The de facto capital of Switzerland as the seat of the country’s federal government, petite Bern (pop. 120,000) – or more exactly Old Bern, a UNESCO World Heritage Site – has preserved more of its medieval appearance than any other Swiss city. Modernity ? in the outskirts, where the jutting, angular Westside shopping and leisure centre was designed by £starchitect” Daniel Libeskind (Jewish Museum Berlin, Denver Art Museum, Royal Ontario Museum, etc.).The Old Town is connected by several bridges over the River Aare to the newer part on the right bank. From above, they look like two neatly fitting jigsaw pieces.
Most visitors follow in the footsteps of Paul Klee or Albert Einstein (busy developing his Theory of Relativity) by exploring the Baroque arcades and inviting alleys or stop by the stupendous, walk-through Clock Tower, the Münster or the Swiss Parliament building (perhaps taking a sip of the clean water from one of the many ornate fountains). Naturalists head for the Bear Park, where several live specimens of the symbol of Bern have drawn a crowd since 1513.
Art-lovers will encounter renowned Swiss artists, top international names, ornate 19th century mural work, a museum with over a century of presenting contemporary art, the oldest art museum in Switzerland – and one of the newest, designed by a “starchitect” and dedicated to a Swiss-born (artist).
Established in 1879, the Kunstmuseum (Museum of Fine Arts, ‘Kunst’ is German for art) is the oldest art museum in Switzerland. The permanent collection spans eight centuries and consists of over 3,000 paintings and sculptures and up to 50,000 drawings, prints, photographs, videos and films. These include works by Paul Klee, Pablo Picasso, Ferdinand Hodler and Arnold Böcklin. Displays from the permanent collection are augmented by special exhibitions.
The museum gained worldwide attention in 2014, when it was named sole heir in the will of Cornelius Gurlitt, the German collector associated with the 2012 discovery of over 1,400 works, many of them suspected to be stolen from European Jews by the Nazis. The museum was given six months to decide whether it would accept the bequest and its terms, the most important of which required the museum to conduct research into the provenance of the paintings and make restitution where needed to the heirs of the original owners.
The German government encouraged the museum to accept the collection in order to provide a neutral place where research into its history could continue. There was also concern that if the collection were dispersed among Gurlitt’s distant relatives, there would be no guarantee that they would conduct the research properly. The museum agreed to accept the bequest.
A short bus ride east of the city centre, the Zentrum Paul Klee holds around 4,000 paintings, watercolours and drawings by the Swiss-born German artist – the world’s most important collection of his works.
Designer Renzo Piano (the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the Shard in London, Istanbul Modern, etc.) has created the building in the form of three undulating, steel and glass arches (or are they waves?) which seem to grow (or flow?) out of the hillside.
Paul Klee (1879-1940) used extremely light-sensitive colours, paints and papers, so the works on display are changed every couple of months and placed in a depository to “recover”. A rotating selection of 120 to 150 works are shown at a time. These are shown alongside temporary exhibitions featuring other artists’, designers’ and sculptors work. There is also an excellent biographical film on Klee’s art and era, while a network of paths around the building are named after his works.
You can eat surrounded by art in the Kornhauskeller, the most splendid vaulted cellar in Bern. Originally an 18th century granary and market hall, this major work of the Bernese High Baroque was redesigned in the 1890s with painter Rudolf Münger commissioned to decorate the cellar walls and its twelve columns. What he came up with is something between a folkloristic panorama and an illustrated history book.
Drawing inspiration from the Pre-Raphaelites and early Art Nouveau, he created a representation of the canton of Bern, with coats of arms, indigenous flora and fauna, Bernese women in traditional dress, mythological elements such as the man in the moon, a dragon and a mermaid and over 30 musicians in Renaissance costume, including the artist Ferdinand Hodler with a flute and drum.
On Helvetiaplatz on the south bank of the Aare river, the Kunsthalle Bern dates from 1918, since which time it has hosted numerous expositions of contemporary art, including by luminaries such as Paul Klee, Alberto Giacometti, Henry Moore, Jasper Johns, Bruce Nauman, Daniel Buren and Sol LeWitt. On the occasion of its 50th anniversary in 1968, the Kunsthalle Bern became the first building ever to be wrapped entirely by Christo and Jeanne-Claude.
The Kornhaus Forum stages a series of temporary exhibitions on socially relevant topics such as photographer Bertilla Spinas’s 2022 exhibition Lost and Found in Bern, a portrait of the city through images of mundane objects stored at the lost property office around the corner.
FURTHER INFO The Swiss Travel Pass offers unlimited travel on consecutive days throughout the national rail, bus and boat network, including free rail journey from Swiss airport to destination. It also includes the Swiss Museum Pass, which allows free entrance to 500 museums and exhibitions.