How Lausanne looked like while the negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program were taking place

On 2nd April 2015 an historical agreement on the Iranian nuclear program was reached in Lausanne, Switzerland. It came out of the negotiations between the world powers – most notably USA, represented by John Kerry – and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Three days before that, all the members of the mathematics department of the polytechnical university of Lausanne (EPFL) received an angry email from one of its members. He was complaining because in the last four days his collaborators were regularly stopped while trying to access the library in the Rolex Learning Center, one of the buildings of the university. Those who stopped them – as they stopped everyone else – were security guards, a quite unusual presence in the campus, who forbid the access without further explanation. Even if no communication on the presence of the guards had been given by the administration, everyone at the EPFL had understood by then why they were there.

The Rolex Learning Center is probably the most prestigious building at the EPFL, if only for his shape. To imagine how it looks like, take an A4 sheet of paper, make some small circular holes in it, and then push its short sides while keeping the other two firm on the table. The sheet would lift at some points, and do not move in others, in an irregular sequence of ups and downs. Apart from the library, it hosts studying rooms, a fancy restaurant and a less fancy cafeteria, working rooms for students, a bookshop, a bank, and more. Being a building that does not belong to any faculty, it is to some extent the centre of life at EPFL, and located right at the middle of it. It was impossible not to notice that it had been closed an patrolled, and easy to guess why: if the negotiations between the world powers and Iran come to a positive conclusion, the Rolex Learning Center will be the place designated to announce it.

The morning of the day the agreement was reached, I decided to walk to the Beau Rivage Hotel, where the negotiations were taking place – a classic, for also the Treaty of Lausanne that ended the controversies post-WWI was signed there. With his population of 140.000 people and its relaxed Swiss attitude, Lausanne looks more like a big village than a small city. Starting from the lake, it climbs on the side of a mountain so steep that sometimes in the northern suburbs you still have some snow, while on the lake you can feel Spring coming. I walked 20 minutes down hilly streets to get to Beau Rivage, without noticing any difference from a normal day. The Beau Rivage – a massive Art Déco building, so big and expensive that I always wonder whether it is ever fully booked – is roughly 100 meters from the lake, and has a private street maybe 50 meters long, that was blocked with a barrier. Next to the barrier, a young man with a flashy green jacket was standing. Not a security guard, more like the doorman to whom someone told to move some meters forward. The relaxed atmosphere was enhanced by the pictures published on the Swiss press of John Kerry walking around the streets around the hotel, stopping at groceries and cafés. The 20 Km of Lausanne running competition, to be held in 3 weeks, will probably be noticed more by, and create more troubles to, the Lausannois.

Negotiations about Iranian Nuclear Program - announcememnt of the agreement at the Rolex Learning CenterI spent the rest of the day at EPFL as usual – discussing some mathematical problems with colleagues, and then thinking about some others on my own. In the evening, a movie night was scheduled in the department. Slightly before the movie started, rumors spread that an agreement was reached, and that the authorities were gathering at the Rolex Learning Center.

When I arrived in front of the security guards, the Swiss police had joined them, and the press had already entered the building, with the exception of one journalist and his cameramen, that for some reason were not allowed in. Under an increasing rain, he tried to play it cool, telling the camera his ideas about what was going on inside. A small crowd had gathered next to the entrance – most of them were Iranians, who cheered their minister when he entered the building. When it was clear that things were going on inside only, I went back to my office. My window is maybe 50 meters from Rolex Learning Center, but the cries and the music from the students’ pub another 50 meters away were louder than any sound coming from there. Then I went watching the movie – which was, by the way, The meaning of life by Monty Python – and finally left EPFL in a metro full of students and their beers.


Visiting the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne

The Collection de l’Art Brut is a museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, of a very rare kind. It displays art that is not aware of being art – created by people at the margin of society or of the art world, mostly for they own pleasure or just for expressing themselves.

With the words of Jean Dubuffet, who invented the name Art Brut (the English version comes below):

Nous entendons par là [Art Brut] des ouvrages exécutés par des personnes indemnes de culture artistique […]. Nous y assistons à l’opération artistique toute pure, brute1, réinventée dans l’entier de toutes ses phases par son auteur, à partir seulement de ses propres impulsions. De l’art donc où se manifeste la seule fonction de l’invention, et non, celles, constantes dans l’art culturel, du caméléon et du singe2,3.

In English it reads:

We mean by that [Art Brut] works realized by people not affected by the artistic culture […]. With them, we can see the purest, rawest1 form of artistic creation, where all phases are reinvented from scratch by the author starting from him/her impulses. So this is a kind of art where only invention plays a role, and, differently from what usually happens in cultural art, there is no place for chameleons and monkeys2,3.

