Paul Klee’s Künstlicher Fels (Artificial Rock) entered the collection of the Kunstmuseum Thun in 1981 as a gift from the artist couple Victor Surbek and Marguerite Frey-Surbek.
The juxtaposition of works by Klee and Surbek reveals two opposing artistic attitudes: While the artificiality of Klee’s rocky scene is already indicated in the work’s title, thus abandoning any claim to imitating nature, Surbek adheres to the representational tradition of painting. The motif, painting style and colouration of his rocky Bergbach (Mountain Stream) relate it for example to late works by Ferdinand Hodler. And yet Klee and Surbek admired each other’s work. The Surbeks’ private collection also contained a number of Klee’s graphic works, which came to the Kunstmuseum Thun with their bequest.
As Klee’s student between 1904 and 1906, Marguerite Frey came into contact at a young age with the later Bauhaus master, who was seven years her senior and completely unknown at the time. On his advice, she went to Paris to continue her training and probably painted there her Portrait H. Haefliger, which was donated to the museum in 2022 from the artist’s estate. With loose yet precise brushstrokes in pale tones, the artist set down on canvas a woman’s likeness – very much in the spirit of her teachers at the Académie Ranson: the Nabi artists Félix Vallotton, Maurice Denis and Edouard Vuillard.
The artist couple Victor Surbek and Marguerite Frey-Surbek had a special relationship with the Kunstmuseum Thun. Victor Surbek exhibited several times in Thun and was invited to a Fokusschau [focus show] at the 1958/59 Christmas exhibition. In the spring of 1963, for the first time he displayed his drawings from the previous four decades in a comprehensive exhibition of 163 sheets. In the catalogue, the then curator of the art collection, Paul Leonhard Ganz, stated that “Surbek’s drawn work itself is an astonishing phenomenon”.
On 25 September 1972, the two artists signed an agreement for the benefit of the city of Thun’s art collection. It included the following legacy: a group of at least three works by each artist, in addition to the collection of works by other artists, were to go to the Kunstmuseum Thun after their death. The first part of the donation – three pictures by Victor Surbek, who died in 1975, and three by Marguerite Frey-Surbek – was received by the Kunstmuseum in 1977. The remaining 102 works of art were transferred in 1981, the year of Marguerite Frey-Surbek’s death.
One of today’s most well-known works came into the collection via this legacy: Paul Klee’s “Künstlicher Fels” (1927). A further eight drawings and graphic works by Klee joined the collection, and to this day, they form the Kunstmuseum Thun’s entire holding of Klee’s works.
The artist couple had a long association with Klee, which lasted until his death. As one of his first students, Frey-Surbek was particularly close to him. Beginning in 1904, Klee gave her private lessons for two years. Every two weeks he would visit her in her garret in Bern and teach her how to paint and etch. In 1906, Klee saw works by his pupil at an exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Bern and commented: “She is learning to paint, and with me! It’s outrageous because I can’t do it. But I understand a lot of it!!!”
That same year he advised her: “You have to go to Paris”. Marguerite Frey, who was unmarried at the time, took this to heart. In Paris she studied at the Académie Ranson under Félix Vallotton, Maurice Denis and Edouard Vuillard, among others.
This city on the banks of the river Seine is where she also met her future husband, the Bern painter Victor Surbek. In the year after their marriage in 1914, the two opened a private painting school at the Gerechtigkeitsgasse 55 in Bern in the beginning of 1915 where, together, they taught numerous students over a period of 16 years, including the following artists, who are represented in the Kunstmuseum Thun’s collection: Serge Brignoni, Max Fueter, Alfred Henri König, Helene Pflugshaupt, Roman Tschabold and Max von Mühlenen.