January 2010 Feature Article

Black Forest Woodcarvings: Myths & Misconceptions      by Peter F. Blackman


This 1898 carving is one of Johann Hugglerthe’s most dramatic. It depicts a part of the Melchtal legend, perhaps the second most famous Swiss legend following that of William Tell. Courtesy of the Brienz Schnitzlerschule.

The painting of Swiss scenes on tables and practical objects was an early practice in the Brienzerware industry, dating back to at least 1830.  Tables like this one were exhibited at the first world expositions the Brienzerware industry participated in. Courtesy of Brass Scales Antiques, West Palm Beach, FL. Seldom has a “kitschy” gnome
been treated with so much deference by its creator. 
The 25-inch figure, with its air of movement, qualifies as true sculpture. Courtesy of Ed. Jobin & Cie., Brienz.

What is an antique but something that has been rediscovered at least once by later generations?  To me this is a more serviceable definition than the arbitrary threshold of 100 years old.  It is in the process of being neglected, deprecated and/or forgotten that the seeds are sown for an antique to be prized by subsequent collectors, for there is a joy to rediscovery.  The long eclipse of a type of object fosters a scarcity, seldom not a lubricant to the collector’s heightened interest.  And when a resurgent demand is applied to a scarcity, prices head skyward, a happy form of validation to the collector.  Alas, the years of darkness shroud the genre of antiques in misconceptions and myths.

There is no better example of this phenomenon than “Black Forest” decor, which I have written about in a book published last year entitled Black Forest Woodcarvings: The History of Swiss Brienzerware.  With the Great Depression the bottom fell out of the market for the naturalistic sort of animal carving epitomized by “Black Forest” bears and the many other “rustic” furnishings produced by the same industry.  Not until the late 1970s was there a glimmer of a turnaround, by which time the objects had acquired the misnomer of “Black Forest” belying their Swiss origin.

Since the Swiss craftsmen were hardly cloistered away in some secret hideaway, and in fact, there are still carvings being produced and sold as souvenirs in the same touristy part of Switzerland, it is strange indeed that they took on this other German identity.  I would add that there is no evidence that the objects were referred to as anything but Swiss prior to the 1930s.  How could they, when many a tourist, Queen Victoria among them, made it a priority to pick up a few of the carvings during sojourns in the Berner Oberland, the area that takes in Interlaken, the Jungfrau, Grindelwald, and many other popular mountain resorts?  I would go so far as to say the carvings were beloved in part for their Swiss-ness! 

I don’t think we are likely to ever know who was the first to affix the “Black Forest” label upon the carvings.  A vague woodsy affinity of much Brienzerware with the “Swiss” cuckoo clock, which ironically, was usually made in the real Black Forest of Germany, had to have a part in the confusion, and coincidentally, there is an area between Grindelwald and Brienz, the center of the Swiss carving industry, known as the Black Forest.

I would prefer to call the carvings “Brienzerware” in honor of the town, Brienz, but in a nod to common usage, I find myself complicit in the perpetuation of the error.

As it so happens, the mischaracterization has become fairly widely known in the antique marketplace, and so I will not dwell further on it.  In my experience, a far graver mistake about the carvings, and one that goes to the heart of how people actually perceive what is before them, is that the carvings are folk art.  This, despite the most conspicuous evidence there can be, which is how the objects actually look.  Even the run-of-the-mill carvings, from the industry’s heyday, were done with a technical sophistication that is definitively not folk art.  This is not, by the way, to denigrate folk art, which can be beautiful and a valuable historic relic.  The Black Forest decor did borrow from the toolbox of folk art ornament, such as can be seen in the extensive use of the Alpenrose.  Still, the presence of a folk art affect should not generally change the overall impression created by an object.

