Culture

Remembering Alice Boner, a Swiss Artist in Search of Form in India

Thirty five years after her death, a retrospective on Boner showcasing her wide oeuvre – photographs, paintings, sketches and sculptures – will open at the National Museum in New Delhi on September 2.

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Alice Boner. Credit: Museum Rietberg

“[In] the intersections and tangents… is more substantial meaning…”
– Alice Boner

On the road leading to Assi Ghat in Varanasi – the city’s ‘eightieth’ riverside embankment – stands a double-storied building with slender pillars along its front. It is a small and plain building, which is in contrast to the many ornate palaces that line the Ganga at Varanasi. Indeed, for most residents of Varanasi and for visitors to the city, the house is unremarkable and unnoticeable. Its history is largely unknown.

For the better part of the 20th century this house belonged to Alice Boner, the Swiss painter and sculptor who moved from Europe to Varanasi and made the city her home for over 40 years. It was her studio, which also became a centre for cross-cultural collaboration.

Before she moved to India, Boner had already earned a name for herself. Her paintings were exhibited in leading Swiss galleries and her statues adorned the public parks, which stand there till date. But as Johannes Beltz, the director of Rietberg Museum in Zurich – which houses the majority of Boner’s collection and is now collaborating on a retrospective on her in New Delhi – points out, the world has not recognised Boner for the pioneer she was.

Through her support of dancer Uday Shankar’s career Boner was instrumental in bringing Indian classical art to a Western audience. Boner was a cultural pioneer in a wider sense as well. She showed an unusual willingness to allow an unfamiliar culture to not just influence, but also completely shape her work.

Sculptor of Uday Shankar dancing in Zurich.

Sculptor of Uday Shankar dancing in Zurich. Credit: Museum Rietberg

Now, on September 2, 35 years after her death, a retrospective on Boner – the first of its kind in India and anywhere in the world – will open at the National Museum in New Delhi.

The National Museum, the Museum Rietberg and the Alice Boner Institute in Varanasi are collaborating on the exhibition. It will showcase Boner’s wide oeuvre – photographs, paintings, sketches and sculptures – that capture her evolution from a young sculptor in Zurich to a visionary artist in search of universal principles.

The Europe phase

Boner was born on July 22, 1890 to wealthy Swiss parents in Legnano, Italy, where she spent her childhood. Her parents encouraged her study of art as she grew up, and then between the ages of 18 and 22, at the Ernest Blanc-Garin school in Brussels, in Munich and finally in Basel, where the famous Swiss sculptor Carl Burckhardt became her master.

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Sculpture in Alice Boner´s studio in Zurich. Credit: Museum Rietberg

Boner’s first solo exhibition was in 1916 at the prestigious Kunsthaus in Zurich. By 1925 she had her own studio near the University of Zurich, and her work began to feature in exhibitions and public parks all over Switzerland.

Boner began to travel widely. She spent several months in Italy and took trips to Morocco and Tunisia. She benefitted from her family’s contacts and from the support of her aunt – artist Juliet Brown. During her travels she photographed and sketched using pencil, charcoal, sepia, ink, red chalk and sometimes pastel to document the people that she observed and their daily lives.

Her early work demonstrates interests that would be long lasting – form and composition, the natural and the simple, the human body. Her lively series on wrestlers, her parent-child series and her motion studies on the three dancers Lilly, Jeanne and Leonie Braun, are striking examples of these interests.

Back in her studio in Zurich she often worked on sculptures using detailed sketches based on the photographs she had taken on her travels. Her masterpiece – completed in 1929 – was the bronze Calf Bearer, which was based on a photograph she had taken in Morocco three years before that. It was installed in the Rieterpark in Zurich in 1959, where it stands even today.

Boner recognised the opportunities that came from being a part of a privileged family, but she also felt hindered in her experience of real life. It took her ten years to break away from her familiar world and discover herself.

The move to India

On April 7, 1926, Boner saw a performance of an Indian dance by Shankar in Zurich. She was so moved that she invited Shankar to her studio, where he danced as she made sketches and took photographs, which she later turned into plastics. Two years later Boner saw another performance of Shanker, this time in Paris, where she was living at the time. A year after that she herself organised some shows for him, following which Boner and Shankar became friends. Boner saw the dancer’s potential and Shankar shared with her the struggles he experienced as an Indian artist performing in Europe.

