Traditional crafts – By artists and experts.

©Fabrice Wagner

©Fabrice Wagner

The importance of arts and crafts is closely bound up with the history of tourism in many places in Switzerland, although the distinctions between trades, folk art and handicrafts are blurred.

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Brienz woodcarving

In the famine of 1816, wood turner Christian Fischer from Brienz started decorating everyday objects with wood carvings and selling them to tourists. In order to meet growing demand he soon began teaching the skill to people from the region. In 1851, Brienz woodcarving achieved international recognition at the London World Exhibition. «Brienz Woodcarving School» was founded in 1884, becoming an educational institution and official training workshop of the canton of Berne in 1928. Now known as the «School of Woodcarving», the institution is the only place in Switzerland where young people can learn the art of woodcarving. Since 2009 the school has also provided vocational training for new turners, basket makers, coopers and white-wood coopers. Today, professional woodcarvers run independent businesses, fulfilling demanding contracts but also producing souvenirs, since the ties between woodcarving and tourism remain strong after two hundred years despite various attempts at diversification. Because the products and the historical and practical knowledge of «Schnätzen» (woodcarving) are threatened by the changing generations, the « Association for the Collection and Exhibition of Brienz Woodcarvings » was established in 1990, in turn establishing the « Swiss Woodcarving Museum » in 2009.

Shingle-making

Choosing the right wood, having an instinctive knack for splitting it and cutting each shingle at the correct angle: the art of the shingle-maker is as precise as it is timeless. Only ten or so shingle-makers remain in western Switzerland and they are masters of their craft. They work tirelessly to cover roofs and clad facades with hundreds of shingles, these thin wooden tiles that are mostly made of spruce. The wooden shingles are known by various names, depending on size and region (e.g. tavillons in the Fribourg and Vaud Alps). Shingles take on a silvery grey hue over the course of time as the wood protects itself against the elements. In Switzerland, the earliest examples date back to Gallo-Roman times and were made in Holderbank (Solothurn) and Oberwinterthur. They heralded a long tradition: the shingles on the Swiss plateau were not replaced by clay bricks until the 17th and 18th centuries, and they were still used in mountainous area until the 19th century. The advent of new materials and measures to prevent village fires resulted in a gradual decline in the use of wooden shingles. This is why they can only be admired on historic buildings, alpine cabins and mountain huts today. Roofs and facades made of wooden shingles are a typical feature of the Fribourg and Vaud alpine foothills. Facade shingles do not need to be replaced for 100 years. All of this proves that shingle-making is tough but worthwhile work; a craft that is executed with passion but threatened by the ever-diminishing market.

Poya painting

In the dialect of Fribourg, the simple two-syllable word «po-ya» describes the whole ascent to alpine pastures. Since the 1960s, however, this term has referred more specifically to the pictures of this important event in rural life. The poya, which symbolises the beginning of the productive season, first started to appear in the early 19th century on the facades of farmhouses in the foothills of the Fribourg Alps. Every livestock owner would decorate his farm with a picture of his own herd moving up the mountain in early summer. A poya shows a long procession of cows and other farm animals across the entire picture, accompanied by herders in tall hats and other items typical of mountain life. Sylvestre Pidoux (1800-1871) from Vuadens is considered to be the first painter of this genre. His works are to be seen as an enduring and yet evolving template that reflects the changes in the alpine economy and animal husbandry. Several hundred poyas can be found on the region’s farms today and there are around fifteen amateur painters who are capable of producing such pictures. Although the number of mountain farmers is declining, interest in poyas is on the increase and they are finding new buyers: their decorative qualities attract tourists, and they have passed over into interior design as well as a variety of different media. Poya paintings can also be admired in the Musée Gruérien in Bulle.

Furniture painting

Peasant art (Bauernmalerei) in Appenzell and Toggenburg is unique in alpine folk art. The present encompasses many forms of expression, and the past demonstrates the ambiguity of the term «peasant art ». In eastern Switzerland, painted works depicting rural life can be traced back to the 16th century. They find their expression in rough murals painted on wooden walls, upper pieces for Swiss or alliance window panes and peasant-style furniture painting between 1750 and 1850. In the 19th century, "Sennenstreifen" (long, narrow paintings of alpine cattle drives), milk pail bases, panel paintings and depictions of alpine cattle drives were done for farmers keen to show off their herds. In the second half of the 20th century changes were seen in both the artwork itself and in perceptions of it. People interested in art became interested in peasant art. Industry and tourism used the art as a means of advertising. Academics and enthusiasts pursued «real» peasant art and believed this could only be found in works of the past, considering modern pieces to be nostalgic, hobby or souvenir art. This misconception has since been corrected. There was, and still is, a great creative energy among the artists of the 20th century, including among farmers who paint. They have developed personal styles and found new forms of expression for the traditional subjects of alpine art.

Bernese peasant-style ceramics

The region of Thun-Heimberg-Langnau is well known throughout Europe for handmade ceramics with rich decorative engobes. The producers, mostly family businesses use traditional techniques to create small batches and unique pieces. For a long time, small farms made pots for their own use, giving rise to the term «peasant ceramics (Bauernkeramik)». In the early 18th century, five pottery centres were established in the canton of Berne, each with its own trademark features: Langnau, Heimberg and Albligen made crockery painted with engobe, whilst Simmental and Bäriswil produced white-glazed faience. Demand for peasant-style ceramics soared with tourism in the 19th century. In its heyday around 1900, many manufacturers presented decorative ceramics, exhibition pieces and Thun Majolica at fairs in Paris and London. The craft is at risk today, however, in spite of apprenticeships to recruit new blood. On the one hand, changing consumer habits and cheap imports by wholesalers have made economic conditions tough for the potters. On the other hand, the Confederation has amalgamated the professions of «potter/in» and «ceramics painter» into the single vocational field of «ceramicists».

Art of découpage in Pays d’Enhaut

Sometimes, a simple piece of paper can capture all the poetry of alpine traditions. This minor miracle is made possible by the art of découpage, in which lace-like patterns are meticulously cut with scissors or a craft knife. The pictures are traditionally done in one piece, in black and white – découpage can nevertheless take on all sorts of shades and forms, sometimes appearing as a collage of papers in different colours. Modern découpage artists love asymmetrical, graphical and abstract motifs. Traditionalists, meanwhile, favour scenes such as an alpine cattle drive or cheese making, the traditional habitat with its chalets and wooden houses, floral compositions or hearts with geometric motifs. In the Vaud region of Pays d’Enhaut, découpage often depicts symbols of a Swiss idyll in the tradition of the two great local masters,Johann-Jakob Hauswirth (1809-1871) and Louis Saugy (1871-1953). Découpage inspired by local life has spread from Pays d‘Enhaut to the whole of Switzerland, especially the Saanenland, the Simmen Valley and the canton of Fribourg. There are artists in other regions, however, and the Swiss association Freunde des Scherenschnitts (Friends of Découpage) now has more than 500 members. Even so, there is still no school in Switzerland teaching this art – so it is very often practised by self-taught independent artists. Most découpage artists have another source of income or a partner who works. Only five make a living from découpage alone.
©Fabrice Wagner ©Fabrice Wagner

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