Folk art, which does not lend itself to a neat definition, is usually thought to be the artistic expression of ordinary people without academic training in the arts.  The charm of their work stems from a straightforward simplicity and primitiveness of a style inherited from an ancient tradition.  In contradistinction, the Black Forest carving industry has not only a fixed date of origin, but also, it has a known founder.  In 1816, a yeoman Renaissance man and autodidact by the name of Christian Fischer hit upon the idea of making simple wooden objects specifically for tourists, which he sold by the Giessbach Falls, an attraction close to Brienz.  Contrary to popular belief, whatever woodcarving tradition existed in the area had died out during the 18th century to the point that woodenware was being imported and the political leadership went out and recruited a woodcarver from, of all places, the Black Forest, in the hopes of training some of the impoverished peasantry in the craft.  A few glimmering promises of woodcarving activity aside, nothing coalesced until Fischer acted.  While his first pieces might be described as treen, he and others were soon producing more sculptural objects and utility items more ambitious in design, and the government was quick to promote the industry by footing the bill for the education of some carvers.  One early carver, Peter Grossmann, after studying with an eminent Swiss sculptor in Bern, spent several years working in the Roman studio of Bertel Thorwaldsen, the designer of the Lion of Lucerne and in his day, the most celebrated sculptor in Europe.  Eventually a carving school in Brienz, one that survives to this day, would provide a rigorous program that helped produce the best carvers in the industry afterward.

Many of the other misconceptions about what I call Brienzerware flow from its categorization as folk art.  Of these, the assumption that it was a “cottage industry” is of particular interest because it was widely held even in the days the industry was in its full flush of prosperity.  In 1903 the men of Grindelwald were described with the following:

"Their industry is no less in winter time, for the men work at some trade – such as making watches, clocks, carving wooden or ivory toys and the like . . . We stop at a pretty farm house and are given cups of cream in carved wooden bowls, which we admire. Then the housewife shows us with pride her wooden spoons with carved handles, and other bits of decorated household ware. Her husband does this work winters, and makes a tidy sum thereby.”  

Just as watchmaking by then was organized very much along industrial lines (and, by the way, was conducted in an entirely different part of Switzerland), the carving industry was as well.  It was dominated by larger firms, and had been for a long time.  These firms had plants, which employed up to several hundred carvers.  (The industry at its peak had an estimated 2,000 carvers.)  Those not employed directly by these companies often still sold to the companies on a contract basis.

The presence of these bigger entities could not be missed by an visitor to Brienz, Meiringen or several other towns, yet the cottage industry image was a potent one, playing into our romanticized notions of folk arts and crafts. A plain artisan, a jack-of-all-trades, hunched over a piece of wood which he is transforming into an usable utensil or an object of beauty makes for a far more picturesque setting than a more impersonal factory plant.  And it is true that many carvers maintained small studios in their homes.  While the proprietors of the larger companies did much to squash the lone carver, they were mindful of the appeal of his folksy image and were happy to burnish this image, however misleading it might have been.

Most of the carvings were unsigned, and this has led to an impression that the carvers were anonymously plying away at their craft.  The best of them were, in fact, well-known in their day. Some were leaders of the community, holding office in local government, their church and other bodies. As a group, they were, relatively speaking, quite prosperous. How else to explain the clamor to join their ranks?  Their affluence engendered resentment by those on the outside, chief among them, the cattle farmers living in the area.

One of the more bizarre misconceptions is the factoid that most of the carvings were produced by a single family, the Trauffers.  As far as I know, this first appeared in a 1989 book entitled Fantasy Furniture and has been repeated in many an auction catalogue ever since.  I would have thought it absurd on its face, given the sheer number of objects that can be found in the marketplace.  What is true is that carving was a profession often passed from father to son, and there are about a dozen family names that crop up again and again when one looks at old account books.  A few families can even be said to have established dynasties.  In terms of artistry, the Trauffers distinguished themselves, but towering above them was the Huggler clan.  One Huggler, Johann, was widely considered the “Carving King,” and his work, often signed, is among the most sought after by collectors.  There was also a Trauffer business with outlets in Lucerne, St. Moritz as well as Brienz.  But there were much larger companies.  One, Gebrüder Wirth, had an estimated 580 employees at its peak in the early 1860s.  After the Wirth firm went out of business in the 1880s, Ed. Binder & Cie. became the industry leader, with an estimated 200 carvers on its payroll and many more contributing piecemeal to its inventory.  It is also still in business, now known as Ed. Jobin & Cie.