Uday Shankar

Uday Shankar. Credit: Museum Rietberg

Together, Boner and Shankar, envisioned a dance troupe. They went on an extensive tour of India in search of inspiration, collaborators and patrons that they needed. By the end of the tour the troupe had eleven members, mostly friends and family members of Shankar, including his younger brother Ravi.

Boner and Shankar were the co-directors of the Uday Shankar Troupe. Boner managed the logistics, often providing generous financial help herself while Shankar was the artistic component. The group had its first performance in 1931 at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris. Shankar went on to have a brilliant career, incorporating elements of traditional classical dance into his own style, which many would say marked the beginning of modern Indian dance.

In 1935, after working for the Uday Shankar Troupe for five years, Boner decided that her own artistic work had suffered enough and ended her active role in the group. Three years later she had a falling-out with Shankar, which brought an end to their close relationship. But together they had contributed to a renaissance in Indian dance and had helped to make it known in the West.

Uday Shankar, Ravi Shankar and Alice Boner

Uday Shankar, Ravi Shankar and Alice Boner. Credit: Museum Rietberg

The move to Varanasi

Boner first visited Varanasi in 1930 and had written extensively about her trip in her diary. In October of 1935 she decided to return to the city that she had felt attracted to and found a house on Assi Ghat overlooking the Ganga. She wrote of her new home in her diary: “It is so familiar, so welcoming, so warm. It encloses me with love and opens the world for me… I feel fulfilled, happy, settled and supported, like on a gentle stream.” She felt so at home in Varanasi that she abandoned her earlier plan of moving to Italy.

From her rooftop atelier Boner observed the life of the city, which she then sketched and painted. She even organised regular concerts for visiting musicians.

The Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung lectured at the Banaras Hindu University and dined with her afterwards. She met, hosted and befriended other intellectuals and artists, including the scientist C.V. Raman, the then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the German Buddhist lama Anagarika Govinda, poet Rabindranath Tagore, philosopher Sri Bhagwan Das and art historian Stella Kramrisch.

In 1937, the French musicologist, artist and writer Alain Danielou – who Boner first met in Paris in 1929 – moved into the palace called Riva Kothi, which was very close to Boner’s modest home, with his partner, Swiss photographer Raymond Burnier. Boner and Danielou maintained a long friendship.

In The Way to the Labyrinth: Memories of East and West, Danielou wrote about his friend: “Alice was a beautiful woman about thirty-five, tall and stately, haughty and strong-willed.”

Boner’s time in Varanasi, which was to extend beyond 40 years, saw her evolution as an artist. She now preferred to paint, since sculpturing was “too slow a process to catch up with the wealth of aspects India offered to the observing eye,” (autobiographical note in exhibition catalogue Alice Boner: Artist and Scholar, by G. Boner and E. Fischer).

It was here that Boner’s fascination with the form of the human body found its focus. She realised that “in the intersections and tangents… is more substantial meaning pictorially than in the details of facial expressions” (Alice Boner Diaries, India 1934–1967, eds. Boner, Georgette, Luitgard Soni and Jayandra Soni).

This went hand-in-hand with her continuing study of the Indian performing arts. Boner developed close associations with Indian musicians and dancers, including the famous Allauddin Khan, who subsequently trained Ravi in the sitar. She met Shanta Rao, a young and beautiful Kathak dancer and began supporting her career. The two women came to share a long and intimate friendship.

Allauddin Khan

Allauddin Khan. Credit: Museum Rietberg

She traveled to Kerala to explore Kathakali, a dance form virtually unknown to Europeans. There she encouraged poet Vallathol Narayana Menon to establish a school for the preservation of the dance. The institution that was born – Kerala Kalamandalam – is now one of India’s oldest and most premier dance schools.

The “third adventure”

One of Boner’s close friends, a German man named Alfred Wuerfel, had moved to Varanasi with her and was studying Sanskrit at the Banaras Hindu University. In India: My Karma, he has described Boner’s exuberant self-discovery.

