THIS IS THE FINAL INSTALLMENT OF A SPECIAL COMMISSION FOR OUR FOOD FOR THOUGHT SERIES. FOCUSING ON EACH OF THE FOUR CLASSICAL ELEMENTS – WATER, EARTH, FIRE AND AIR – AMERICAN NOVELIST JESSI JEZEWSKA STEVENS PLACES OLD MASTER PAINTINGS IN THE CONTEXT OF OUR CHANGING AND THREATENED CLIMATE.
The opening of The Magic Mountain finds German literature’s most memorable “everyman,“ Hans Castorp, rising through the “ineffable, phantasmagoric Alpine peaks” to alight at Davos-Platz. He’s come for Switzerland’s famous air, and to visit his tubercular cousin Joachim, a patient at a fictionalized version of the , where Thomas Mann’s own wife spent a number of months. The laws of time, space, and medicine become increasingly warped in the “alien air,” as the plot proceeds in a series of compounded ironies. Though Castorp intends to make a three-week visit, he winds up staying seven years. He arrives a healthy man and leaves a sick one, doomed to the trenches of the First World War.
Mann’s fantastical allegory for Europe’s feverish, pre- and post-war state remains one of the most enduring metaphors for cultural illness in the Western canon, immortalizing the double-valence of a world said to be in need of “fresh air.” But he was hardly the only one to mediate illnesses both figurative and literal, through the motif of the Alps. German Expressionist painter Ernst Ludwig Kirschner, , arrived at Davos’s sanatorium-studded paradise in 1917 to live out a real-life version of Castorp’s accidental convalescence. Kirschner remained in Davos for the next 20 years, healing and painting. The neon palette of (1923; image above) glows with the same phantasmagoric, almost psychedelic, atmosphere of Mann’s alien alpine approach.
Contemporary Davos remains a rarefied place, today for acting as the permanent host of the infamous World Economic Forum. The week I set out to investigate Switzerland’s “alien air” myself, the 2023 Forum was ongoing, sending local prices skyrocketing. I headed to Basel instead, where the Kunstmuseum is home to Europe’s oldest public art collection, and where Kirschner’s Davos in Winter hangs. The Swiss cultural capital is less known for mountain views than for the Rhine and its art (come summer, local prices will experience a similar spike with the opening of Art Basel), but stepping out of the train station on a cold, clear day, the winter air nevertheless tasted especially pure. Above all, it felt expensive.
Switzerland’s reputation for pure, salutary air is concomitant with the rise of modernism—as well as with the rise of the epidemics of nervousness, anxiety, and airborne illness that accompanied urbanization. The high-altitude cure of “diluted” mountain air, prescribed for the increasing numbers of patients suffering from consumption and neurosis, was popularized in the 1850s. The first sanatorium dedicated exclusively to tuberculosis patients — who doctors recognized were to be quarantined from the healthy population – was opened in Davos by . Sanatorium Turban soon became the model par excellence for the treatment of consumption, popularizing the extreme regimens later adopted in Mann’s novel, where patients on indulgent diets lie outside for hours in all weather in order to “purify” the lungs. The governing aesthetic and medical principle of the sanatorium was “,” a tenet reified in the sparse but airy architecture. The uncluttered spaces were easy to sanitize, while wide windows welcomed in ample air and light. The architectural style soon became an aesthetic phenomenon in its own right; historians have speculated over its influence on .
There was no cure for tuberculosis until the discovery of novel antibiotics in the 1950s, suggesting that the success of the sanatorium model drew less from hard medical research than from deeper, more Romantic associations with the Alps. The evangelization of Switzerland’s alpine majesty dates back to Les Vues Remarquables des montagnes de la Suisse, an 18th-century “travelog” of mountainscape prints by the Swiss-German painter Caspar Wolf. A precursor of the Romantic sublime, and today known for his geologically accurate, foreboding depictions of glaciers, shorn cliffs, and summits, Wolf completed his training in Paris. Not long after, his patron the Bernese publisher Abraham Wagner commissioned him for a series of 200 canvases of Switzerland’s famous peaks. Executed over a series of treks taken between 1774 and 1779, the commission left Wolf the first painter to stake his easel into the treacherous moonscapes of the Alps’ harshest scenes—a rugged version of the “plein air” style that overtook Rome a century before. These preparatory oil-sketches, completed on site, informed his groundbreaking canvases of the inhospitable yet mesmerizing terrain. The majority of Wolf’s original canvases and prints today belong to the collection at Basel, including highlights like Finsteraargletscher mit Blick auf das Finsteraarhorn, a portrait of the highest peak in Bern canton. Even in the gallery, it dominates the view.