Any thought that the product line of these companies was limited in terms of style or type of object should be cast aside.  The repertoire in every respect was vast, as attested to by catalogues that offered thousands of objects, from thimble-sized figurines to life-sized ibexes and chamois, from sewing implements to towering hall trees and imposing desks.  While the primary lines are often thought of as “rustic,” pieces in these lines can fit in with real panache in the most urbane of ambiences.  The naturalistic animal carvings, not coincidentally, can bear a striking resemblance to the animal bronzes of such esteemed artists as Antoine-Louis Barye that have pride of place on many an opulent mantlepiece.  Yet the same plants, in addition to the trademark “Brienzerware” style in their furniture, also embraced Art Nouveau or Jugendstil and made forays into every stylistic revival of the 19th century, including Rococo and Renaissance Revival.  Some of the grander specimens made in these styles were showcased at the succession of world expositions in which the carving industry was represented.  Authentic-looking Indian-styled elephant furniture supplemented the much beloved bear furniture.  Animal carving may have been the hallmark of Brienzerware, but some of the better carvers produced remarkable human figures.  With the 20th century, Bauhaus modernism was tried out as well. 

In debunking some of the popular understanding about Brienzerware I want to stress that one should not be denigrate the genuineness of the carving tradition that arose in Brienz and the surrounding area. By the mid-19th century, there was a proud carving culture there, and there was a distinctive prevailing style that was imitated but seldom captured convincingly elsewhere.

Outsiders played a great part in the formulation of that tradition. The largest companies, the ones that stood as the linchpin of the industry, were all headed from men who came from elsewhere. The Wirths were Alsatians.  Binder’s founders were from the Tyrol of Austria and Italy. These were entrepreneurs who saw an opportunity in the budding souvenir industry, and moved into the area to capitalize on it. While sensitive to demand and customer preferences, they did not want for a longer term vision. That that vision encompassed the packaging of a newly created tradition did not make the resulting tradition any less legitimate.

Finally, Brienzerware’s lack of ancient pedigree does not mean that it did not become a bona fide national style and tradition. The wider public certainly viewed Brienzerware as part of a tradition, such was the success of the carving industry in convincing them of such. This sort of deliberate myth-making is not unusual; it underlies scores of national traditions, including national costumes found almost anywhere, the Oktoberfest of Bavaria, tea time in England and Thanksgiving in the United States. All of these are not as old as commonly thought. The Oktoberfest, for instance, was first celebrated in the early 19th century.

It may be that a necessary part of any authentic national tradition is a dollop of fiction. It should not be interpreted as public relations ineptitude that the carvings have come to be known as Black Forest. In their day they were widely credited correctly to the Swiss. Like many national traditions, it eventually played better abroad than at home, where it can start to feel suffocating, as, for example, interest in opera has waned in Italy.

A curious aspect of Swiss nationalism is that it many ways, it was packaged more for external consumption. The Swiss Federation had a longer, uninterrupted history as a government entity than most nation states, even if, as a federation, it was a more limited union. A good comparison might be Italy and Germany, in both cases not fully unified until 1870 and 1871, respectively. And yet both are countries that had a shared language (if we gloss over the many dialects, especially in Italy, that made people from one region incomprehensible to those from another). In Switzerland, the people from the four language groups were able to work with one another for the sake of joint political interests, but culture was another matter. Much of what constitutes a culture flows from language; some ideas do not translate well into other tongues. The French speakers around Geneva had more in common with Frenchmen, the German speakers, with their co-linguists in Germany and Austria. The Swiss did have some symbols and mythology all could subscribe to – William Tell, Melchtal – but these were tales about political oppression. They provided a rationale for preserving a federation to ward off enemies from without while limiting the authority of a central government, lest it too became a menace to local autonomy. Most of the traditions in Switzerland were local, and only later did tourism turn some of them into stand-ins for the whole nation.  In this respect, Brienzerware, with its tourist origins, is the most authentic of Swiss traditions.

Peter F. Blackman is an attorney and avid historical researcher whose interest in Brienzerware developed through visits to the origins of the style. He has conducted his research, interviews and study for this book over many years, and wrote the book from his home in West Windsor, Vermont.

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