‘Hippie-Before-Hippies’ Ascona Celebrates Its Legacy

In the Swiss town, idealists and revolutionaries founded a vegetarian community of intellectuals who liked to walk around naked.

An exhibition at the Musei Comunali d'Arte in Ascona explores the relationship between the work of Marianne Werefkin and Willy Fries to celebrate the cultural identity and heritage of the Swiss city. Fondazione Marianne Werefkin

In the 19th and early 20th century, Ticino, on the Swiss shore of Lake Maggiore, became a favoured destination for a group of unconventional loners, who found in the region, with its southern atmosphere, fertile ground to plant those seeds of utopia that they had failed to cultivate in the north.

This Italian-speaking part of Switzerland came to represent the antithesis of the urbanised and industrialised north, a sanctuary for any kind of idealist. From 1900 onwards, Mount Monescia, above Ascona, became a magnet for those seeking an ‘alternative’ life. These reformers, who sought a third way between the capitalist and communist blocs, eventually found a home in the area.

The founders came from all over: Henry Oedenkoven from Antwerp, pianist Ida Hofmann from Montenegro, artist Gusto Gräser and his brother Karl Gräser from Transylvania. United by a common ideal, they settled on Monte Monescia, which they renamed “Monte Verità” (meaning “Mount Truth” or “Mountain of Truth”).

Dressed in simple clothing and with long hair, they worked gardens and fields, built spartan wooden huts, and sunbathed without clothes to expose their naked bodies to the energy of light, air, sun and water.

Joseph Salomonson farming in the Vegetabile Cooperative Monte Verità as captured by an unknown photographer in 1907. Photo ETH-Bibliothek.

Their diet excluded animal foods and relied entirely on plants, vegetables and fruit. They worshipped nature, preaching its purity and interpreting its manifestation as the ultimate work of art.

Ascona is a unique site in many ways. It was hippie before there were hippies. Here they planted what is still the only cultivation of tea in Europe. Their social organisation was based on a cooperative system, through which they strove to achieve the emancipation of women, develop self-criticism, and find new ways of exploring the mind and spirit as well as the unity of body and soul.

The intensity of every single ideal lived in this colony was such that word spread throughout Europe and even overseas. Over the years, the community gradually became a sanatorium that theosophists, reformers, anarchists, communists, social democrats, psychoanalysts, but also writers, poets, artists and eventually emigrants from both world wars, called home.

Hermann Hesse, Hans Harp, Isadora Duncan, Hans Richter, El Lissitzky, and perhaps even Lenin and Trotsky frequented these areas.

Aerial view of Ascona in 1929. Photo by Walter Mittelholzer.

Marianne von Werefkin — a Russian-German painter and charismatic figure who founded the Neue Künstlervereinigung and Der Blaue Reiter, two revolutionary groups of artists that included Wassily Kandinsky — arrived in Ascona when the First World War broke out.

“Original, mystical, unconventional, Marianne Werefkin could not have found a better place than Ascona to share art and life, ideally protected by the rich history of alternative ferments of the Monte Verità community, born under the sign of a utopian return to the original and authentic values of nature, in antithesis to any state or ecclesiastical prevarication capable of undermining the freedom of the individual,” writes Mara Folini Ceccarelli, Director of the Museo Comunale d’Arte Moderna di Ascona and curator of the exhibition “Marianne Werefkin e Willy Fries. Due Visioni A Confronto” (Marianne Werefkin and Willy Fries. In dialogue), in her catalogue essay.

The painter Marianne Werefkin portrayed by Willy Fries in 1921. Photo Collection Municipality of Ascona.

The exhibition retraces some of the stages of the life and work of Werefkin, who is among the founders of the museum, to celebrate the legacy of this area through the work of their illustrious residents. The project explores the relationship of friendship and professional respect between the painter and Willy Fries, one of the most admired Zurich artists between the wars, 10 years younger than her, and with interests in painting dramatically in contrast with Werefkin’s formal research.

So distant and yet so close, because Werefkin dedicated her entire artistic career to rejecting ideologies in art, which she saw as a limitation, celebrating her uniqueness and that of colleagues who, like her, remained on the margins of art history.

The exhibition invites us to make a comparison between Werefkin’s and Fries’ work looking at the paintings of festivals, public spectacles, and the different moments of entertainment in the bourgeois society, as in Werefkin’s “The Skaters” of 1911. Photo Marianne Werefkin Foundation Ascona.

The exhibition compares the two visions through a hundred paintings by the artists, allowing the observer to establish affinities and differences in their creative journeys. She is intense and visionary, he is tied to the Munich academic tradition, ironic and essentially realist.

“Although Fries did not side with Werefkin’s expressionist style,” said Ms. Folini Ceccarelli, “it did, however, spur him to deepen his already careful inner investigation of the subjects of his portraits, ‘human types’ of the new rising bourgeois society, by contextualising them in an expressive environment, capable of nurturing an enveloping atmosphere, at times harmonious, at others contrasted, but always alive. In particular, in the subjects dedicated to parties, shows, funfairs, dancing and sporting events, we can see a certain affinity between the two, in being both fascinated by the atmosphere that these scenes arouse in them. And if Werefkin drags them beyond time and space, connoting them as cosmic visions, Fries, on the other hand, animates them by stopping on the canvas the most subtle perceptions, intuitions, and sensations that arise from the subjects depicted.”

“Marianne Werefkin e Willy Fries. Due Visioni A Confronto” is on view until 15 August at the Musei Comunali D’Arte, in Ascona, Switzerland; +41 (0)91 759 81 40; museoascona.ch.

Gianmaria Biancuzzi is executive editor of Milano Art Guide.