Sgraffito is an artisanal craft that contributes greatly to the unmistakable charm of the Engadin’s villages. Since the height of sgraffito’s popularity between the 17th and mid 18th centuries, many of these decorative paintings have disappeared, worn away by the weather or destroyed when houses are demolished or renovated. However if you’re still keen to explore the origins of the sgraffiti art form, Lower Engadin’s southern slopes are a great place to start. The journey begins in the Schellen-Ursli village and concludes at a Graubünden outdoor museum.
In search of traces: a tradition in the Lower Engadine
A tradition for all eternity
The sun is shining. And plays with the sgraffiti on the walls of the houses in the village of Susch in the Lower Engadin. Depending on the position of the sun, the shadows always accentuate a different facet of the sgraffiti, so that it is never boring to watch the frescoes. Rosettes, a life-size chamois buck, abstract graphics - many of the sgraffiti in Susch are from Josin Neuhäusler's father; he himself helped out and learned a lot. The painter emphasizes emphatically that there are far better sgraffito artists in the Engadin than him. But he is the one who regularly shows guests and locals what the traditional Engadine arts and crafts are all about. Once around the house, a hill downhill and you are already in the workshop where Neuhäusler gives his sgraffito courses for about 800 guests a year. Outside, the autumn sun warms up, but in the basement it is fresh. It must be, otherwise the sand-lime mixture in which the drawings are carved would dry too quickly. For his guests, Josin Neuhäusler has prepared plates measuring around 30 by 30 centimetres on which the guests can immortalise themselves. The painter is passing around a quick binder, which is intended to provide ideas for traditional motifs and explanations of them. How about a dragon protecting springs and lakes, for example?
Soft as vanilla cream
But of course, the real sgraffiti is not created in Neuhäusler's studio. It's outside, live in the house. The most important ingredient? Lime. In the past, lime was burned in lime kilns from raw materials found in old quarry stone walls. If the fire was extinguished with water, a mass "soft as vanilla cream" was created, says the painter and plasterer. The cream was stored in barrels - the longer the better. If necessary, the oldest barrel was taken out first, mixed the cream again with sand and lime and plastered the houses with it. "Five to seven layers of the mixture are spread over the stones," explains Neuhäusler. Important: The base must be moistened with water again and again so that even the outermost layer can bond with the stone walls of the house. The right amount of sand is just as important: "The base layer must be as gray as possible so that the effects of the sgraffiti can be seen clearly. Then the first thing to do is wait. The entire façade must dry for a good six weeks before the sgraffito artists arrive. They discuss the motif wishes with the house owners months in advance and draw templates on paper. Between May and August - otherwise it's too cold for the work on the scaffolding - the work starts. "A damp rainy day is ideal," says Josin Neuhäusler, "so that you have a good seven hours to work on the entire side of a house - after all, it must have a continuous structure. A fine net stretched over the scaffolding helps here: "It provides shade and protects against the wind. At the same time, moisture comes through the net." As soon as the painters have applied a white layer of lime over the base coat, it's the sgraffito artists' turn. Each one is responsible for one work step - after all, each one has his own signature. In the first work step, one artist scratches the motifs, in the second, another one removes the lime layer. In a third round, the last subtleties are scraped out. Usually only professionals are allowed to do this: "That's the difficult part of our job: you're on the scaffolding and have to assess the effect from a distance of 15 meters - and know what you've scratched out one floor up. The final spurt should not be underestimated: As soon as the plaster gets hard, you can't scratch anymore because the plaster might crack because of the vibrations. Higher powers come into play: "We are responsible for around 50 percent of the result, 50 percent is decided by the sun," says Josin Neuhäusler. That's why the artists have to pay close attention to the position of the sun - depending on the angle from which the sun shines on the sgraffito, different effects result.
A unique piece that will last for 300 years
However, Neuhäusler appreciates this difficult aspect of his work very much: "After three months you come back to a house and spend a whole day looking at the beautiful effects. Furthermore, the man from Graubünden knows that he always leaves a unique piece that is meant to last for 200 to 300 years. Because the sgraffiti lasts so long, you can still see so many of the works of art in Engadin today. The tradition lives on, even if no longer on every new building. "Thirty years ago sgraffiti belonged on every house, but now it's quieter," says Josin Neuhäusler. "Today, people are building other houses - prefabricated houses, for example, out of wood. And sgraffiti looks good on modern facades too." Josin Neuhäusler puts aside screws and compasses with which he explained the principles of sgraffito drawing on the small board. It's only a stone's throw from his studio to the village centre. He proudly poses in front of the chamois buck, which he and his father conjured up on the wall of a house. The sun shines and casts shadows on the works of art in the village. And Josin Neuhäusler is right. The sun moves and the effects of the sgraffiti change. In fact, you could sit here and watch all day long.
Quelle: Contura, rhb.ch/contura