Pascal-Désir Maisonneuve -  L'éternelle infidèle

Pascal-Désir Maisonneuve
L’éternelle infidèle, entre 1927 et 1928
assemblage de coquillages divers
haut. : 42 cm
Photo : Claude Bornand.
Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne.

Some of the authors are then just talented people who, within an ordinary life, cultivated their passion for creating, but in fact most share the salient points of their biography: uneducated to art, born or grown up in straitened circumstances, after a period in a mental hospital they came to art as a mean to get in touch with the others, or just to express themselves. As one of them –  Vojislav Jakic – said about his works:

This is no drawing or painting: this is sedimentation of pain.

Vojislav Jakic - Les effrayants insectes cornus (1970)

Vojislav Jakic
Les effrayants inscectes cornus…, ca 1970
stylo à bille et crayon de couleur sur papier
141,5 x 101,5 cm
Photo : Henri Germond.
Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne.

Those similar personal backgrounds often imply some recurring features in their works: the obsession for filling the space – each empty room needs to be covered with details, that are everywhere and hence uninteresting or at least of different comprehension for the viewer. The canvas as a mean to explicitly express ideas with written words: many of them had physical or psychological inabilities to speak, hence they delegate their thoughts to the characters of their paintings or would even write around the pictures or in the empty room between objects. The repetition of the same subject, even within a single canvas: for instance, Madge Gill paints figures of the same woman, that constantly look at the viewer from slightly different poses, repeating her face multiple times over several slightly different canvas, often glued together in an hypnotic pastiche.

Madge Gill - untitled, undated

Madge Gill
sans titre (detail), s.d.
encre sur calicot
213 x 86,5 cm
Photo : Jean Genoud SA.
Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne.

Sylvain Fusco

Sylvain Fusco
Moire, 1938
pastel sur papier
62,5 x 47,5 cm
Photographe non identifié
Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne

Willem van Genk - Tube Station (1970)

Willem Van Genk
Tube Station, 1970
collage et peinture sur bois
75 x 124 cm
Photo : Claude Bornand
Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne

And originality is of course central, declined in many aspects: from the themes, to the choice of materials, with shells that become ears and lips and journal paper that is used to shape three-dimensional objects. To the canvas, often obtained by gluing more pieces together as the painting expands, as to form non-convex, strangely shaped pictures.

Charles Steffen is the star of the current exhibition. He did study art, but he had to stop after just one year because of psychiatric problems. After that, he spent 11 years in a mental hospital. He often paints images of nudes that are supposed to represent men and women, but actually look like wrinkled baby monsters of hybrid sex that lie somewhere between living beings and plants, and that look around with a grotesque gaze. Their details are carefully drawn as if Steffens was depicting something that was really appearing in front of him, and they are surrounded by inscriptions that explain their genesis and place them in the context of a fantastic world. I found the evolution of the sunflower especially imaginative (see below for the picture). It starts as a proto-human being with a single eye, and slowly, from top to bottom, it transforms itself. Its head becomes a flower, its hands twist into the stem, roots exit from its legs, and a sunflower is born.

Charles Steffen -  Development of the Sunflower Nude, from the One-Eyed Nude into a Sunflower (1994)

Charles Steffen
Development of the Sunflower Nude, from the One-Eyed Nude into a Sunflower, 1994
mine de plomb et crayon de couleur sur papier
90,9 x 122,5 cm
Photo : Atelier de numérisation – Ville de Lausanne
Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne

Charle-s Steffen - One of two Seated Nudes (1992)

Charles Steffen
One of two Seated Nudes, 1992
mine de plomb et crayon de couleur sur papier kraft
138 x 92 .6 cm
Photo : Atelier de numérisation – Ville de Lausanne
Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne

If you are looking for an aesthetic guiding thread through the exhibition, you will be disappointed. Most authors are represented just by a bunch of pieces (up to 5), and there is no link between one and another, or any of them and any artistic current, since none of those authors shared a past with mainstream art.

But some of them had in fact a future, influencing modern well-known artists (see eg here), as well as imposing their charm on popular culture (the Vivian Girls, named after some recurring characters in Henry Darger‘s work, is an indie American band, and the name of the English-German band Art Brut speaks by itself). For even though the images are often cryptic, the emotions behind them are clearly visible: the obsessions, the search for oneself, the fantastic worlds they created are not mediated by any artistic theory, hence they appear vividly to the eye of the spectator. This creates art that constantly swings between being disturbing, romantic, and grotesque, but is nevertheless direct and powerful.


1. I think the best English translation of brut is raw. A somewhat related, but more general concept, is that of Outsider art.

2. Jean Dubuffet, L’art brut préféré aux arts culturels, 1949.

3. I personally think that the idea that pure and innovative art only comes from people outside the artistic community is a cliche itself. But that’s another story.