Harald Szeemann

           I first met Harald Szeemann in Ascona, at the Swiss end of Lake Maggiore, in that part of Switzerland known as Swiss Italy or, among the locals, as “Italy without the strikes”. I’d arrived in Ascona, an old fishing village that has become an affluent holiday resort, from Basle where I’d visited the Goetheanum, Rudolf Steiner’s extraordinary mystery temple, lecture hall, HQ building-whatever you call it. This was in the early 1990s. I was interested in Steiner then and someone told me Harald was the man to talk to.

            At the appointed hour, I took a taxi from my hotel out to an isolated house situated deep in one of the valleys that run inland from the lakeshore. The taxi dropped me off by the roadside, turned round and sped off back to town. There was only one house in view and that seemed to be deserted and shut up tight. No one answered the bell; I couldn’t see anyone around; there was no bus stop; and, in those days before mobile phones, I had no way to recall the taxi to drive me the 10 or more miles back to Ascona.

            Eventually, I discovered an unlocked door and pushed it open. A middle-aged blonde woman was sitting at the far end of a living room surrounded by portable lights and a camera, apparently giving a television interview to two young men. She was annoyed at my interruption. I stammered out that I’d rung the bell, but the blonde woman made it clear it was not her job to answer doors. Her husband was upstairs somewhere, she said, and she didn’t expect to see me again. Don’t worry, I told her, that’s the last thing I’d want.

             I found Harald in another long, low room piled with books and papers, together with a very pretty young woman whom he introduced as his assistant. He was a shambling bear of a man, soft-spoken, and an incessant smoker. He shrugged off my explanation about the contretemps with his wife, which he implied was the kind of thing that happened all the time. As I began to interview him-I’d arranged to do a piece for The Times- I remember thinking it was both bizarre and somehow appropriate to the Szeemann household that, on an average weekday morning, in the remote Swiss countryside, both husband and wife should be giving interviews to the media. It also seemed appropriate that their domestic lives should mirror their professional ones, with Ingeborg, Harald’s artist wife, behaving like a temperamental artist while Harald, with his smiles and shrugs and hypnotic German-accented English, behaved like someone who has spent his life handling artistic temperaments.

            Which indeed was what he’d done. Harald, who was in his late fifies by then, described himself as a freelance exhibition curator or in his more mischievous moods as a “cultural migrant worker”. Either way, it was immediately, and delightfully, obvious to me that his real role was freelance troublemaker. The job he did for a living, the job that he’d invented for himself, was to devise, curate and produce those blockbuster, themed exhibitions that tour major European museums and Kunsthalles, though they rarely come to England (Harald was under no illusions about the English. “They don’t want to pay for anything,” he said). He reminded me of a veteran rock n’roll roadie, a production manager for mammoth world tours for groups like the Rolling Stones, who was grizzled and experienced and resourceful beyond cynicism, and who had a kind of showbiz gypsy independence. But at the same time, there was the other Harald, the art world Harald, who kept the scholarly habits of a museum curator.

            He was also famous- at least in certain specialised circles. Harald was the man who had found his Big Subject and found it, moreover, in his own back yard. In the late 1960s, while “looking for an alternative (space) to all the big museums I worked in,” Harald happened across the grandiosely named Monte Verita, the Mountain of Truth. Monte Verita is actually a rambling, wooded hill behind Ascona. On top of the hill was a then-failing hotel built in the 1930s by an aristocratic German banker and art collector named Baron von der Heydt, who ended up laundering money to fund Nazi spy rings in South America.  Half-hidden in the surrounding trees were a handful of wooden huts in advanced stages of falling down, along with the slightly sinister-looking remains of some outdoor showers and open-air baths. Both the huts and the showers were oldere than the hotel, having been there since the early 1900s. They represented the archeaological residue of a colony of sun-worshipping vegetarians who were Europe’s first hippies.

             It was Harald who grasped the significance of these things, who unearthed their history, and who then “realised I also had to save the history because it was the very last moment. All the people who had been involved in Monte Verita were in their 90s, they were going to die soon. So I made a tour of Europe and interviewed them all.”

