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Lukas Hartmann | Shadow dance

05.08.2021 – RUTH VON GUNTEN

“I think the first time I travelled to Ballaigues to see my cousin was in 1927 ...” These are the words of the famous architect Le Corbusier. Who was Le Corbusier’s cousin? His cousin was called Louis Soutter – an underrated painter who only became more widely known many years after his death. Soutter, whose father was a pharmacist, was born in 1871 in Morges on the shores of Lake Geneva. He and his siblings received a very strict, emotionally cold upbringing from their mother. Louis was made to play the violin and received an impeccable musical education. He married a woman in America, but returned broke and mentally scarred a few years later. Unable to piece his life back together in Switzerland, he was eventually placed under guardianship and sent to a hospice in Ballaigues for the poor elderly, situated in the Jura mountains, where he lived for almost 20 years until his death in 1942. Cut off from the outside world, Soutter began painting with a vengeance. No longer able to hold a paintbrush with his arthritic hands, he started painting directly with his fingers instead, producing a visionary late-life collection of unorthodox human depictions that ran into the thousands.

Author Lukas Hartmann’s novel about the painter and the man Louis Soutter contains 33 chapters. We get alternate first-person narrative from cousin Le Corbusier as well as Soutter’s mother, while Soutter’s sister along with other people in his life give us a third-person perspective.

Hartmann has written a powerful biography of this shy, ultrasensitive, intelligent, underrated painter who was dismissed as unfit for purpose. He empathises with Soutter’s traits and assesses the artist’s life in the context of events preceding and during the Second World War. Furthermore, he uses a little artistic licence in his use of dialogue to bring the other protagonists to life, deftly intertwining fact and fiction.

Another Swiss author, Michel Layaz, wrote an interesting novel on Louis Soutter a few years ago. His book, “Louis Soutter, probablement” (Louis Soutter, probably), was published in 2016 by Éditions Zoé. (German translation: “Louis Soutter, sehr wahrscheinlich”, Verlag die Brotsuppe, 2020.)

Lukas Hartmann “Schattentanz” (Shadow dance) Diogenes Verlag AG, Zurich, 2021; 256 pages; CHF 32.00

Lukas Hartmann, one of Switzerland’s best-known contemporary authors, was born in 1944 in Berne, where he continues to live. Hartmann writes books for adults and children.