Bernese Orientalism

On the occasion of the 160th anniversary of the Selamlik in Oberhofen castle, the conference “The Myth of the Orient: Architecture and Ornament in the Age of Orientalism” (June 12, 2016) took place at Oberhofen castle. It was organized by the Oberhofen Castle foundation, the University of Zurich’s Institute of Art History, and the URPP Asia and Europe.

Elika Palenzona-Djalili

Oberhofen Castle has long been a sightseeing attraction on the Lake of Thun. In the mid 1950s, its interior became accessible for the public to visit. A main attraction of the castle is the smoking room at the top floor, which was built in an Oriental manner in 1855 and is conventionally designated with the Turkish name “Selamlik.” The owner of the castle at the time was Count Albert de Pourtalès (1812–1861), and he was fascinated by the Orient. He commissioned the Bernese architect Theodor Zeerleder (1820–1868) to decorate the interior.

In the wake of the latest restoration work that ended in 2013 and with support from the Institute of Art History and the University of Zurich, Professor Francine Giese, discovered that the interior décor of the Selamik adapted an Egyptian interior that inspired the architect on his trips to Cairo (1847/1848 and 1849/1850).

The importance of the Selamlik along with other similar issues led to the organization of an international conference. Its aims were to investigate the aspects of the neo-Islamic architecture with a focus on Cairo, to present current research on the topic, and to participate in the ongoing scientific discourse on Orientalism in architecture and ornament. Since Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign in 1798, depiction of the Orient became fraught with mythical meaning. This phenomenon has become known as Orientalism. Orientalism means fascination, on the one hand, and the drawing of a frontier, on the other. This fascination resulted in increasing preoccupation with the visual arts, and especially architecture, in 19th century Europe. Orientalizing architecture, especially in Europe, is a relatively new topic that lacks sufficient research. Such considerations led to its being the topic of the Oberhofen conference.

Influences of Orientalism

The conference was divided up into five overarching themes. The first four were “Oriental Visions,” “Architecture in Cairo,” the “Transmission of Architecture” and “Ornament.” They dealt with romantic visions of 19th century Cairo and the then prevailing image of the Orient. Instructive examples like the Shepherd’s Hotel, Misr Bank in Cairo, and the Tabacco factory in Dresden shed light on the core of the subject. Further discussions took up the aspects of interiors from this period and the Islamic Ornament in the neo-Islamic context. The fifth section was dedicated to the interior of the castle, the Selamlik. Francine Giese presented the latest research results on the Selamlik, which is part of the research project “Mudejarismo and Moorish revival in Europe.” This project, which is based at the Art History Department of the University of Zurich, follows the same path. The architect supervising the restorations of the Selamlik is Herman Häberli, who concluded the lecture series by reporting on the restoration and maintenance of this interior.

The conference was followed by the opening of the exhibition “The Myth of the Orient: A Bernese Architect in Cairo” (June 13 to October 15, 2015), which displayed the Oriental studies and travelogues of the Bernese architect Theodor Zeerlander. From these drawings the spectator witnesses the impact of the personal impressions of the architect on the Selamlik. On display were a variety of unpublished travel sketches and aquarelles by the architect, which were taken from his family archive and the Bernese Burger Library.

(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 5/2016, p. 16)