            It took him four years. He did it entirely on his own recognisance. Simply tracking down the surviving people was a feat any journalist can appreciate. Harald not only found them, he got them to talk to him, and he persuaded them to part with old letters, documents, photographs, memorabilia. Often, he bought these objects with his own money. “There was one rare book I only found in Transylvania,” he told me. “Those years in the 1970s, when I had no institution and no connections, to do a thing like this on the hill and then to go around Europe, that was a real adventure”.

            In 1978-80, Harald presented his findings in the form of a show, “Monte Verita-a contribution to the recovery of a modern sacred topography.” The exhibition toured Zurich, Berlin, Vienna and Munich before coming to rest back on the “Mountain” itself, in one of the two original “light and air” cabins from the colony that Harald was able to save and restore (a third original survives, and a small, fourth cabin has been rebuilt in replica style). Even viewing what remains of the Monte Verita show twenty five years on, it’s clear it was a major production, innovative for its time: “a new kind of exhibition, visualising ideas” as Harald proudly claimed. In his more mystical moments, he also talked about his work as “a way of freeing the hill itself”, but a touch of mysticism is excusable in a man who has found his Subject.

            What exactly did that subject consist of? From the late 19th century until the 1930s, the area around Ascona in general, and on Monte Verita in particular, acted as a sort of World Spiritual and Cultural (and occasionally Political) Revolutionary Headquarters. They were all here at one time or other, everyone from anarchists to theosophists, vegetarian life-reformers to nudists, artists to occultists, sexual revolutionaries to avant-garde hermits, irregular masons to proto-feminists, along with the origins of psychoanalysis, the creation of modern dance, even the first pan-European impulses, often combined in the same individuals since “in those days, ideologically speaking, the brothel in all the heads still had a name. So an anarchist could also be a nudist who was also a theosophist or a freemason or whatever you want. ”

            If history was like chemistry (which it’s not) and could be analysed by reduction, then all of the elements that went to make up radical artistic and political Modernism gathered and catalysed each other for the first time on or around Monte Verita.[1] This was where the revolt against modern bureaucratised and industrialised scientific-technological society- and its offspring in modern industrialised warfare- began. Conversely, it was where the idea of a counterculture, an “alternative society” to the standard bourgeois model, was first attempted. Monte Verita was also a source for an alternative geography and history for Europe, something that especially intrigued Harald. The colonists invented (or re-invented) the dream of a united Europe with Germany or the German-speaking countries at its heart. But they dreamt of a spiritual, pacific Germany, not the Kaiser’s Germany they knew, let alone the Nazi Germany to come.

            At the time, the real Germany was undergoing the labours of industrialisation and modernisation. The industrial revolution arrived later and took place in a shorter, more compressed period of time in Germany than it did in other European countries, making the shock all the greater and the reaction against modernity all the more explicit. For a while, it seemed as if everybody wanted out. Hundreds of “back to nature” vegetarian-naturist colonies, “life schools” and sanitariums sprang up in German-speaking Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The creators of Monte Verita, a 20-year-old trust fund Dutchman named Henri Oedenkoven and Ida Hofmann, 35, a bourgeois piano teacher from Montenegro, met at one such colony, in Veldes in Austria. Along with five like-minded friends, they decided to found their own utopia. They were never in doubt about their preferred location: across the Alps, where Northern Europe gives way to the South and the sun, and the traveller can throw off his inhibitions with his clothes.

            “I want to narrate the life of some people who, born into a conflictual reality where interhuman relations were dominated by egoism, luxury, appearance and lies, and becoming aware of their condition through bodily or spiritual ills, decided to change their lives to lead a more natural and healthy existence,” Ida Hofmann later wrote.

            Oedenkoven and Hoffman seem to have made a good team. He had the money and the organising skills. She had the passionate commitment to ideas: vegetarianism, feminism (The Woman Question), later on to a mystical theosophy-freemasonry under the influence of the extraordinary figure of Theodor Reuss, spy, opera singer, conman, journalist, erotic occultist, correspondent of Marx and impresario of the counterculture[2]. Together, Oedenkoven and Hofmann bought the Monte Verita property in 1900, 3 ˝ hectares for 150,000 Swiss francs (they added additional land as time went on). They formed the Vegetabilist Monte Verita Co-operative, then built a sanitarium with showers and sun-baths. There were the usual problems involved in keeping a commune together. Some people wanted to be self-sufficient; others wanted to run the sanitarium on a more commercial basis. As its fame spread, the colony attracted dropouts and street people from across Europe (much to Oedenkoven’s irritation) just as the famous 1960s communes did in both Europe and America.

