Jean-Frédéric Schnyder represented Switzerland at the Venice Biennale in 1993, exhibiting a series of 119 small-format oil paintings of views from motorway bridges (Wanderung, 1991-1992). The title of each work was the ID number of the motorway in question and the date it was painted, gesturing to a conceptual approach inspired by On Kawara and to the tradition of landscape painting, with a new contemporary twist.
Unlike his serial work, Ein Freund is a standalone artwork, striking in its composition, use of colour, and iconography. A man stands in profile, wearing a dark blue suit and Tyrolean hat, watching a fire burning on a path in the middle of what looks like waste ground on the fringes of a housing estate. His goatee, tail, and cloven hoof are unambiguous references to Satan, paying a visit to the everyday, grey, nameless suburb. The contemplative, even melancholy, figure of the fallen angel is a far cry from more terrifying visions of the Apocalypse: here, Satan looks human at first glance, the pale copy of a constant presence in art history in various guises. As often in Schnyder’s oeuvre, the genre is given a twist and reduced to its most trivial dimension: the symbol of evil incarnate becomes the banal presence of a man just passing through, while landscape becomes a glum, soulless corner of the vast urban sprawl. Two other works in the Museum’s collection are in similar vein, but devoid of human presence: one shows an urban scene dominated by a sign belonging to a leading Swiss distribution business (M Ostermundigen, 1983), the other an anonymous expanse of motorway (Lory, 1983).
Schnyder is self-taught as a painter. His background in photography gave him a keen sense of observation, letting him take up the codes of Pop Art and Conceptual Art in turn to combine with pop culture and kitsch elements. His approach to painting explores the artist’s role by constantly calling the choice of a predetermined style or iconography into question.
Massimiliano Gioni (ed.), The Encyclopedic Palace. La Biennale di Venezia 55. International Art Exhibition, exh.cat. Venice, Marsilio, 2 vol., 2013.
Philipp Kaiser (ed.), Jean-Frédéric Schnyder, exh. cat. Basel, Kunstmuseum, Museum für Gegenwartskunst, 2007, Basel Kunstmuseum, Museum für Gegenwartskunst, 2007.
Jean-Frédéric Schnyder: Wanderung / Camminata / Randonnée pédestre / Walking-tour [Biennale di Venezia 1993], exh.cat. Venice, Swiss Pavillon, 45th Biennale, 1993, Baden, Lars Müller, 1993.