Society for Swiss Art History

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The Society for Swiss Art History (GSK) is a Swiss cultural association with offices in Bern and Lugano , which is dedicated to researching architectural evidence and wants to make it accessible to a wider public. To this end, the company operates as a journalist and publishes numerous publications. The focus is on the book series The Art Monuments of Switzerland .


The Society for Swiss Art History (GSK) has had her name since 1934 and emerged from the Patriotic Society for the Preservation of Historical Monuments , which was founded in Zofingen in 1880 . The founders of the association came from the Swiss Art Association . The first president was the Geneva painter Nicolas-Théodore de Saussure . The aim and purpose of the association was the preservation of art and architectural monuments in Switzerland and the promotion of interest in historical art monuments through publications. The tasks of the society included the restoration of monuments, the preservation of individual movable works of art , their collection and storage in museums , as well as the promotion of the understanding of art and the support of artists.

Members of the first board were Nicolas-Théodore de Saussure (President from 1880 to 1888), Johann Rudolf Rahn (Vice President), Emanuel Bernoulli-Müller ( Actuary ) and W. Locher-Steiner (Treasurer) as well as the five assessors G. Meyer, Carl Brun , Erwin Tanner, Julius Kunkler and Maurice Wirz.

Citizens' hall of the Zofingen town hall. The Association for the Preservation of Patriotic Art Monuments was founded here on June 20, 1880 (since 1934 Society for Swiss Art History )

In the articles of association passed by the assembly on June 20, 1880, the name of the society was changed to Association for the Preservation of Patriotic Art Monuments . It should “draw public attention to the historical monuments and works of art in Switzerland () and contribute directly or indirectly to their preservation”.

The regulations stipulated that the incoming funds should be divided into two equal parts, administered and used as follows:

  • to finance publications (papers, photographs, etchings , etc.) that are dedicated to historical monuments and that are to be distributed free of charge to the members of the association;
  • for the purchase of works of art and historical antiquities, "which run the risk of being sold abroad" and should be transferred to Swiss museums under conditions to be determined. This part of the money should also be used, in whole or in part, for the restoration of historical monuments that are threatened with destruction and decay.

On the occasion of the General Assembly of 1881 in Lausanne, the society changed its name and was now called the Swiss Society for the Preservation of Historical Art Monuments . It dealt mainly with the purchase of objects and buildings of national importance, but without neglecting the publications. In 1881 a short treatise by the art historian Johann Rudolf Rahn appeared on the reliquary cross of Engelberg (late 12th or early 13th century). The same author published a description of the windows of the Reformed Church of Saint-Saphorin (Vaud) from 1530 and an article on the Casa Serodine (or Borrani) in Ascona with its baroque facade. At the General Assembly in 1882, the creation of an inventory for buildings in need of maintenance or restoration was requested. Works of art owned by the state or by private individuals should also be included in this inventory for the same fear that they might be destroyed or sold. Interest in these activities in the service of culture increased, as did the number of institutions working in this field. In 1883 and 1884, amendments to the statutes therefore had to be made in order to enable membership to associations, foundations, libraries and museums.

In March 1884, the mandated Federal Department of Home Affairs in its response to a motion for the creation of a Swiss National Museum , the Swiss Society for preservation of historic monuments with the purchase of a certain number of objects of their choice, which should pass into the property of the Confederation. The company agreed to take on this task, but asked to be able to use the subsidies not only for purchasing, but also for the conservation and restoration of the works of art. In response to a message from the Federal Council, Parliament decided in 1886 that “for the preservation or acquisition of patriotic antiquities, insofar as the current state of federal finances permits, an annual loan to be determined in the budget, which should not exceed 50,000 francs, would be suspended ». The Executive Ordinance of February 25, 1887 established the creation of a Federal Commission for the Preservation of Swiss Antiquities , whose duties and rights were transferred to the board of the Swiss Society for the Preservation of Historical Art Monuments , whose statues were adapted to their new tasks in the same year.

The foundation of the Swiss National Museum

With the decision of the Federal Council of 1891 to create a Swiss National Museum with headquarters in Zurich , a new orientation followed. As a result of the decision of March 12, 1892, the acquisition of antiquities was no longer part of the tasks of the Swiss Society for the Preservation of Historical Art Monuments , but was the responsibility of the museum, as was the assessment of subsidy applications for purchases. The company continued its activities in the areas of inventory, conservation and restoration of historical buildings and works of art as well as excavations. In 1896, Karl Stehlin , then President of the Society (1895–1898) and successor to Julius Kunkler (1888–1895), was entrusted with the management of a sub-commission for research into Roman times. This commission was supposed to register the earlier and new discoveries of Roman antiquities in Switzerland and to supervise the excavations and conservation work subsidized by the federal government.