            Harald developed his own timeline for his history of Monte Verita. He liked to speak of different periods in its evolution. The anarchists came to the area first, in the 1870s, when Bakunin had a house by the lake. “Then in 1900 you have Oedenkoven and Hoffman, the vegetarians and the life-reformers. But their colony had such an attraction that after 1903-4 you have again all the anarchists who are having a difficult time in Germany.” Like “The Sixties” or the early 21st century’s“Anti-Globalisation Movement”, only with a more limited geographical basis, “Monte Verita” became a portmanteau name for an amalgam of disparate groups and programmes offering alternatives to modern techno-industrial society. Anarchist politics met modern dance. Vegetarians and Nature Men met occultists and freemasons. Sun-worshipping and Theosophy went along with radical psychiatry led by the renegade Freudian Otto Gross, who interpreted Freud’s ideas as a manifesto for sexual liberation and who was the lover of both Else and Frieda von Richtofen (the Frieda who became Mrs. DH Lawrence and “was a channel for the ideas of Monte Verita to enter English literature”).  Rudolf Laban settled on the hill where he created and led “The New Dance”. In 1917, Theodor Reuss, acting as a kind of master of ceremonies, united all these strands in an Anti-National Congress whose highlight was a dusk to dawn “Song to the Sun” performed by Laban’s dancer-colonists.

            “There were thousands of alternative colonies, or communes as we’d call them now, around at the time, but Monte Verita was the only one which left a history of architecture from the original huts to the Bauhaus hotel. When we talk about Monte Verita, they were the extremists. All the really extreme people from Otto Gross to the dancers to irregular freemasons like Reuss were here. Nowhere else in the world do you find this,” Harald told me.

            Ascona as a whole was known as “the Schwabing of Schwabing” after the bohemian quarter in Munich, meaning roughly  “the alternative of the alternative”. But its very success proved its downfall. Oedenkoven and Hofmann left in 1920 to start afresh in Brazil. In 1926, the hill was sold to the Baron who built his hotel. In 1927, the nearby Brissago islands went to a German department store magnate, Max Emden, who built a private villa, advertised in newspapers for local girls with particular measurements, then ferried them out to the island to walk around naked. Capital, with its corruptions, seemed to have triumphed in the end.

            Until, that is, Harald Szeemann came along to revive the spirit of Monte Verita and to go a few more rounds with the powers that be.  Harald and his hill were made for each other. Harald wasn’t a hippie nor, as far as I know, a vegetarian, but he understood the antinomian free-thinking spirit of Monte Verita because it was his own. I remember him telling me he had accepted an invitation to give a lecture to the local polytechnic. I must have seemed surprised-Harald usually rejected all marks of institutional life or honours- since he looked sheepish. Then he smiled and murmured, “Well, OK, I propose in my talk that we change Switzerland into a foundation, a little bit anarchic idea, but nothing apart from that.”

            It was the same with Harald’s attitude to art. He spent his working life in the field of visual arts, but he never believed in art for art’s sake, let alone as a strand in some self-referential semiotic web. He’d made his reputation in 1972, when he curated Documenta 5 at Kassel and turned a staid, traditional show into a riot of performance art, films, installations, and happenings- all the innovations with which Sixties artists tried to burst the bounds of the traditional art world. For Harald, art led directly to culture and culture led directly to the sociopolitical arrangements that lie behind it; and that link was so instinctive to him, so obvious, that he couldn’t understand why anyone would think differently. At his core, Harald shared the early modernist notions of art as a revolutionary act, as well as of art as encompassing all sorts of things, not just canvases in frames hung on the walls of a gallery or museum. When he came across Monte Verita, it must have been like coming across the matrix, the mother lode.

          Here was the creative unconscious projected and embodied in a real place and time. Even the way Harald discovered it was appropriate, since he was engaged on that quintessential Sixties quest, searching for an  “alternative space”. And what were the Sixties anyway if not Monte Verita revisited, a letter- perfect reprise of the original revolt against a bureaucratised machine-world?[3] Such correspondences tend to happen when a man finds his Subject, or his Subject finds the man. Like a powerful spotlight, it shines back over his life, making the contours seem coherent and meant. The trouble is, it doesn’t end there. When we knew each other, Harald had saved his hill’s history only to be precipitated into a fight to save the hill itself.

