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Chapter 2

As the director of a private painting school between 1915 and 1931, Marguerite Frey-Surbek was a prominent figure on the Bernese art scene. Trudy Schlatter, a generation younger, would therefore probably have been aware of her. It is also possible that the two knew each other through mutual acquaintances such as the artist couple Ruth and Fred Stauffer. Schlatter took part regularly in the Christmas exhibitions at the Kunsthalle Bern starting in the late 1940s and was politically active in the women’s movement.

Until well into the nineteenth century, a traditional genre hierarchy dominated painting – an attitude that would give way only gradually – and history painting reigned supreme. Women painters for the most part worked in the less prestigious genres of still life or portrait painting, which – according to widespread opinion – required less skill. Nevertheless, Frey-Surbek and Schlatter were excellent portraitists who knew how to precisely capture the personalities of their models. Schlatter’s Portrait of Marlen Balmer on view here shows an introverted girl around 13 years of age against a traditional dark background. The light blue bows in her hair contrast with her pink jumper, framing her face with its blank expression. Perhaps it was the quiet melancholy at the threshold between child and woman that inspired Schlatter in this depiction. The painting was donated to the Kunstmuseum Thun by Marlen Ammon-Balmer in 2022.

The second chapter of Home Stories discusses Marguerite Frey-Surbek’s painting and forges a link to Trudy Schlatter. It is clear that both women were well aware of their position as women artists in society and strove to be proactive, emancipated and independent. Furthermore, both were members of the Society of Swiss Painters, Sculptors and Artisans (GSMBK).

Marguerite Frey-Surbek had always been self-confident and had decided to become an artist at an early age. Although it was inevitable after her marriage to Victor Surbek in 1914 that she would have to comply with social convention and manage the household, she nonetheless sought time to pursue her art (which was made possible by a childless marriage and the support of a housekeeper in later years). She set up her own studio at their home at 51, Junkerngasse, while Victor Surbek’s studio was off the premises. In addition to art, Frey-Surbek was also politically and socially committed. She campaigned for women’s suffrage, founded the first day-care centre for girls in Länggasse in 1909, and helped out in refugee camps during the Second World War. Frey-Surbek was a member of the GSMBK from 1936. Between 1942 and 1948 she was the second woman member of the Swiss Federal Art Commission.

After training as a graphic designer and working briefly in advertising, Trudy Schlatter started teaching herself to paint in 1940. She taught drawing in the Pestalozzi home in Bolligen, which was opened by the Frauenzentrale Bern [Bern women’s centre] in 1939. Schlatter was a member of the GSMBK from 1947 and went on to serve on the board for many years. After her death in 1980, she left her Montreux home to the GSMBK, her idea being that women artists should study or spend their holidays there. It was sold in 1986 and the proceeds were used to found the Gertrud-Schlatter-Fonds [Gertrud Schlatter social fund] in 1987. The remaining assets went to the cantonal women’s centre in Bern. The direct promotion and support of women’s initiatives was important to Schlatter, although she once stated that she did not believe in a typically female or even feminist art that was essentially different from male art. Differences could only be found in artistic sensitivity. (Semaine de la femme, No. 24, June 1952).

Both Frey-Surbek and Schlatter regularly showed their works at GSMBK exhibitions. Thun twice hosted an exhibition by the Bern section of the GSMBK. In the summer of 1956, artist Elsa Stauffer and curator Paul L. Ganz organised a juried exhibition. Five women artists, including Johanna Keller and Mariann Grunder, were represented in the sculpture category. In the painting and mosaic categories, works were shown by 40 women artists including Claire Brunner, Marguerite Frey-Surbek, Helene Pflugshaupt, Gertrud Rohrer, Trudy Schlatter, Anna Spühler, Ruth Stauffer and Anny Vonzun. In the arts and crafts category, a further 15 women artists were represented with ceramics, jewellery and fabrics. A room was specially dedicated to the memory of Martha Stettler.

Ten years later, another GSMBK exhibition was held in Thun. Members of the Bern section (at that time there were 30 active and 60 passive members) were once again able to submit their works for the juried exhibition. This time there were four categories: sculpture, painting and graphics, wall hangings, and arts and crafts. No fewer than 68 women artists showed their work. In addition to the above-mentioned artists, Lilly Keller, Verena Jaggi, Jakobea Stucki and Fridel Sonderegger were also present. 

Three other women artists were invited outside the jury process: Nell Walden,Teruko Yokoi and Meret Oppenheim. The latter was living in Hünibach on Lake Thun at the time. Among the works she showed at this exhibition was the painting Drei Wolken über Kontinent [Three clouds over continent], which later joined the Kunstmuseum Thun as a long-term loan from the canton of Bern’s art collection.

Find more information for the History of the GSMBK Bern here.