Key visual of the exhibition "In the forest

In the Forest

A Cultural History

Exhibition | accessibility.time_to


The forests – used by people for centuries – have faced increasing destruction since the 19th century on account of industrialisation. Figures such as Paul Sarasin and later on Bruno Manser came forward and campaigned for the protection of the forests. The exhibition shows our relationship with the forest through representation in literature and art: once exaggerated by the romantics as a safe haven from civilisation, artists’ depictions of the forest are today dominated by the subject of climate change.

With works by Guido Baselgia, Denise Bertschi, Julian Charrière, Franz Gertsch, Klaus Littmann, Ugo Rondinone, Shirana Shahbazi, Thomas Struth and photographs by James Barclay, Julien Coquentin, Erik Pauser, Mutang Urud, Alberto Venzago.


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In the Forest. A Cultural History

National Museum Zurich | 18.3.2022 - 17.7.2022
published on 16.3.2022

Used. Destroyed. Protected. The relationship between humankind and the forest has changed over the past few centuries. A new exhibition at the National Museum shows that this transformation has had an impact on culture, art and literature.

The forests – used by people for centuries – have faced increasing destruction since the 19th century on account of industrialisation. And this destruction has extended to a large proportion of the resident fauna and flora. But not everyone has focused solely on the economic aspects. People such as Paul Sarasin (1856-1929), naturalist and co-founder of the Swiss National Park, campaigned for nature protection, and succeeded in initiating a gradual change in thinking in some parts of society: a move away from reckless exploitation and towards a slowly growing awareness that we need to be more careful with the environment. These are the first steps towards environmentalism. The total dedication of Bruno Manser, who went to Borneo in the 1980s to join forces with nomadic jungle-dwellers to fight against the clearance of their rainforest habitat, shows that this “journey” doesn’t necessarily stop at one’s own national borders. And Manser eventually paid for his dedication with his life. In his richly illustrated notebooks, which are on display in the exhibition, he recorded his impressions in drawings and words.

Humankind’s relationship with the forest, which has endured over the centuries, is also reflected in scores of artistic and literary works. And this relationship has been changing constantly. While artists and writers in the Romantic period saw the forest as a place of retreat and a source of calm in the midst of an increasingly frenetic world, in the classical modern period it was elevated to the purest form of aesthetics and sublime grandeur.

In 20th-century art, the subject of the forest increasingly developed into a political statement against rampant environmental degradation. This fundamental idea has persisted up to the present day, even though the forms and the means are different now than they were just a few decades ago. At the same time, the ideas from the Romantic period, of seeing the forest once again as a place of contemplation, peace and relaxation, are more relevant than ever. We still live in an accelerating world in which more and more people feel the need to seek out a place of peaceful retreat.

The exhibition ends with Ugo Rondinone’s tree sculpture – more than a portent of global warming. Other pieces by contemporary artists such as Guido Baselgia, Denise Bertschi, Julian Charrière, Franz Gertsch, Shirana Shahbazi and Thomas Struth show that today we can experience the forest as a complete, single entity. Visitors can also take a seat in the “Arena for the Tree” in the National Museum’s inner courtyard and ponder the future of the forest. At the centre of this work by artist Klaus Littmann is a stark, leafless tree, encouraging observers to think about their own relationship with the forest.


The oak forest as a favourite motif

Robert Zünd painted the same oak forest several times, almost identically. Owing to his meticulous style of painting, he holds a special position in Swiss landscape painting. Robert Zünd (1827–1909), Eichwald, 1859, Oil on canvas, 77,7 x 104,2 cm.

Kunstmuseum Luzern, Depositum der Stiftung BEST Art Collection Luzern, vormals Bernhard Eglin-Stiftung, Inv.-Nr. M 87x, © Kunstmuseum Luzern, Photo: Roberto Pellegrini

The Woodcutter

Ferdinand Hodler’s Holzfäller stands for strength and resilience Ferdinand Hodlers Holzfäller ist Symbol für Stärke und Widerstandskraft. This heroic conqueror of nature will himself become the biggest threat. Ferdinand Hodler (1853–1918), Der Holzfäller, 1910, Oil on canvas, 129.5 x 100 cm.