“And so, after having settled and feeling comfortable in her new surroundings, she began painting life in all its fullness… [Her new home] was a veritable haven, a natural studio so to speak… The more discerning visitors will be able to perceive a trend from painting the profane life as it moved around her, towards reaching out to the sacred and numinous. This development was the fruit of her meditations and her increasing and even all-absorbing interest in India’s sacred literature and metaphysics. Indeed, she was that rare combination of a dedicated artist but endowed with a powerful intellect in the deeper sense of this term.”

Boner had been visiting temples and religious sites since she first came to India along with Shankar’s troupe. In 1941, while looking at the reliefs on the walls of cave temples in Ellora, Boner suddenly sensed a “geometrical scheme” and “lines of energy.” She began to draw the patterns that she saw and “a revealing light broke forth.” She felt that she was “really touching the hidden meaning… [as] aesthetic considerations gave way to a symbolic, underlying conception” (Alice Boner Diaries: India 1934–1967)

Image of Siva Nataraja with Boner's notes and gridlines from Ellora cave XIV, 1941-1955-3

Image of Siva Nataraja with Boner’s notes and gridlines from Ellora cave XIV. Credit: Museum Rietberg

She began a systematic study of sacred sculpture and temple architecture through a series of analytic sketches – which she called her “third adventure.” She suggested that while a sculpture is set in a square or rectangular frame, the key geometrical element is a circle. Within this circle, horizontal and vertical grid lines determine the “space” of the image, defining the positions and angles of the limbs. Further parallel lines comprise the “time division” of the image, conducting its movement.

In her diary, she summarised her reflections: “Forms and lines have function, character and expression in themselves, quite independent from what they actually represent in an image. As such, they act primarily on our subconscious form-sensitivity as pure form-expressions, and only secondly by their objective connotations” (Alice Boner Diaries, India 1934–1967).

In 1957 Boner met Sadashiva Rath Sharma, a Sanskrit teacher, who introduced her to the Shilpa Prakasha – an architect’s manual for temple construction. Boner found in this text references to the principles she had been formulating, which for her were proof that they were accurate. She and Sharma together analysed and translated the text over the next decade. In 1962, Boner published The Principles of Composition in Hindu Sculpture and in 1966, she and Sharma co-authored a book.

Her discoveries filled her with “joy and exaltation”. In 1969, the University of Zurich awarded her an honorary doctorate for her contributions and publications and in 1974, the then president of India, V.V. Giri, awarded her the Padma Bhushan, the third-highest civilian award in India.

In 1978 Boner returned to Zurich due to ill health and never returned to India. She died on April 13, 1981. During her lifetime she donated much of her collection to the Bharat Kala Bhavan museum of the Banaras Hindu University, which today houses a permanent gallery in her name. She had also expressed her wish that her home in Varanasi be turned into a centre for research and artistic collaboration and had invited the Austrian indologist, Bettina Baumer, to take over as director, who accepted the invitation. The Alice Boner Institute today, under Harsha Vinay’s directorship, hosts and supports the work of international scholars and artists visiting Varanasi.

Alice Boner´s oil painting sketch of Panchakroshi pilgrimage in Varanasi. Credit:

Alice Boner’s oil painting and sketch of Panchakroshi pilgrimage in Varanasi. Credit: Museum Rietberg

Boner had also decided that another part of her collection should go to the Museum Rietberg in Zurich. In 1971, this transfer of 588 Indian miniature paintings and around 130 masks, sculpture and art objects took place.

‘Alice Boner: A Visionary Artist and Scholar Across Two Continents’ opens on September 2 at the National Museum in New Delhi. The exhibition travels from the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai, where it opened in November 2015. It is the first collaboration between the National Museum, the Rietberg Museum and the Alice Boner Institute, as well as the first major exhibition on Alice Boner.

At the same time Beltz reflects that in contrast to New Delhi and Mumbai, a lack of resources and funding has prevented the exhibition from travelling to Varanasi. This is a pity for that city was Boner’s home in the truest sense, its people and life her inspiration and where, therefore, it is apt that her life and work be remembered.

Quotes from Alice Boner’s diaries are taken with permission from the Museum Rietberg archives. Text written with inputs from the exhibition catalogue Alice Boner: A Visionary Artist and Scholar Across Two Continents by Andrea Kuratli and Johannes Beltz (Roli Books).