There’s an ambivalence to the legend of pure, alpine air reflected in both Mann and Wolf’s studies. On the one hand, the alpine atmosphere is associated with recovery, health, progress, and freedom; on the other, treachery, sickness, tragic genius, and death. This fundamental tug-of-war between sanitized, “modern” values and antediluvian, romantic pessimism fractured the politics of Weimar Germany into a chaotic mosaic of communists, socialists, democrats, conservatives, nationalists, monarchists, and, of course, the Nazis. The fundamental tension between “bourgeois” egalitarianism and progress versus a more romantic, tragic pessimism would become enormously consequential to the rise of the Third Reich. It’s staged in The Magic Mountain’s famous debate between the liberal humanist Settembrini and the reactionary Naptha, each of whom believes Europe to have fallen “ill” with the ideology of the other. The two luminaries, eager to win over their naive pupil Castorp, differ radically in their recommended “cures.”
The fact that the rise of the Nazi Party was aided through its appropriation of Romantic-tragic tropes of spirit, nature, and death has left these motifs a deeply ambivalent legacy in the history of art, tainting many painters and philosophers working in those veins. Such is the case of 19th-century Swiss Symbolist painter Arnold Böcklin, for whom death and myth were constant – and sometimes comic – preoccupations. His most famous painting, , centerpiece to a sprawling collection of Böcklin’s work at Kunstmuseum Basel, held special sway over Hitler, who promoted the Basel-born painter while destroying and denigrating German Expressionists like Kirschner. After the 1930s, Böcklin’s mythic, grotesque canvases drew conflicting responses. He was held up by Clement Greenberg as a primary example of middle-class kitsch, praised by surrealist giants like Max Ernst and Dali; Duchamp half-jokingly – but certainly provocatively – once cited Böcklin as a major influence. He may have been drawn to the humorous potential in Böcklin’s work that, intentional or not, is evident in a bust like Basel, whose surprised expression twists abruptly from the wall. Böcklin‘s darker flirtations with the grotesque govern Die Pest (The Plague), centerpiece to a current retrospective of his work, in which Death personified descends upon a Basel-like town on the back of a pestilent dragon.
It isn’t easy to shake the sense of being an outsider in Switzerland, whether paying in euros or in dollars. After visiting the collection, I met a translator for lunch in a casual food court near the station, where a plate of stir-fry clocked in at over 20 Swiss francs ($21). The price point seems related to the fact that Basel, like all Swiss cities, is so pristine. Centered around an enchanting old town of Neo-renaissance limestone, the alleys and archways empty out onto the Rhine. It strikes me there are very few places where you exit the train station overcome by the impulse to breathe deep, and fill your lungs.
Yet there’s something ambivalent – I would even say dangerous – about all fetishes for “purity,” as history has shown. One of Europe’s greenest nations, with 75% of its power sourced from renewables, Switzerland’s idyllic vistas are funded, in part, by a cagey finance and banking sector that helps to keep the fossil fuel economy afloat. 40% of the world’s coal is traded in commodity firms based in the stunning mountain villages of Zürich and Geneva, both perched on famously crystalline, glacial lakes. The week I visited Basel, the 2023 World Economic Forum attracted over a thousand private jets to Davos, half of them flying distances that could have easily been covered in a few hours by train. Yet, it was at last year’s edition that the director of the IMF Kristiana Georgieva declared before the world’s richest and most powerful people that combatting the climate crisis alongside a surge in global conflict and political fragmentation was the “biggest test since the Second World War.” There’s something in the air. Is it dread? These alpine vistas seem at once to legitimize our greatest ambitions and render them absurd: those snowy peaks are at once flamboyant, majestic, totally obscene.❖