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Exhibition searches soul of Hesse

Hesse (seated in deckchair) with his Zurich friends in 1926 Keystone

"A Journey through my inner Hell" is the harrowing title of a Zurich exhibition about the German-born writer Hermann Hesse and his life in Switzerland.

This content was published on March 27, 2002 - 17:25

But although it focuses on a time of personal crisis, the exhibition at the Swiss national museum also sheds light on happier moments of Hesse's life and provides an insight into how he worked on two of his greatest books, "Siddhartha" and "Steppenwolf".

The exhibition marks the year of the 125th anniversary of the birth of the most widely-read German-speaking author of the 20th century. Over 100 million copies of his books have been sold and translated into nearly 60 languages.

Hesse spent most of his life in Switzerland and acquired Swiss nationality in 1923. The Hermann Hesse Foundation, which is presenting the exhibition in collaboration with the museum, is based in the village of Montagnola in Canton Ticino. Hesse lived in the canton for the final 43 years of his life and died in Montagnola in 1962.

Critical moment

The title is Hesse's description of his life in the period after World War I and during the 1920s when he lived in Zurich and Ticino. "It was a point of crisis for him," the foundation's director Regina Bucher told swissinfo.

"He was separated from his family, and lacked any orientation in life. His books were banned in Germany because of the anti-war views expressed in them, and he didn't have enough money to live. So he looked inside himself."

This self-searching resulted in "Siddhartha" (1922) and "Steppenwolf" (1927), which Bucher believes are as relevant today as when they were written: "The message is that you must have the courage to recognise yourself, and accept yourself for what you are. Don't be afraid to go your own way," she says.

The exhibition tells the story of - in the words of the catalogue - "a man at odds with himself". It illustrates how he often talked through the night with his circle of artistic friends in Zurich - or spent the night dancing. But it also shows his antisocial side.

Personal darkness

"He alternated between life in the big city and long periods spent at a small village in Ticino," said Bucher. "He felt such loneliness at the age of 48 that he spoke of committing suicide at 50."

In fact Hesse went on make an outstanding contribution to the world's art heritage and in 1946 was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.

The Zurich exhibition - others are taking place this year in Switzerland and abroad - includes original manuscripts as well as his formidable-looking typewriter and the desk on which he worked.

It also casts light on a less well-known aspect of his life - as a painter.

"Hesse took up painting during his crisis," said Bucher, "portraying the beautiful landscape around his home in Montagnola. He said painting was more important to him than writing. It gave him peace and the courage to go on with life."

Original watercolours by Hesse are displayed at the Zurich exhibition, which ends on July 14.

by Richard Dawson

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