• Patrick

A Mediator of the Art of Foreign

Elsy Leuzinger is considered by experts to be an art ethnologist with a wealth of knowledge. Born and raised in Glarus, she was the director of the Rietberg Museum in Zurich for many years.



Already in 1930 Elsy Leuzinger was elected scientific assistant and later curator at the Ethnological Museum of the University of Zurich. In 1949 she earned her doctorate with her dissertation "The Nature and Form of the Jewellery of African Nations". In autumn 1951, Elsy Leuzinger made her first longer journey from the Ivory Coast to Mali, which took her to the most important art regions in West Africa, to the Baule and Senufo in the Ivory Coast and to the Dogon and Bamana in Mali.


Her probably most important field research followed together with Jolantha Tschudi in 1954/55: For several months the two ethnologists lived under the most difficult conditions with the Afo, a then practically unknown folk, on a tributary of the Benue River in the Nigerian highlands. Elsy Leuzinger then travelled extensively, but not only to Africa. The art ethnologist also visited North, Central and South America as well as India, Cambodia, Japan and Indonesia with an untiring thirst for action. Her extensive photographic documents prove both scientific expertise and a trained eye.


In 1956, Elsy Leuzinger was elected director of the Rietberg Museum as successor to the founding director Johannes Itten. She remained in this position until her retirement in 1972. In the year of her election she also became a founding member of the Swiss section of the International Museum Association (ICOM), incidentally as the first and only woman in what was then a purely male organization. In 1960 Elsy Leuzinger was habilitated and taught at the University of Zurich as a private lecturer for Art of Non-European folks. In 1968 she was appointed Titular Professor.


Together with René Wehrli, the long-standing director of the Kunsthaus Zürich, Elsy Leuzinger realized an exhibition entitled "The Art of Black Africa" in 1970, in which over 1200 exhibits were shown. With a total of 72,000 visitors, the show became a major cultural event. In professional circles, the catalogue she wrote for this epochal exhibition is still regarded today as an authoritative reference work for African art of the highest quality.


The results of Elsy Leuzinger's research in art ethnology include the collection volumes of the Rietberg Museum, numerous essays, the important publications "Die Kunst der Negervölker" (1959), "Die Kunst von Schwarzafrika" (1972) and the publication of the more than thousand page volume "Kunst der Naturvölker" (1976).


Elsy Leuzinger cultivated a fruitful collaboration with many art lovers and collectors with a view to expanding and supplementing the collection. Eduard von der Heydt, the founding donor of the Rietberg Museum, was so impressed by her work that he brought further important gifts to Zurich even after the opening of the museum.


Elsy Leuzinger enjoyed great recognition and broad prestige in scientific circles. Despite being severely handicapped since childhood, she exercised her many offices sovereignly, but always in a modest manner; she acquired her solid and broad knowledge on extensive journeys through all parts of the world. Her way of passing on this knowledge to experts and laymen was unparalleled, and in her guided tours the participants always felt a high respect for the often nameless creators of this world art.


Elsy Leuzinger was born on 7 February 1910 in Glarus as the youngest child of the merchant Ferdinand Leuzinger (1865-1925) and Barbara Leonie Leuzinger née Streiff (1870-1947). Her grandfather, Johann Peter Leuzinger (1826-1900), was rector and state librarian in Glarus and her great-great-grandfather Johann Peter Zwicki (1762-1820) donated the monument to Salomon Gessner in the Klöntal together with Franz Josef Büeler in 1788 and met Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1797.


Source: Lorenz Homberger, in NZZ from 6.2.2010

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