Founded in 1787, the Künstlergesellschaft began to collect works of art in 1794. Every member donated either one of his or her own drawings or one by an artist towards what they termed a ‘Malerbuch’ – a painting book. In 1812 they took out a loan to acquire premises, which initially functioned as a club house and bar. Thanks to an international appeal for funds it became possible in 1818 to secure the Zurich’s main artistic attraction, the ‘Gessnerische Gemählde-Cabinet’, for the city; this encompasses 24 gouache pictures of idyllic landscapes and a number of drawings by Salomon Gessner.
In 1847 the rotating exhibition organized by the Swiss Kunstverein from 1840 onwards provided the impetus to annex a tiny gallery , designed by Gustav Albert Wegmann, the architect responsible for the Villa Tobler and the Kantonsschule, to the original premises. For a long time the new ‘museum’ was dominated by the collection donated by Colonel Keller zum Mohrenkopf in 1854, a representative selection of Zurich painting from Hans Asper to the 18th century.
In order to attract a broader public the Künstlergesellschaft founded the ‘Zürcher Kunstverein’ in 1853, thereby generating a modest but regular inflow of funds which was used above all for local and Swiss art. In 1885 the painter A. Rudolf Holzhalb bequeathed CHF 100,000 to the Künstlergesellschaft which enabled it to settle outstanding debts, renovate the gallery (the hanging space increased from 90 to 144 m2) and establish a fund for the building of a new museum. A little later the federal government, in 1890, and the Gottfried Keller-Foundation, in 1892, began to display works acquired with significantly larger funds in the gallery.
In 1895 the association of the ‘Künstlerhaus Zurich’ was founded and opened a salon for temporary exhibitions in the Börsenstrasse. In the following year the ‘Zürcher Kunstverein’ and the ‘Künstlerhaus Zürich’ amalgamated to form the ‘Zürcher Kunstgesellschaft’ and intensified their efforts to build a real museum. In 1898 Heinrich Schulthess von Meiss bequeathed his collection of 80 paintings by famous contemporary German and Swiss painters to the Kunstgesellschaft. But it was not until 1910 that the ‘Kunsthaus’ was opened on a plot of land donated by city councillor Landolt – neither ‘museum’ nor ‘art gallery’, as the architect Karl Moser pointed out, but both. The name ‘Kunsthaus’ (house of art ) consciously reflects its democratic aspirations and wish to bring art to a broad public.
Due to the small size of the collection the first curator, Wilhelm Wartmann (director until 1949), initially concentrated on Swiss art and alongside the most interesting works of the time he put together groups of late Gothic painting and pictures by Johann Heinrich Fuseli.
When the Kunsthaus held a large Ferdinand Hodler exhibition in 1917, it became clear that the financial resources of the ‘Kunstgesellschaft’ were insufficient, and Alfred Rüetschi responded by founding the ‘Vereinigung Zürcher Kunstfreunde’ (Society of Zurich Friends of Art), which even today regularly helps to extend the Kunsthaus collection with significant acquisitions. Rüetschi himself made many large compositions and important landscapes by Hodler available to the Kunsthaus.
In 1920 the Kunsthaus received as a legacy the collection of Hans Schuler and with it for the first time works of French Impressionism and Post-Impressionism: Renoir, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Bonnard. After many years of preparation Wartmann organised his first exhibition with Edvard Munch in 1922 and began to build up the largest collection of works by the Norwegian artist outside of Scandanavia.
In 1925 Karl Moser extended the Kunsthaus. In 1929 Dr. Hans E. Mayenfisch began to buy works by living Swiss artists for the Kunsthaus; by the time of his death in 1957 the collection had increased to over 450 works. The Nobel prize winner Leopold Ruzicka set up a foundation in 1949 with his outstanding collection of Dutch 17th century painting. When in 1950 René Wehrli replaced Wilhelm Wartmann as director he moved the focus on to French painting since Monet; subsequent to the Monet retrospective the two large water lily panneaux were acquired.
In 1958 the large, adaptable exhibition gallery which had been planned since 1944 by the Pfister brothers and was financed by Emil G. Bührle was opened. A group of art lovers close to the Bechtler brothers created a foundation in 1965 with the most important collection of works by Alberto Giacometti, to which the artist donated additional pieces. In 1966 Nelly Bär endowed the Werner-Bär gallery, donating a group of sculptures from Rodin to Richier. Thanks to Gustav Zumsteg and the support of a number of patrons and the artist himself the Marc Chagall gallery was created in 1973.
In this period, Erna and Curt Burgauer began donating works from their collection of modern art to the Kunsthaus. In 1976 the extension was opened by Erwin Müller. Felix Baumann replaced René Wehrli as Director. In 1980, thanks to numerous donations, an extensive collection of works documenting the Dada movement was established. The Johanna and Walter L. Wolf collection added significant new works of French art from Impressionism to Classic Modern in 1984. Betty and David M. Koetser gave their important collection of Dutch paintings, Italian baroque and the Venetian Settecento to their foundation in 1986 and in 1995 Walter Haefner presented the Kunsthaus with twelve outstanding paintings by artists from Monet to Magritte.
From 1998 to 2000 the Villa Tobler was restored in a manner befitting its status as a new renaissance palazzo to become the new home of management and to serve as a venue for representational purposes. In September Christoph Becker succeeded Felix Baumann as the new director and the electorate of Zurich voted in favour of a loan of 28.5 million Swiss francs for renovation of the Kunsthaus. In 2001 the Kunstrat decided on a new artistic guiding strategy: internal working groups and a public commission of experts dealing with the future of the Kunsthaus underpin reforms of internal structures, during which time the renovation work begins.
On the 28 May 2002 the departing President of the Zürcher Kunstgesellschaft, Thomas W. Bechtler, Director Christoph Becker and the Chairman of the City Council, Elmar Ledergerber, presented plans for a further extension of the building at Heimplatz. Since June of 2002, Walter B. Kienholz, the new president of the Zürcher Kunstgesellschaft, one of the largest European art associations with its 20'000 members, supports the plans that also aim at creating more space for the growing collection. The extension building is scheduled to be realized by 2015.
Saturday/Sunday/Tuesday 10 a.m.–6 p.m., Wednesday–Friday 10 a.m.–8 p.m., Closed Mondays
Today, ’Expressionism’ is generally viewed as a German movement – yet in fact it emerged at the start of the 20th century from the enthusiastic
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