In this context, the new president, Josef Zemp (1898–1904) advocated the equal treatment of the various styles and opposed any hierarchy based on the times of origin. Zemp was of the opinion that an object should be placed in its historical context and assessed taking into account its value in comparison to other works of his time. He placed great emphasis on preserving the original inventory of works of art as completely as possible and advocated a clear distinction between original and restored substance in order to avoid any deception. Zemp knew that Albert Naef, who would follow him at the head of the company between 1904 and 1915, would share his views and continue his endeavors along these lines.

Scoreboard for Swiss antiquity.jpg

Since 1899, the Anzeiger für Schweizerische Altumskunde published by the Swiss National Museum has served as the official organ of the Swiss Society for the Preservation of Historical Art Monuments . From 1901, messages in German and French were added, which had replaced the previously published large-format and color monographic depictions of works of art using collotype printing. The first issue of this series was dedicated to the glass paintings in the choir of the church of Oberkirch near Frauenfeld and the Weinmarktbrunnen in Lucerne and contained texts by Johann Rudolf Rahn and Josef Zemp. The state archivist Robert Durrer compiled statistics on the monuments of Obwalden and Nidwalden , which appeared as a supplement to the Anzeiger für Schweizerische Archeumskunde and were reprinted in 1971. At the same time, in 1900 Paul Ganz had suggested the creation of a list of old Swiss stained glass, cracked panes and drawings of glass windows. As the newly appointed director of the Kunstmuseum Basel, he had already built up a small collection in 1902, which became the starting point for the archive for Swiss art history , while at the same time Johann Rudolf Rahn had begun to compile an inventory of Swiss art monuments.

Foundation of the Federal Commission for the Preservation of Monuments

In 1914, the Interior Department of the Swiss Society for the Preservation of Historic Art Monuments announced that the Federal Council had promised the appointment of a Federal Commission for the Preservation of Monuments (EKD) . On March 15, 1915, the decision was made to set up the aforementioned commission and that the company's activities in the field of monument preservation were thus ended. All that remained was an annual loan of initially 2000, later 3000 francs for “small restorations”, which was paid out until 1960. The creation of this commission for the preservation of monuments led to upheavals within society. Individual members, namely the President Alfred Naef and the Vice President Josef Zemp, placed themselves at the service of this commission. Now that the Swiss Society for the Preservation of Historical Art Monuments had forfeited two of its most important areas of responsibility - the purchase of works of art and the preservation of monuments - it was forced to reorient itself and increasingly turned to journalism.

In his annual report from 1916, Josef Zemp, who had taken over the chairmanship again for a year before he ceded it to the Geneva architect Camille Martin (1916–1922), stated that after 35 years of sympathy, the company should feel safe and will probably be asked for advice and support. Zemp intended to encourage the creation of documents - plans and photographs of monuments of art -, increase the number of smaller excavations and improve the quality of publications. After a regulation on the activities of the EKD came into effect on March 9, 1917 and an archive regulation on June 23 of the same year, the statutes of the Swiss Society for the Preservation of Historic Art Monuments were adapted to the new situation. With a view to continuing the work of Johann Rudolf Rahn, its board of directors contacted the Department of the Interior , the EKD, the State Museum and the Swiss Society for Prehistory and Early History. The basis of the discussions was formed by a detailed memorandum drawn up by Camille Martin on the coordination of the tasks for drawing up a national inventory.

«The art monuments of Switzerland»

In 1920, under the presidency of Camille Martin (1916–1922), the scientific inventory of Switzerland's art monuments began. Samuel Guyer pushed ahead with the inventory work in the canton of Zurich , a little later Linus Birchler began the corresponding work in the cantons of Schwyz and Uri. The company's board of directors asked the federal government for subsidies and, in 1924, laid down the principles for organizing the work, which it then called its main task. In 1925, with the agreement of the Department of the Interior and various scientific associations, the society was able to take over the publication of the national inventory of art monuments in Switzerland in close cooperation with the cantons. The first volume in the series Die Kunstdenkmäler der Schweiz , published in 1927, dealt with the three districts of Canton Schwyz ( Einsiedeln , March and Höfe). The author of the work was the architectural historian Linus Birchler, third President of the EKD.

Since then, around 120 volumes in this series have been published. Between 1982 and 2004 they were supplemented by the eleven-volume inventory of newer Swiss architecture 1850–1920 (INSA). Further publications by the Society for Swiss Art History are the Swiss Art Guides , a series launched by Paul Ganz in 1935, as well as regional and cantonal guides, individual volumes on specific art history and architectural topics, and finally the quarterly magazine Kunst + Architektur in the Switzerland.


  • Erich Schwabe: 100 years of the Society for Swiss Art History. In: Unser Kunstdenkmäler, XXXI / 1980/4, pp. 317–337 (French translation: JF Luffy; Italian translation: M. Bonjour. Pp. 338–365). (Bibliography)

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. cf. Historical lexicon of Switzerland, lemma "monument preservation"
  2. ^ The emergence of the «Society for Swiss Art History». Catherine Courtiau, Society for Swiss Art History, September 28, 2010.