Esther Gonstalla (1985), Das Wald....und der Mensch. Aus das Waldbuch. Alles was man wissen muss, in 50 Grafiken, 2021. Ausstellung Im Wald. Eine Kulturgeschichte. Landesmuseum Zürich. Photo/Foto: TES.

Cultural History of the Forest

The exhibition (Im Wald. Eine Kulturgeschichte) presents the (Swiss and European) natural and cultural history of the use, deforestation, protection and emergence of professional forestry in the 19th century and the perception of the forest in art from the Middle Ages to the present in literature, visual art and films.

Cultural History of the Forest

The exhibition welcomes the visitor with a painting, the woodcutter, der Holzfäller (1910), by Ferdinand Hodler ((1853-1918), in a beautiful setting of a rustling forest with birdsong.

The show ends with an aluminium artwork by Udo Rondinos (wisdom? peace? blank? all of this ?, 2007), a lifelike dead Italian olive tree, against a cinematic backdrop by Julian Charrière (Ever Since We Crawled Out, 2018), of the cutting down of forest giants and trees on all continents.

The Forest and Humankind

Humankind’s relationship with the forest has changed over the past two centuries. Two hundred years ago, the forest was still a ‘no go area’ and not a place for leisure. Until the French Revolution, the forest was the location for aristocratic hunters, cattle grazing, food and deforestation for agricultural land.

Due to industrialisation, population growth, urbanisation, construction of (rail) roads, tourism, and the enormous demand for (fire) wood, the forest disappeared rapidly in the 19th century, first in Europe and later on other continents.

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1729-1776) introduced a different view of the forest at the end of the eighteenth century. The forest was regarded as an oasis of peace and natural beauty.

These developments were also reflected in changing views in art. Artists of the Middle Ages (up to the fifteenth century), the early modern period (from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century), the Enlightenment (eighteenth century) and the Romantic period (1790-1850) saw the forest with different eyes than artists of Realism (1859-1900), Classical Modernism (1900-1940) and the 20th and 21st centuries.

In the latter part of the 20th century, the forest (and climate) also became a political theme, partly connected with colonial history and the colonies’ exploitation of people and nature.

However, there were also positive developments in Switzerland, Europe, and on a global scale, for example, the creation of (Swiss) national parks and nature reserves and the world and national nature conservation organisations.

The exhibition

The exhibition (accessible in German, English and French) is divided into five themes, a prologue and an epilogue.

The first section deals with the use of forests from the Romans to the 19th century. It is followed by artistic representation from the Middle Ages to the middle of the 20th century. The exhibition shows various works of medieval art (including a beautiful tapestry) and many later works of art, among others, by Alexandre Calame (1810-1864), Caspar Wolf (1735-1783), Gustave Doré (1832-1883), Robert Zünd (1827-1909) and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938).

The creation of national parks and nature conservation in the 19th and 20th centuries are the focus of the next topic, including the life story of the first Swiss forestry inspector and co-initiator of the Swiss National Park, Johann Wilhelm Coaz (1822-1918) and Paul Sarasin (1856-1929), founder of the first world conservation organisation in 1913.

The show continues with contemporary art, including works by Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) and Christo (1935-2020) and artists from other continents.

The final section deals with the forest’s contemporary meaning, threat and transformation and the many initiatives to protect it and adapt it to the new era.

The exhibition gives an impressive and well-documented overview of the topic forest and does justice to its title. The tribute to the Swiss activist Bruno Manser (1954-2000) is sympathetic. He was particularly committed to the preservation of the rainforests in Malaysia. Two others, Anita Guidi (1890-1978) and Armin Caspar (1909-1991), were already active in the Amazon region in 1945 for the same reason.

The Arena

In the inner courtyard of the museum, the artist Klaus Littmann (1951) has again installed the Arena for a Tree (Arena für einen Baum), following the performance and exhibition “Tree Connections” in Basel in the spring of 2021.

The Arena is the same, but the dead tree differs from the Persian iron tree in Basel. The artist will also present the project in Venice and other European cities.

(Source and further information: National Museum, Zurich,