Lucerne: through the eyes of Turner

    27 May 2019

    In association with Switzerland Tourism 


    Lucerne’s Kunstmuseum celebrates its 200th birthday this year, and what better way to mark this anniversary than with an exhibition by Britain’s greatest landscape painter, Joseph Mallord William Turner? Turner — Das Meer und die Alpen (The Sea and the Alps), at the Kunstmuseum from 6th July to 13th October, brings together a hundred of Turner’s revolutionary paintings — paintings which did so much to put Lucerne on the map.

    Beside Switzerland’s most eye-catching lake, surrounded by some of its most dramatic mountains, Lucerne is a must-see destination for visitors from all around the world. But it was British travellers such as J.M.W Turner who turned it into a tourist resort. Between 1802 and 1844, Turner visited Switzerland six times, passing through Lucerne five of those times. The powerful pictures he created inspired countless sightseers to follow in his footsteps, to see the breathtaking vistas he had painted.

    ‘Turner was quite a clever businessman,’ says Fanni Fetzer, the curator of this exhibition. ‘Other painters had already painted in the Netherlands, and in France and Italy — but there was almost nothing about Switzerland.’

    What was good business for Turner was good business for the Swiss. You could say they’ve got him to thank for their prosperity. ‘It was also the reason why Switzerland became a wealthy country,’ confirms Fetzer. ‘Before the first tourists arrived in Switzerland — and the first tourists were British — we were such a tiny, unimportant, poor country, you can hardly imagine!’

    KKL Concert Hall

    Today Switzerland is blessed with the world’s best railways, but travelling around wasn’t so easy in Turner’s day. In his paintings, however, Turner turned this adversity to his advantage. It was his pictures of perilous mountain passes besieged by stormy weather which lured sightseers to Lucerne, not pictures of placid lakes, becalmed beneath blue skies.

    Lucerne’s most spectacular excursion is the Golden Tour (or Goldene Rundfahrt): up Mount Pilatus by cable car, down the other side by mountain railway (the steepest cogwheel railway in the world, apparently) and back to Lucerne by steamship. The views are marvellous, but you won’t burn off many calories. For a really energetic hike, take the ferry to Weggis and walk up Mount Rigi, like the locals do.

    If you prefer a gentle stroll to a steep hike, head for Tribschen, the lakeside villa where Richard Wagner lived from 1866 to 1872. The six years he spent here were among the happiest of his life. He married his beloved Cosima here. She bore him two children here. Today, it’s a museum dedicated to him. From Lucerne, it’s a 40-minute walk to Tribschen, then 20 minutes back into town by ferry.

    Yet the reason I return to Lucerne is to see the Picassos at the Rosengart Collection. Founded by Angela Rosengart, this plush private gallery features several portraits that Pablo Picasso painted of her as a young woman. She never lends them to other galleries — for her, they’re far too personal. You have to come here to see them. For me, that only adds to their allure.

    Picasso was nearly 70 when Angela first met him. She was 17. ‘I was so impressed that I couldn’t utter a word!’ she recalled, when I met her here a few years ago. ‘You have a beautiful daughter!’ Picasso told her father. ‘It was the first time a man had paid me a compliment,’ she told me. ‘I was thrilled.’

    Angela’s father was an art dealer, and a good friend of Picasso’s. She met the painter lots of times, and became relaxed in his company. She also met Braque, Chagall, Miro and Matisse, but none of them compared. ‘Picasso was the most exciting, and each of these meetings was extraordinary. It was wonderful to talk with the others, but they never made such a deep impression.’

    So what was it like, having your portrait painted by Picasso? ‘I always felt burnt out afterwards,’ she said. ‘I felt he was taking everything from me.’ Angela never married. She had no children. She was an only child. ‘He was always very kind and polite to me — loving, but never aggressive.’ His childhood sweetheart, I later learned, was a Spanish girl called Angela.

    Visit Switzerland Tourism for more information.