Kunstsammlung der Schweizerischen Mobiliar Genossenschaft

Art from the Gran Chaco, Paraguay

The artist Osvaldo Pitoe reminds us of the meaning of the forest, which is today seriously under threat from deforestation. Osvaldo Pitoe, untitled, 2015.

Collection Artes Vivas, Verena Regehr Gerber

Forestry school

Experts in forest protection from the ETH Zurich Forestry school. Pictured: graduates and professors, 1866.

Photo: Archiv Eidg. Forschungsanstalt WSL, Bildarchiv Knuchel-ETH, 1892-1952

Gathering leaves

Leaves were used as fodder for cattle for centuries; they were also used as litter in byres and pigsties, or to fill the duvet covers of the poor. Ernest Biéler (1863–1948), Ramasseuse de feuilles mortes, undated [ca. 1909], Watercolour and pencil on paper, 47 x 57,9 cm.

Musée d’art du Valais, Sion, inv. BA 2201 ©Musées cantonaux du Valais, Sion. Michel Martinez

Forestry school

One tree after the other falls to the floor creakingly. Julian Charrière’s Ever Since We Crawled Out gets to the heart of the matter: can we still save the forests, or will soon the last tree fall?

©Julian Charrière, 2022, ProLitteris, Zurich / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, Germany

Idealized wilderness

The uprooted fir trees stand for the elemental and uncontrollable forces of nature. Caspar Wolf composed this primeval forest in his studio in a theatrical mis en scène. Caspar Wolf (1735–1783), Romantische Waldlandschaft mit drei Figuren, die eine Felszunge besteigen, 1769, Oil on canvas, 63 x 53,5 cm.

Aargauer Kunsthaus Aarau, Depositum der Koch-Berner-Stiftung, Photo: Jörg Müller


In 1924 a landslide destroyed part of the village of Someo in Valle Maggia. The frequent landslides in Ticino are a result of the large-scale deforestation for the wood trade during the 19th century.

Photo: Anton Krenn, 1924, ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Bildarchiv, Hs_1360-0173-002

Bruno and Along Sega

Bruno Manser committed himself to protecting the forests and the Penan people living there. Pictured:Along Sega, leader and speaker of the Penan people, issued a powerful warning to the world regarding the impending destruction of the rainforest in Sarawak (Malaysia).

Photo: Erik Pauser, 1999

Diary of Bruno Manser

During his stay among the Penan in Sarawak from 1984 to 1990, Bruno Manser kept a diary in which he meticulously described and depicted what he saw.

Museum der Kulturen Basel, Schenkung Erbengemeinschaft Bruno Manser 2021, Inv.-Nr. IIc 25507.08

Five past twelve?

Ugo Rondinone’s sculpture modelled on a 2,000-year old olive tree from southern Italy serves as a portent of climate change. Ugo Rondinone (*1964), wisdom? peace? blank? all of this?, 2007, cast aluminium, white lacquer.

Collection Maja Hoffmann / Luma Foundation, Photo: Enzo Velo

Arena for a Tree

Klaus Littmann, Arena für einen Baum / Arena for a Tree, Kunstintervention 2022, Zurich.

Photo: Aviaticfilms, Courtesy of the KBH.G Cultural Foundation

A view of the exhibition.

© Swiss National Museum

A view of the exhibition.

© Swiss National Museum

A view of the exhibition.

© Swiss National Museum

A view of the exhibition.

© Swiss National Museum

A view of the exhibition.

© Swiss National Museum

Exhibition poster

Swiss National Museum

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With kind support of the Swiss National Park and the Kulturstiftung Basel H. Geiger «Arena for a Tree»

