The artist who came in from the cold

"American Saloons from Tragic New York" - a 1939 finger painting by Soutter

An exhibition in Basel sheds light on a little-known Swiss artist whose works have been described as one of the great achievements of 20th century art.

This content was published on November 7, 2002 minutes

Louis Soutter (1871-1942) was an artist whose significance and innovative impact have, in the opinion of many art experts, yet to be fully appreciated.

Born in Morges on Lake Geneva, Soutter's works have won plaudits as a unique creative explosion.

This extensive, representative selection of about 100 drawings, 90 paintings and six illustrated books, at the Basel Kunstmuseum until January 5, will introduce Soutter's work to a wide public - and give the artist the recognition he deserves.

In fact to drive home his point that the artist ranks among such avant-garde contemporaries as Picasso, Matisse, Mirò, Klee, Giacometti and Le Corbusier, curator Hartwig Fischer has presented Soutter's works - for the first time - parallel to works by them from the museum's permanent collection.

To understand why Soutter has not yet been more widely acknowledged as a major artist it is necessary to consider the extraordinary life he led.

Promising career

From a family of musicians, he first studied music before turning to drawing and painting.

In 1897 he moved to the United States and successfully headed a new art department at Colorado College. But this promising career came to an abrupt end in 1903 when Soutter fell ill and returned to Switzerland.

In the years that followed, he played the violin with the symphony orchestras of Lausanne and Geneva, later in silent film theatres and resort hotels, and finally led the life of what's been described as "a vagabond dandy".

The family filed for guardianship in 1915 and, in 1923, placed him in the old people's home at Ballaigues in Canton Vaud where - against his will - he spent the last 19 years of his life.

Curator Fischer says the narrow-minded and strongly Protestant milieu into which he had been born helps explain the decision to have him confined.

"Soutter had difficulties with what we might call a bourgeois existence," he told swissinfo.

"He had problems making a living and so on, and eventually the family grew tired of paying his bills."

Visionary drawings

But in the old people's home, Soutter flowered as an artist. Between 1923 and 1930 a stream of visionary drawings in pen and ink took shape in exercise books - often the only paper available.

He drew plants, flowers, ornaments, architecture, and images of fantasy inspired by the Bible, Dante and Shakespeare.

From these the artist moved on to larger drawings made between 1930 and 1936, in which he explored the same themes in endless variations in his groups of seductive, menacing, suffering women and in the so-called Sans Dieu, the "godless".

After 1936 Soutter also began to work with printer's ink and paint, which he applied with his fingers.

Dark figures appeared in the larger pictures and many works at this time also depicted the Passion of Christ and the crucifixion.


A highly developed artistic consciousness and experimental techniques led to the hallucinatory, mysterious and symbolic compositions of Soutter's late oeuvre, which have lost none of their disturbing impact and fascination.

His output was prolific - but its quality was largely unrecognised.

"He was so very much isolated," says Fischer. "During his lifetime few people took notice of what he did.

"Also, his work was quite exceptional. The way he painted with his fingers was unique.

"Perhaps people had difficulty accepting that someone allowed his psychic energies to come out and manifest themselves on paper in such a direct and ferocious way.

"Here you have an artist who took the liberty of letting it flow, not as a simple primitive but as a highly sophisticated artist."

Le Corbusier

Only a handful of people appreciated his talent, including his cousin Le Corbusier.

"That support from such a great artist was of crucial importance," said Fischer.

"You can imagine that for somebody shut away in an old people's home, drawing and working all alone, such recognition opened up a whole world."

Le Corbusier enthusiastically made Soutter's work known by contacting important collectors during visits to Paris and the United States.

Some of Soutter's drawings were sold, but as Fischer points out, the artist was never himself involved in the art market and tended to give his pictures away.

Louis Soutter died alone in Ballaigues in 1942.

swissinfo, Richard Dawson

Louis Soutter

Soutter first studied music before turning to drawing and painting.
Aged 57, he was placed in an old people's home where he flourished as an artist.
During his later years, he experimented by painting with his fingers.

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