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The Vevey la vida!
The bob cut of a woman with a cigarette dangling between her lips. A tight plait snaking around a long neck. A neat middle parting of a thick-browed woman with gimlet eyes. All these women, drawn by Annette Messager, were stuck on the walls of Jenisch Museum - celebrating 150 years of Nestle - which is headquartered in Vevey, a tony Swiss town on the Montreux Riviera.
These were not the only women in Jenisch’s Nestle Art Collection. There was a young girl with fringe, drawn by Andy Warhol in 1953. The sketch of a bare-bodied girl with an arched back, sitting like a mermaid, painted by Markos Raetz (1976). On another white wall were a naked man and woman in a tight embrace. In 1903, Pablo Picasso must have held a pen in hand to draw perhaps the best line drawing I have ever seen. Various rooms in Jenisch were celebrating art as gathered by Nestle over decades. This collection is a continuum of architect Jean Tschumi, who designed the Nestle headquarters on the principle that art and architecture should work together in harmony.
Through the lens
At the Jenisch Museum, I was torn between Picasso and Warhol and Messager, and hopped in and out of different artistic genres. But in Vevey’s Swiss Camera Museum, the calendar had a definite date. August 19, 1839. This is when the Academie des Sciences in Paris proclaimed the invention of photography, the result of the groundbreaking research by Joseph Nicephore Niepce and Louis Daguerre.
A narrow path leads into the Swiss Camera Museum that chronicles the history of photography across five floors. At the heart of the museum is the camera obscura, a forerunner of the modern camera. There are old optical lenses, sepia photographs, details of Frederick Scott Archer’s invention of the wet-collodion process for negatives on glass plates. There’s a travel camera in the shape of a table, copy of Simon Plössl-type daguerrean equipment; ornate chairs arranged in the studio for the earliest portraits; the image of a pigeon with a camera strapped to its feet for aerial survey.
In the Swiss Camera Museum, the higher you go, the more advanced the photography technology gets. There are documents that detail the progress - the birth of film turned the cameras smaller and smaller, and George Eastman came up with Kodak, a compact camera with a flexible film promoted with the famous tagline: Press the button, we do the rest.
In 1975, cameras went digital with the invention of first digital camera by Steven J Sasson. Inside the museum, I took photographs of cameras with a modern, digital Nikon D700. Exactly 177 years after photography was born, on August 19, 1839, I muttered a gratitude to Niepce and Daguerre for having hunched over in their laboratories for hours to invent photography.
In Vevey, words soon edged out the images. Literally, threw them out of a train window. Slumped on the grey seat of a train, I was heading to Lavaux, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, when Nadia Ismail, a historian/tour guide, dropped the name of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Lavaux is famed for its vineyards. I was expecting to bump into Bacchus. Instead, Rousseau fell my way.
"It is here, exactly here, that Rousseau came,” Ismail talked excitedly as the train chugged through the village of Clarens. Rousseau spent weeks in Vevey and immortalised it in his book Julie (The New Heliose): Letters of Two Lovers at the Foot of the Alps. He later remembered his days in Vevey with nostalgia: "During this trip to Vevey while following the beautiful shore, I gave myself to the sweetest melancholy. I was touched. I sighed and I cried like a child.” Hundreds of years after Rousseau pushed up the daisies, the Swiss town has not forgotten the philosopher. A marble plaque on the Auberge de la Clef proclaims: Jean-Jacques Rousseau slept here in 1730.
Found in novels
A part of Henry James’s Daisy Miller is set in Vevey. The town is also mentioned in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott and Anita Brookner’s Booker Prize-winning novel, Hotel du Lac.
Barely 10 minutes by train is Montreux, known for the annual Montreux Jazz Festival, which turned 50 last year. In Montreux, I walked past the statue of Freddie Mercury to the 110-year-old Montreux Palace, clad in canary yellow awnings. Smug on the shores of Lake Geneva, the hotel has had a community of celebrities calling it home. In the summer of 1961, Vladimir Nabokov and his wife Vera took up residence in the palace during the last months of Nabokov’s work on Pale Fire. The hotel remained Nabokov’s home for the rest of his life.
Before Nabokov, Lord Byron discovered the shores of Lake Geneva, and his poem, The Prisoner of Chillon, made Montreux and the spectacular Chillon Castle famous. Roman Rolland, the French author who won the Nobel Prize in 1915, moseyed in Montreux; so did Ernest Hemingway. Russian composer Igor Stravinsky called it home, so did David Bowie and Freddie Mercury.
In Bern, the Swiss capital, I had hurried up the wooden staircase into a home where Albert Einstein had lived for nearly three years. When I took the train from Bern to Vevey, little did I know that a tiny town in the Riviera could pack so much aesthetics within its cobbled pathway. In Vevey, art wafts in the air; in Montreux, the breeze strums the perfect riff.