Work has started on the biggest painting in the world, high up on the Grimsel dam in the heart of the Bernese Alps.
When completed, the painting will cover a surface area of 15,000 square metres, and will appear as a colourful three-dimensional design visible from kilometres away.
Seven painters, led by graphic artist Pierre Mettraux, are working on the project 260 feet above the ground on a platform suspended by wire cables.
The platform is accessed via a narrow walkway, affording spectacular views over a nature reserve and the road snaking its way up towards the Grimsel Pass.
It is clearly not a job for the faint-hearted: the crew all had to undergo psychological tests and learn survival techniques before being allowed to take part.
Mettraux insists safety is the main priority: “You have to understand that this wall is 120 metres high, and if something happens, these people will die.”
The work is very tiring and rather claustrophobic, as the artists are jammed against the wall of the dam for hours on end.
There is a shift change every four hours, when the cradle is raised to the top and a new crew steps on board.
Big is better
Mettraux, a former shoe designer for Bally, has earned a reputation as a creator of large-scale works of art.
For the Swiss national exhibition in 2002, he built giant doll figures that bobbed in the waters of Lake Murten. He is also famous for creating the biggest Easter egg in the world.
“Big is better because it allows you to do things that people find unbelievable,” Mettraux told swissinfo. “Another thing is you don’t have to go into so much detail.”
The artist had wanted to paint dream sequences on the dam wall in Räterichsboden, but the Swiss authorities rejected the idea, arguing that such a painting would not fit in with the natural surroundings.
He then came up with the more acceptable idea of “Mélisande”, a female water figure from Flemish folklore, featured in Claude Debussy’s only opera, “Pelléas et Mélisande”.
The painting – in hues of green and blue – depicts the many faces of the tragic water beauty, with her long, flowing hair.
“This gives a certain romantic harmony and doesn’t offend anyone,” commented Mettraux.
His team works from a small-scale picture broken up into a grid, so that it can be reproduced on a larger scale on the dam wall. One centimetre on paper translates to one metre on concrete.
Mettraux sketches out the design, and his team members paint over it.
“They have to try to imagine what the painting will look like from a long way away,” he said.
The artist had to find sponsors for the cleaning materials to prepare the surface of the dam wall before the work began, as well as for the 10,000 litres of paint.
The project is also receiving financial backing from the dam owners, Grimsel Power, based in nearby Innertkirchen.
There is enough money to pay for food and accommodation for the crew, as well as providing them with a little pocket money.
“Dams are pretty unpopular, but when an artist comes along and turns it into a work of art, that’s pretty interesting,” said Ernst Baumberger, head of communications at Grimsel Power.
Mettraux will continue working on the wall until the onset of winter. Painting will resume at the end of April 2005 and is due to be finished in the summer.
The painting is set to enter the Guinness Book of Records as the largest in the world, but the artist has more aesthetic aims in mind.
He says he wants, above all, to provide a new attraction for the Grimsel region.
“Paris has its Eiffel Tower, Zermatt has the Matterhorn, and the Bernese Alps now has its Mélisande”.
swissinfo, Julie Hunt at the Grimsel Pass
700 million cubic metres of water fall in the area every year
This is used to create enough electricity for one million people
The power station offers hikes and excursions combining the wonders of hydroelectric power and the natural environment
The company is supporting the painting project in a bid to attract more visitors to the area.
A former shoe designer has started work on what is set to become the largest painting in the world.
It depicts a folklore figure with flowing hair, painted in blue and green on the Grimsel dam wall.
But executing a giant painting 260 feet above ground is not without risks.