Aoife Rosenmeyer, 01.02.2024

Airy: Wolken Sammeln, Graphische Sammlung ETH Zürich

Arnold Heim, Einsame Farm auf der öden Hochfläche Südafrikas bei Kimberley, 26.02.1927 Glasdiapositiv 85 x 100 mm ETH-Bibliothek, BildarchivEinsame Farm auf der öden Hochfläche Südafrikas bei Kimberley

I’ve heard more than one colleague recently bemoan the thematic exhibition. In the service of an overarching idea, individual works are reduced to illustrations, they say. And that’s not to mention examples of painfully literal curating that can set your teeth on edge. So if at first I delighted at the prospect of this exhibition on cloud images, later I dreaded what it might be.

Reader – it parries criticism. Either curators Susanne Pollack and Nicole Graf have hit on the perfect subject that elides reduction or instrumentalization, or they have cunningly assembled works so that the upper hand flips continually between subject, author and curator.

The title is a trifle misleading, certainly the subtitle Himmelsbeute auf Papier, even kitschier in the English Catches from Heaven on Paper. In fact, it sets up an opening punch, which is far from heavenly, but a volcanic eruption photographed on Java by Arnold Heim in 1911. Next to it, Alexandra Navratil’s Krakatau 1930, 2021, recreating both an historic image and the marks of its aging medium, ensures we reconsider who recorded such images and why: for which academic or medial edifice would they provide a building block?

In the panelled gallery the exhibition proper starts, a general text framing a watercolour by Carl Gotthard Grass from around 1800: his Wolkenschau captures a magnificent mountain landscape, dramatic cloudscape and – on a little crag in the foreground – two artists, tourists or scientists with instruments recording it. As if prefiguring World Press Photo the artist shows us what happens beyond the frame, or the making of the dramatic image.

Wolkensammeln. Himmelsbeute auf Papier, 2024, Ausstellungsansicht Graphische Sammlung ETH Zürich

From then on, in broad thematic sweeps such as images of heaven, night landscapes, edifices in the sky or clouds in portraiture, artists wrestle or charm clouds into form. Nearly all the works are on paper, from old masters to the contemporary. Yet again the institution revels in the breadth and depth of its collection: seven centuries are presented here. We find that artists often projected built worlds onto clouds, particularly before a view above was possible, oftentimes odd and sometimes absurd meetings of ephemeral and concrete. Konrad Grob’s Allegorie der Malerei drawn in pastel between 1845 and 1902 has comely figures perched on a cloud as robust as a stiff mattress. It emerges too that something about the phenomenon of clouds, being both banal and fantastic, defies an artistic signature. Felix Vallaton’s woodcut, for example, is crisply stylish, but as such is one of the least interesting works here. There is, however, more than plenty that delights, like Meret Oppenheim’s playful clouds in paper revealed when daylight streams through, or a small black and white photograph from 1973 by Urs Lüthi – simply three pretty clouds catching sunlight.

Meret Oppenheim, Ohne Titel, Blatt 6 aus der Folge «Elf Wolken», 1971, Wasserzeichen auf handgeschöpftem Papier 215 x 305 mm, Graphische Sammlung ETH Zürich © ProLitteris

Prints from the Graphische Sammlung ETH Zürich constitute the majority of images on display, although photographic reprints from the ETH Image Library are fruitfully interwoven. Is this what clouds really look like, or are artists the better observers? How much and what do geographers or aviators see; how much do artists fictionalise? Perennial questions are revived by this mercurial subject. To close, or open, depending on the direction from which you approach the gallery, is an analysis of clouds captured on paper over the centuries of printmaking. It is enlightening, while slightly comical and irrelevant too, for I’m sure artists will continue to be captivated by, and try to capture, clouds for many more years to come.

Wolkensammeln. Himmelsbeute auf Papier, Graphische Sammlung ETH Zürich, 6.12. 2023–10.3. 2024