The «Society for the history of art in Switzerland» also publishes the «Schweizerischer Kunstführer» (Guides to Swiss monuments), a series launched in 1935 by Paul Ganz, of regional or cantonal guides, special issues touching on specific subjects linked to the history of art and architecture, as well as its quarterly revue «Kunst+Architektur in der Schweiz» (Art+Architecture in Switzerland).


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