Exhibition imprint

  • Overall management Denise Tonella, Andreas Spillmann (bis | jusqu’au | sino a | till 31.3.2021)
  • Project direction and curators Pascale Meyer, Regula Moser
  • Co-curator Noëmi Crain Merz
  • Scenography and exhibition graphics Schmauder Und: Claudia Schmauder, Laura Murbach, Julia Castillo
  • Video projections Georg Lendorff
  • Research associates Marina Amstad, Manuel Kaufmann
  • Intern Luisa Heim
  • Scientific advisors Monika Gisler, Marlén Gubsch, Stephan Kunz, Bernhard Schär
  • Podcast – Christoph Keller
  • Technical management Debbie Sledsens, Mike Zaugg
  • Advisory committee Heidi Amrein, Beat Högger, Markus Leuthard, Sabrina Médioni, Denise Tonella
  • Project controlling Sabrina Médioni
  • Cultural Services and Museum Education Tanja Bitonti, Stefanie Bittmann, Lisa Engi, Vera Humbel
  • Advertising graphic Roli Hofer
  • Exhibition construction Janine auf der Maur, Bachir Ezzerari, Ladina Fait, Marc Hägeli, Mike Roder, Dave Schwitter
  • Object conservation and mounting Natalie Ellwanger, Iona Leroy, Anna Jurt, Charlotte Maier, Jürg Mathys, Sarah Longrée, Gaby Petrak , Alexandra Schorpp, Ulrike Rothenhaeusler
  • Loans and logistics Angela Zeier, Maya Jucker, David Blazquez
  • IT / Web Alex Baur, Ueli Heiniger, Danilo Rüttimann, René Vogel
  • Media stations Thomas Bucher, Pasquale Pollastro
  • Marketing and Communication Andrej Abplanalp, Anna-Britta Maag, Sebastiano Mereu, Carole Neuenschwander, Stefania Nicolini, Alexander Rechsteiner
  • Translations Marco Marcacci (I), Laurence Neuffer (F), Nigel Stephenson (E)

Items generously loaned by

  • Aargauer Kunsthaus Aarau
  • Naturama Aargau
  • Kostümkaiser, Aesch
  • Freilichtmuseum der Schweiz, Ballenberg
  • Bruno Manser-Fonds, Basel
  • Historisches Museum Basel
  • Kunstmuseum Basel
  • Museum der Kulturen, Basel
  • Naturhistorisches Museum Basel
  • Pro Natura, Basel
  • Schweizerisches Museum für Papier, Schrift und Druck, Basel
  • Staatsarchiv Basel-Stadt
  • Burgerbibliothek, Bern
  • Eigentum der Eidgenossenschaft, Bundesamt für Kultur, Bern
  • Kunstmuseum Bern
  • Kunstsammlung der Schweizerischen Mobiliar Genossenschaft, Bern
  • Schweizerische Nationalbibliothek, Bern
  • Robert Walser-Zentrum, Bern
  • Universit tsbibliothek Bern
  • Musée du Pays-d‘Enhaut, Château-d’OEx
  • Bündner Kunstmuseum Chur
  • Bündner Naturmuseum / Amt für Kultur, Chur
  • Rätisches Museum Chur
  • Staatsarchiv Graubünden, Chur
  • Kirchner Museum Davos
  • Museum Folkwang, Essen
  • Freies Deutsches Hochstift / Frankfurter Goethe-Museum, Frankfurt am Main
  • Fondation Bodmer Cologny, Genève
  • Regionalmuseum Surselva, Ilanz
  • Kunstmuseum Luzern
  • Graphische Sammlung München
  • Bilbliothèque publique et universitaire Neuchâtel
  • Hilti Art Foundation, Schaan, Liechtenstein
  • Musée d‘art du Valais, Sion
  • Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain de Strasbourg, Strassburg
  • The Princely Collections, Vaduz-Vienna
  • Stiftung für Kunst, Kultur und Geschichte, Winterthur
  • Gemeinde Zernez
  • Schweizerischer Nationalpark, Zernez
  • ETH-Bibliothek, Zürich
  • ETH Zürich Geologisches Institut
  • Graphische Sammlung ETH Zürich
  • Stadtarchiv Zürich
  • Werner Coninx Stiftung, Zürich
  • Zentralbibliothek Zürich
  • Zürcher Hochschule der Künste / Museum für Gestaltung Zürich

Private collections

  • Bern/Davos, E.W.K
  • Celia Caspar
  • Laurent Flutsch
  • Sammlung Maja Hoffmann / Luma Foundation
  • Klaus Littmann
  • Monika Niederberger
  • Ursula Regehr & Verena Clara Regehr Gerber