Lower Engadin Culture
Engadin Houses & Sgraffito
In search of clues
A tradition in the Lower Engadin
A tradition for all eternity
The sun shines and plays with the sgraffiti on the walls of the houses in the village of Susch in the Lower Engadine. The shadows always emphasise a different facet of the sgraffiti depending on the position of the sun, so it is never boring to observe the frescoes. Rosettes, a life-size chamois buck, abstract graphics – many of the sgraffiti in Susch come from Josin Neuhäusler's father; he himself helped and learned a lot. The painter emphatically emphasises that there are far better sgraffito artists than him in the Engadine. But he is the one who regularly shows guests and locals what traditional Engadine craftsmanship is all about. Once around the house, down a little hill and you're already in the workshop where Neuhäusler gives his sgraffito courses to around 800 guests a year. Outside, the autumn sun is warming you, but it's fresh in the basement. It has to be, otherwise the sand-lime mixture in which the drawings are carved would dry too quickly. Josin Neuhäusler has prepared around 30 by 30 centimetre slabs for his guests to immortalise themselves on. The painter passes around a folder with ideas for traditional motifs and explanations. How about, for example, a dragon protecting springs and lakes?
Soft, like vanilla cream
But of course, the real sgraffiti are not created in Neuhäusler's studio. They're done outside, live at 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. When the fire was extinguished with water, a mass «as 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, the cream was mixed again with sand and lime, and the houses were plastered with it. «Five to seven layers of the mixture are applied over the stones,» explains Neuhäusler. Important: The substrate must be repeatedly wetted with water so that even the outermost layer can bond with the stone walls of the house. The right amount of sand is also crucial: «The base layer must be as grey as possible so that you can easily see the effects of the sgraffiti.» Then it's a case of – wait. The entire façade has to dry for a good six weeks before the sgraffito artists arrive. They discuss the desired motifs with the house owners months in advance and draw templates on paper. Between May and August – otherwise it is too cold for the work on the scaffolding – they get started. «A wet 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 has to have a continuous structure.» A fine net stretched over the scaffolding helps: «It provides shade and protects against wind. At the same time, the moisture comes through the net.» Once the painters have applied a white layer of lime over the base coat, it is the turn of the sgraffito artists. Each is responsible for one work step – after all, each has his or her own signature. In the first work step, one artist pre-scratches the motifs, in the second, another removes the lime layer. In a third round, the final touches are scratched out. For this, usually only professionals are allowed to work: «That's the difficult thing about our profession: you're on the scaffolding and have to assess the effect from 15 metres away – and know what you've scratched one floor up.» The final spurt is not to be underestimated: As soon as the plaster hardens, you can't scratch anymore because the plaster could burst due to the vibrations. In addition, higher forces come into play: «We are responsible for about 50 percent of the result, 50 percent is decided by the sun,» says Josin Neuhäusler. That's why the artists have to pay exact 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 lasts 300 years
However, Neuhäusler greatly appreciates this difficult aspect of his work: «After three months, you come back to a house and spend a whole day looking at the beautiful effects.» Besides, the man from Graubünden knows that he always leaves behind a unique piece that should last for 200 to 300 years. Because the sgraffiti last so long, you can still see so many of the works of art in the Engadine today. The tradition lives on, even if it is no longer on every new building. «Thirty years ago, sgraffiti belonged on every house, but now it's quieter,» says Josin Neuhäusler. «Today people build other houses – prefabricated houses, for example, made of wood. Although sgraffiti also looks good on modern façades.» Josin Neuhäusler puts aside the screws and compasses he used to explain the principles of sgraffito drawing on the small board. It is only a stone's throw from his studio to the centre of the village. He proudly poses in front of the chamois buck his father and he have conjured up on the wall of a house. The sun is shining and casting shadows on the works of art in the village. And Josin Neuhäusler is right. The sun moves and the effects of the sgraffiti change. Indeed, one could sit here and watch all day.
Source: Contura, rhb.ch
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