A dedicated designer of the humane

The Basel painter Karl Aegerter found a new home in the Engadin

by Heini Hofmann

One of the last expressionists, Karl Aegerter (1888–1969), was not only a painter  recognized beyond the country’s borders, a draftsman, and illustrator, graphic artist but also a selfless advocate for all those who were less fortunate. Actually, he could have made a career in Munich, but for reasons of health he had to stay at a health spa in Graubünden, where he left  his traces. Posthumously St. Moritz has now become his second home town.
On 16 March 1888, Karl Aegerter was born as  the third child of a peasant family on a “Heimetli” (small mountain farm) in the Langen Erlen, near Basel. His parents had moved  from the Gotthelf country Emmental – their hometown was Röthenbach. But life was hard to him: In that very year his mother died.

Afoot from Basel to Munich

The father has to move to another Heimet. Here all his cattle was drowned during a flood. He was left with nothing. The boy was savoured against money. With six years he enters a home for poor children. A.C. Looslis “Life in an institution“ says Hello. Therefore, the early teenage years already shape Karl Aegertes’ social compassion and action. Hence, as early as a little kid he learns what suffering, worries, loneliness and poverty mean.
After finishing school, he earns a first crust in the factory and after that he  takes up an apprenticeship as a decorative painter. But although raised in economic hardship he has a dream. Like his ten-year-older brother he wants to become a painter. In 1915, with some money that he had put aside, the 27-year old wanders afoot (!) to Munich, enters the Drawing School with the Starnberger painter Professor Heinrich Knirr and completes a four year-study at the Academy of Fine Arts.
Soon it shows – and  the First (and later also the Second) World War spur this tendency on – that  he, embossed by the early shadows of life will be no l’art pour l’art-artist, but that for him art also  means an obligation to engage in ethical and social-critical commitment. What the feather was for Emile Zola, was the brush for Karl Aegerter. Thus, the blind and disabled, war injured, abandoned and desperate, refugees and starving, the very old men and the lonely  were the themes of his first large painting cycle “People of Today”.

Spa stay at the  Grisons

Artists, especially when they get emotionally involved for a good thing, do  not spare themselves. In 1924, for health reasons Aegerter has to leave the city of Munich. Where does he go to cure himself? He goes to the therapeutic landscape of the Alps which in the meantime has became epitome with its European- wide famous climate cure: to be precise, the Grisons. Anyhow, his life is like a journey in stages. This also applies to his work. While in Munich the focus was on human destinies, here in the mountains, in nature, he turns to landscape painting.
He becomes truly aware of these parallels between man and nature. Both have to prevail, to struggle for light, to free themselves. The wild mountain nature becomes for him  a parable of human life and the struggle for survival. Therefore, not flower meadows, mountains and sparkling lakes are his preference, but the struggle of the elements of nature: pathless wilderness, deep gorges, fall slopes, whirlpool water and harshness.
Karl Aegerter finds such motifs in the Rhine Gorge and the Via Mala, the Julier and Albula Pass or on his hikes in the Engadin. He crosses the Albula on foot, works in Sils-Maria and travels, the Zarathustra in his luggage, up to the Julier Pass. But he also paints in the Bernese Oberland, in the Valais, in the canton of Uri, in the Jura, and of course in the Regio Basiliensis.

Two people – one disposition

In 1932, Karl Aegerter marries his soulmate Elisabeth Gerter who has worked her way up as a simple embroiderer and later, on her own initiative as a Red Cross nurse to the sought-after writer. Both  are not particularly fond of working in the aloof Artist Olymp, but their way is participation in the real life and the concerns of the people.
Several trips lead Karl Aegerter to different countries and cities, from Paris to Moscow and from Berlin to Rome. His work finds meets with immense precipitation when visiting the miners of the coal mines of the Borinage, the Ruhr area from Belgium at night: gaunt figures with dark, furrowed faces, marked by silicosis.
His wife Elisabeth accompanies him. That, which he captures in his pictures, his wife describes in a novel, since for both social compassion is the mandatory basis of their art. Anyway, both are of the opinion that art should not lead a life high above the reality of existence, but should bring a genuine humane set of mind into the darkness of the times. After Elisabeth Gerter’s death, Karl Aegerter marries again. His second wife, Martha Buchser, takes care of his work even after his death (1969).

Social involvement in politics

Another stage in Aegerter’s life journey let him, temporarily mutate from a painter into a politician, also with the intention of bringing about a juster world. As the long-time president of the Basle section of professional association of painters, sculptors and architects he advocates the social improvement of his  fellow artists, he is member of the Basle Cantonal Parliament for nine years and acts as judge.
During this time, he develops a friendships with Walter Bringolf and Hans Peter Tschudi, an SP Member who later writes to him as Federal Councillor: “Each of your pictures is extraordinarily thrilling in its own way, and the more thrilling, the more and the longer one delves into it. This is true, noble art.” And later the same in a preface about Aegerter: “Not with empty words, but with impressive pictures he wanted to shape the world not only more beautiful, but also improve it.”
The Basle artist colleague Heinz Fiorese aptly characterizes him as follows: “The immersion into his work takes time, because it is particular, breaks through the traditional aspects and is so to speak difficult to inhale,” a fact that  “initially earned him some hesitation in following his artistic world”. But that was soon to change!

Staying modest despite fame

Already during his lifetime he enjoyed great recognition. Exhibitions in the Art Museums of Berne, Lucerne, Zurich, Basel, Geneva, Solothurn, Schaffhau-sen and Lausanne, as well as in Munich, Dresden and Brussels gave evidence of this. The Art Museum Basel possesses some of Aegerter’s works, others are privately owned. And there are still large murals in existence. It is due to the gallery owner Franz Rödiger that the remaining overall work (paintings, woodcuts, drawings and sketches) have now found a new home in the gallery Curtin in St. Moritz.
Despite fame and honour this artist remains humble and true to himself until his death in 1969. He does not want to paint “nicely” but “truly”. But how does Rodin put it: “Everything that has a character, is beautiful.” If art tries to represent poverty and misery, this often seems academically contrived. Not so with Karl Aegerter, because he painted as he authentically felt, out of his own life story.
Therefore, the Saarbrücken Sociology Professor Georg Goriely appropriately described him as “painter of the humane”, for whom his art is supposed to help “change the world and to force others to deal with those problems, for which they  are generally  deaf and inaccessible”. He concludes: “His art is timeless and always modern, it is a permanent current call of man for humaneness.” The daily horror reports about wars and refugees prove him right!     •

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