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Art

Vivian Suter’s Paintings Bring the Forests of Guatemala to Berlin

Vivian Suter, studio view, Panajachel, Guatemala, 2018. Photo by David Regen. Courtesy of the artist; Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brüssel; House of Gaga; Karma International; and Proyectos Ultravioleta.

Vivian Suter, studio view, Panajachel, Guatemala, 2018. Photo by David Regen. Courtesy of the artist; Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brüssel; House of Gaga; Karma International; and Proyectos Ultravioleta.

Vivian Suter, Untitled, n.d. © Vivian Suter. Courtesy of the artist; Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brüssel; House of Gaga; Karma International; and Proyectos Ultravioleta.

Vivian Suter, Untitled, n.d. © Vivian Suter. Courtesy of the artist; Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brüssel; House of Gaga; Karma International; and Proyectos Ultravioleta.

The muddy paw prints roaming across one yellow canvas by the painter belong to the artist’s dog. Other paintings bear traces of the tropical forest where she lives: splinters of bark, dried fragments of leaves, specks of mud. Dangling loosely from the ceiling, her frameless paintings sway gently and catch the light. Escaped threads from the frayed edges trail down to the floor.
Visiting “Vivian Suter: Bonzo’s Dream” at Berlin’s Brücke-Museum is a little like finding a path through a serene yet festive campsite, winding past vibrant canvases that bring the natural world into the sunlit museum. Some paintings are also displayed outside, flapping in the breeze in the museum’s garden. For Suter, who escaped the comforts of her Swiss home for solitude in the Guatemalan jungle, the outdoors is perhaps a more fitting environment for her works than the confines of the museum’s interior.
Vivian Suter, studio view, Panajachel, Guatemala, 2018. Photo by David Regen. Courtesy of the artist; Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brüssel; House of Gaga; Karma International; and Proyectos Ultravioleta.

Vivian Suter, studio view, Panajachel, Guatemala, 2018. Photo by David Regen. Courtesy of the artist; Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brüssel; House of Gaga; Karma International; and Proyectos Ultravioleta.

The show, which opened as part of Berlin Art Week on September 13th, is the Brücke-Museum’s first exhibition of contemporary work. Its collection and focus centers almost exclusively on works by the artists, including , , , , , and . The exhibition also marks Suter’s first museum show in Germany. Her paintings are displayed alongside the meticulous collages made by her mother, , and works by Brücke artists that Wild selected from the museum’s collection.
Born in Buenos Aires in 1949, Suter and her parents moved to Switzerland in the 1960s. There, she studied at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Basel from 1967 to 1972. After some success as an artist in Switzerland, she turned her back on the art world in 1982 and traveled throughout Central America. For almost four decades, she has lived near Lake Atitlán in Guatemala. Her current home is a former coffee plantation on the outskirts of a remote village called Panajachel.
Elisabeth Wild, Untitled, 2018. Photo by Nick Ash. Courtesy the Estate of Elisabeth Wild; Karma International, Zurich; and Proyectos Ultravioleta, Guatemala City.

Elisabeth Wild, Untitled, 2018. Photo by Nick Ash. Courtesy the Estate of Elisabeth Wild; Karma International, Zurich; and Proyectos Ultravioleta, Guatemala City.

Vivian Suter, Untitled, n.d. © Vivian Suter. Courtesy of the artist; Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brüssel; House of Gaga; Karma International; and Proyectos Ultravioleta.

Vivian Suter, Untitled, n.d. © Vivian Suter. Courtesy of the artist; Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brüssel; House of Gaga; Karma International; and Proyectos Ultravioleta.

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Determined to devote herself to painting, Suter lives with her dogs, Tintin, Nina, and Bonzo, and is surrounded by a jungle-like garden with palms and ferns, as well as coffee plants and eucalyptus, mango, and avocado trees.
A defining moment in her art came after a tropical storm devastated her home and flooded her studio in 2005, leaving it knee-deep in mud. Initially horrified at the destruction, Suter cleaned and dried the paintings in her studio and soon began to see nature’s contribution as something beautiful and to be welcomed. She started to expose her works—which are neither titled nor dated—to the elements, allowing them to merge with the rain, falling leaves, insects, and mud. Sometimes she even buries her works and mixes her paints with rainwater, mud, and fish glue.
Elisabeth Wild, Untitled, 2018. Photo by Nick Ash. Courtesy the Estate of Elisabeth Wild; Karma International, Zurich; and Proyectos Ultravioleta, Guatemala City.

