Artist, Bauhaus Teacher and Museum Director – Johannes Itten at Zurich Central Library

Zurich Central Library (Zentralbibliothek Zürich) is one of the largest libraries in Switzerland. However, few people are aware that besides its more than six million books, its holdings also comprise about one million drawings, prints, postcards, photographs, paintings, sculptures, and the world’s largest collection of photochrom prints. Some of these works are part of artists’ bequests, such as the one of Johannes Itten (1888–1967) that is currently on view. Jochen Hesse, Head of the Graphic Collection and the Photo Archive, met with Ars Graphica Swiss for a private visit of the exhibition.

Itten’s biography and interests are almost as vast as the Zentralbibliothek’s collections. He is well known for having been recruited by Walter Gropius (1883–1969) to teach at Bauhaus Weimar. Later on, he first served as the director of Zurich’s art school (Kunstgewerbeschule Zürich) and then as the founding director of Museum Rietberg, specialized in non-European art. Curators Urs Fischer and Christoph Wagner (who is currently preparing a catalogue raisonné on Itten) picked 120 out of 120,000 documents held by the Manuscript Department that allow for a broad glimpse of his multifaceted cosmos. Among those documents are exhibition views of textiles designed by Itten and of his show at the Venice Biennale where he represented Switzerland in 1966, as well as richly decorated letters to friends and colleagues and drawings related to his color theory.

This diversity of media reveals the challenges the Central Library is facing when it comes to cataloging, conserving and presenting objects, especially in the context of the Central Library primarily serving as a library and not a museum. Furthermore, Jochen Hesse shows commitment to preservation and accessibility. The institution not only provides appropriate storage facilities but also aims at making each document digitally accessible. These tasks become even more demanding because of recent and promised gifts by Zurich based galleries; for example as with the archive of gallerist Susanna Kulli, bequeathed to the Central Library in 2017. On the one hand, donations like hers are pointing to the fact that Switzerland is lacking a central gallery archive such as the ZADIK in Germany. On the other hand, they are representative of the comprehensive holdings of the Central Library, many of which are still waiting to be discovered by art and works on paper enthusiasts.

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