             The battle ground on for years. Harald’s opponents were bureaucrats, politicians, local boosters and their ilk. Once Harald made Monte Verita famous for them, the authorities suddenly decided the property was an asset they could exploit rather than a Greek gift they’d been stuck with under the terms of the Baron’s will. They certainly weren’t going to let anyone as unpredictable and untidy as Harald and his rag-tag group of artists turn it into a new Monte Verita for the millenium. “I tell people, listen, we must have a Kunsthalle here so that the Mountain of Truth goes on,” Harald grumbled. “But they take the hotel away and make it into a thing for professors and seminar people.”  He pleaded, argued, lobbied, intrigued and “sometimes I explode”. Harald suffered a lot of fools in his work, but never gladly.

             And in the end he lost. The canton of Ticino made a deal with the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology and Monte Verita is now used for exclusive international conferences and seminars. When I was last there, they had been discussing advanced robotics and Artificial Intelligence- cutting edge topics for the very scientific-technological society Monte Verita was founded to oppose. On the slopes outside the smartly refurbished Bauhaus hotel building, there’s a creeping spread of “initiatives” supposedly “in the spirit of the mountain”, like a new pavilion for Japanese tea ceremonies and a “Meditation Path” painted on the ground with a mandala at one end. All of them represent an academic’s or a bureaucrat’s idea of the counterculture that Harald would have hated.  Meanwhile, the remnants of the real thing are once again being left to rot. The Russian House is shut and crumbling. Harald’s wonderful museum is undervisited and unpromoted, its exhibits badly in need of restoration and renewal.

               Harald had his consolations. “Now I become already an historical figure and the first girls arrive, very young girls, to make their thesis on the exhibitions of Harald Szeemann” he said to me once. “You’d better be careful, Harald,” I said. He grinned rogueishly. “Oh yes, I know.” But it wasn’t what he wanted. He had big jobs- in 1999 and again in 2001 he was a commissioner of the Venice Biennale; in 1997 he ran the Lyons Biennale- but that wasn’t what he wanted either. The struggle for control of  Monte Verita dragged on, a slow, frustrating defeat, and he never found another Big Subject worthy of him. He was forced back into the world of high art and culture, the world whose bounds he had burst, moved beyond, three decades earlier. 

             In 2002, for the Swiss National Exhibition, he created a pavilion wrapped in gold leaf that had to be protected by its own security guards. Inside was a machine that destroyed two old hundred-franc banknotes every minute of the 159 days the show lasted. I smiled when I heard about that: it was the sort of gesture the Monte Verita colonists would have approved. It was also Harald’s last major provocation. I hadn’t seen him for over a decade- he was not the kind of man whose time you wasted unless you had a reason, or a project to propose- when, in 2006, I passed through Ascona and learned that he had died the year before. According to my informant, his memorial service in Bern was “packed out with people from all over Europe. People flew in from America. All sorts of surprising people knew Harald,” she said but I was not surprised.

             As for Monte Verita itself, some time ago I had a conversation with an American diplomat, a highly educated man, who simply sneered at the whole business, and couldn’t see why anyone would be interested in it. “Why are you bothering with a bunch of kooks and losers like that?” was his attitude, which is how power always views those who refuse to speak its language; until, of course, they gain some support or achieve some visibility, when power suddenly changes its tune and reacts with paranoia and repression. We are in one of those periods right now and I don’t know where we are going to find the new Monte Veritas- or the new Harald Szeemanns- to help us to get out of it.




[1] There was also a right-wing or reactionary modernism distilled from different elements, such as political anti-semitism, paranoia, xenophobia, nationalism etc. and finding its archetypal political expression in Fascism. Right-wing modernism had no connection with Monte Verita, but ironically found its way into the mountain’s later history with Baron von der Heydt.

[2] The next great revolt against industrial society in the 1960s, threw up similar charismatic hustlers. Many were American. The most successful became the agents or managers of rock stars.

[3] You could make a case that all subsequent revolts against modernity have copied Monte Verita, even down to the details. For example, posters and drawings that the artist Fidus (Hugo Hoppener) made in the early 1900s to celebrate the Monte Verita hippies could fit straight alongside the psychedelic poster art from 1960s San Francisco, as could the artist’s one-name pseudonym.

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