Monday, September 15, 2014

Abegg Stiftung - A Hidden Gem

The first time I came to Switzerland to stay for a while, I asked some experts where I should go to look at tapestry, and they all said "Abegg!"

Unfortunately, it was closed for renovations for 2 years. This time my luck has changed and it is reopened, with a gorgeous museum, and an amazing permanent exhibition.

Although it’s not very far away from where we are staying, it took 2 trains and 2 busses to get to this elegant museum on a green hill in Riggisberg, in the canton of Bern.

Swiss born Werner Abegg began collecting early: goldsmithing, sculpture, painting, ceramics and intaglio, as well as antique Egyptian tapestries, medieval silk fabrics and 18th Century “bizarre” silks.  He and his American wife, Margaret, spent part of each year in NY, and later collected Pre-Columbian Peruvian textiles. The Abeggs donated their collections to the foundation in the early 1960s.

Since Werner's death in 1984, the foundation has continued to add textiles to the collection. The foundation is primarily a research institute, which publishes scholarly treatises, and has a textile conservation workshop, which offers a degree course in Textile Conservation and Restoration.  

Because photography is prohibited, I purchased a number of postcards, and a very informative book:
Treasures of the Abegg-Stiftung, Catherine Depeirraz  ISBN 3-905014-22-X

The first item in the book, and the oldest, is a double-headed Hacilar vessel from what is now southwestern Turkey, from the 6th millennium BC.  

I also loved a small bronze statue of Horus the falcon, from Egypt. Being familiar with a larger one at the MFA in Boston, it was like running into an old friend. I was charmed with the manner of his display, as he was standing there looking wistfully out the unusual stance in a museum, but so appropriate for a bird who was considered the God of the Sky.

A piece that many textile people would "ooh" and "aah" over is the 3D Cross-knit looped decorative trim from Peru, 1st-3rd Century AD. The colors are still bright, and the hummingbirds and flowers intact.

I am familiar with small Coptic tapestries that were woven as decorative details for garments, and we saw some excellent examples, but I had never seen or heard of large tapestry wall hangings from Egypt like the ones at Abegg.

Dionysus, (Egypt, 4th C, linen and wool) is 210 cm high and 700 cm wide (after reconstruction: the fragments are stitched to a background fabric).  It shows 8 figures standing under decorated arches, including Dionysus and his love, Ariadne.

It is very finely woven, and most of the colors are still bright. It was found buried in sand in the Egyptian desert. You can see an image of it, from a distance, in this excellent article from Hali (along with a detail of the next item).

(LEFT: Dionysus detail)

I was surprised and delighted by a large tapestry of winged horses, (Egypt, 4th-5th C) because of its still vibrant red wool warp, which matched the background weft.  Parts of this tapestry are a bright white, which made me wonder if those areas could be cotton. Bright white wool is very hard to come by, and often yellows with time....but wouldn't cotton have rotted? A mystery...

There is a case with 8 exquisite small tapestry fragments, from clothing. One fragment from a neckline trim (Egypt, 3rd-4th century), is only 20 cm high, by 31 cm wide, yet it includes images of hunters with weapons, flowers, lions. This piece has lost all of the red wool background weft, possibly due to substances in the red dye, but the delicacy of the images is still evident.

Spring and Summer,” (Egypt, 3rd-4th C, about 10x10” each, wool) is two pieces from a set of 4 small tapestries of the seasons, very finely woven. Click on the link for a photo.

(LEFT: Elijah, detail)

A large hanging titled Elijah (linen and wool, Egypt, 4th - 6th C, 309 x 344 cm) is like nothing I have seen before. It shows scenes from the Old Testament, all rendered in brightly colored, coarse wool, looped pile on a natural linen background.

(RIGHT: Central Asian Skirt fragment, detail)

This large fragment of a skirt (Central Asia, 3rd-1st century BC, Wool, 51cm x 102.5 cm) is bright red fabric top and bottom, with a tapestry border of stylized animals between. The catalog says that it “ appears to originate from a small independent pastoral culture that can be only very loosely associated with other known Eurasian steppe cultures.” 

In addition to the impressive collection, the way it is displayed could not be better. The obvious attention to detail in every aspect of this museum is astonishing. It may be inconvenient, but it should be on all your lists of places you hope to visit someday.

NOTE: Click on an image to see it larger