Elisabeth Wild, Untitled, 2018. Photo by Nick Ash. Courtesy the Estate of Elisabeth Wild; Karma International, Zurich; and Proyectos Ultravioleta, Guatemala City.

Vivian Suter, Untitled, n.d. © Vivian Suter. Courtesy of the artist; Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brüssel; House of Gaga; Karma International; and Proyectos Ultravioleta.

Vivian Suter, Untitled, n.d. © Vivian Suter. Courtesy of the artist; Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brüssel; House of Gaga; Karma International; and Proyectos Ultravioleta.

Her mother, Wild, who died earlier this year at the age of 98, had moved to Guatemala to live near her daughter in 1996. They collaborated closely, but their work could not be more different: Where Suter’s exuberant, organic, messy big canvases are expressive and emotional, her mother’s precise, small-format collages, painstakingly composed of colorful, glossy magazine cuttings, are careful and intellectual.
The works that Wild selected from the Brücke collection include an array of textiles—among them a vivid wool embroidery showing a Swiss landscape and a wool-knotted couch blanket in earthy tones, both designed by . The blanket was likely made by his wife, Emy Schmidt-Rottluff.
Vivian Suter, Untitled, n.d. © Vivian Suter. Courtesy of the artist; Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brüssel; House of Gaga; Karma International; and Proyectos Ultravioleta.

Vivian Suter, Untitled, n.d. © Vivian Suter. Courtesy of the artist; Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brüssel; House of Gaga; Karma International; and Proyectos Ultravioleta.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Still Life with a Fruit Bowl (verso), 1914. Courtesy of Brücke-Museum.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Still Life with a Fruit Bowl (verso), 1914. Courtesy of Brücke-Museum.


The backs of two paintings by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, who regularly painted on both sides of the canvas, show violet trees and a glowing red fruit bowl. The explosive colors of Schmidt-Rottluff’s landscapes and still lifes echo the tropical radiance of Suter’s works. His 1937 canvas Blue Window hangs near one of Suter’s blue paintings framed by a window. The Brücke artists designed their own furniture and fabrics to create an interior architecture of art in their studios; Suter’s works achieve the same in the exhibition space.
They become textured, three-dimensional objects, taking painting away from the flatness of the wall and into the spaces between. They beg to be touched. Though mainly abstract, figurative elements—a dog, the balustrade of her veranda—blend in with sweeping strokes of color.
Suter could have continued her practice under the radar, as she had done for the past three decades, had it not been for a serendipitous discovery of her work in 2011. At the time, Adam Szymczyk, who was then the director of the Kunsthalle Basel, was looking to recreate a 1981 exhibition of Basel artists that she had taken part in.
Vivian Suter, Untitled, n.d. © Vivian Suter. Courtesy of the artist; Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brüssel; House of Gaga; Karma International; and Proyectos Ultravioleta.

Vivian Suter, Untitled, n.d. © Vivian Suter. Courtesy of the artist; Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brüssel; House of Gaga; Karma International; and Proyectos Ultravioleta.

Vivian Suter, Untitled, n.d. © Vivian Suter. Courtesy of the artist; Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brüssel; House of Gaga; Karma International; and Proyectos Ultravioleta.

Vivian Suter, Untitled, n.d. © Vivian Suter. Courtesy of the artist; Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brüssel; House of Gaga; Karma International; and Proyectos Ultravioleta.

When Szymczyk met Suter and saw the paintings she had since produced in her self-imposed Guatemalan art-world exile, he mounted an exhibition in Basel and later included her work in the 2017 edition of Documenta, the influential contemporary art exhibition that takes place in Kassel, Germany, every five years. Suter has since had exhibitions at Tate Liverpool and ICA Boston.
Lisa Marei Schmidt, the director of the Brücke Museum, traveled to Guatemala to spend a week with Suter to prepare the new exhibition before the COVID-19 pandemic. “It was important to understand her cosmos, this very special living environment,” Schmidt said. “She works in a very lonely, very concentrated way.” This time spent together made organizing the exhibition during the pandemic lockdown—via videos and photographs—much easier for both Schmidt and Suter. Suter will now try to visit the exhibition when the travel situation eases. Reflecting on how the artist might feel about the recent recognition of her work, Schmidt believes that “as happy as she is to have this success, it was also good to be able to work undisturbed.”
Catherine Hickley