Sunday, 12 March 2017

Am Römerholz: A treasure trove of art

I’ve been to some amazing art galleries around the world – The Uffizi in Florence, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, The Picasso Museum in Barcelona, The Prado in Madrid, to name but a few. But nothing prepared me for my visit to a certain art gallery in Winterthur yesterday.

Am Römerholz is the former residence of  Oskar Reinhart (1885-1965) who was born into an old family of Winterthur merchants. Inheriting his father Theodor’s devotion to art, he became a dedicated art collector once his duties to the family firm were relaxed at the age of 39 in 1924. Oskar also bought Am Romerholz at this time to house his expanding collection. He then lived in this villa until his death in 1965, surrounded by his beloved works of art. However, it was always his intention that the collection should ultimately benefit the community and in 1940 he donated his holdings of Austrian, German and Swiss art to the town of Winterthur, which has been housed since 1951 in the Museum Oskar Reinhart in the centre of town. In 1958, seven years before his death, he bequeathed the remaining part, together with the Am Römerholz villa, to the Swiss Confederation, which opened it to the public in 1970 - and it was this particular collection I went to see.

Hermann Hubacher Daphne and Chloe 1940-43
The sun was shining as I set out with my two daughters from Winterthur Bahnhof to walk to Am Römerholz, a 20 minute journey which actually took more like an hour, as we made a few wrong turns. The last five minute walk up a pretty steep hill is however signposted and the gates of the villa (signalled by three posters of paintings set in among the trees) are in a wooded place which feels quite mysterious and magical.

It all feels very understated as you pass through the gates which I love. Poppy actually asked if we’d made a mistake and were entering someone’s house. I said we were but it was no mistake, smiling at the idea that someone would leave their home and all in it that they loved for future generations like me to enjoy. Before we entered, we caught sight of gorgeous little sculptures of bears decorating an old stairway up to a now unused terrace. I made my way gingerly up the stairs and as I surveyed the little steps which now descended on either side into an overgrown wood, with a shiver I experienced an immediate sense of life 100 years ago and the sheer pleasure this little terrace would have brought to its users.

Renoir After the Bath 1913
We then opened a door into the little foyer where two smiles received us. I paid my 15fr (children go free) and the very nice lady behind the desk gave the girls audio guides (again free for children but adults must pay) and gave a comprehensive demonstration on how to use them. The girls were immediately intrigued and felt very important. A good start for an art-loving mum hoping for a couple of hours in a gallery with children of short-lived attention spans.

We spent three hours (!) making our way around this beautiful villa and its grounds. And I was spellbound at the sheer abundance of artistic treasures on show there. It was as if Oskar Reinhart could see into my art loving soul and had purchased each and every piece to please me! On entering you are greeted by the most gorgeous Renoir painting of a woman drying herself (I think his wife) After the Bath (1913) To the right of this, placed in all it's gorgeous chunky glory - Artiside Mailol’s The Mediterranean - oozing sensuality. Such a breath of fresh air in contrast to our thin-obsessed society of today.

Renoir Mother and Child 1916
I could talk like this about each and every piece in the exhibition, featuring a wealth of delights from Picasso, Van Gogh, Courbet, Toulouse Lautrec, Daumier, and glorious Renoir after Renoir after Renoir (I do love Renoir) But there were pieces by Courbet, so sensual and erotic, that I had never before witnessed, as well as beautifully vibrant pieces by Van Gogh which he painted while in hospital in Arles. I was very aware that many of these masterpieces are little known treasures, as Oskar was very firm that these pieces should never go out on loan.

And then, the absolute climax of my journey of awe and wonder around this gallery was a little bronze by Renoir – I didn’t even know Renoir worked in bronze – of a lady in a hat and coat breastfeeding, entitled Mother and Child. This little piece I later found out followed on from a painting Renoir had made of his wife breastfeeding their first child. Many years later, after his wife had died, he again came across this painting and decided to use it as the theme for a sculpture to commemorate his beloved wife. And with the help of Richard Guido, he did – and that very sculpture was right there in front of me. Wow. Moments like this I truly treasure.

We strolled around the lovely little formal garden and ate our sandwiches in a shady corner, played games on the lawn and then enjoyed chocolate cake ‘afters’ at the café (with a little glass of Pinot Noir for mummy) The café atmosphere was wonderful, with a large party of seniors enjoying a table full of food and wine outside in the sunshine. It didn’t take much imagination to see a young Oskar Reinhart doing the same with his art loving friends in the distant past. I took a few covert photos of the merry making in the dappled sunshine, hoping to recreate a Renoir-esque painting of the scene at a later date (I can but dream…)

We went home, trotting down the hill, chatting and giggling after our visit to Am Römerholz. The No.10 bus picked us up several minutes into our walk and deposited us outside the Oskar Reinhart Museum in Stadthausstrasse five minutes later. Thank you Stadtbus Winterthur. Thank you Oskar Reinhart. What a guy.

Am Romerholz website.

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