The painter and sculptor Serge Brignoni was born in Chiasso in 1903 and took part in the 20th Century artistic Avant-garde movements. Enchanted by the world of “secret affinities”, he became fascinated with ethnic art, and between 1930 and 1980 he collected sculptures from the Far East, India, Southeast Asia, Indonesia and above all Oceania. These objects were later donated to the City of Lugano.
Thanks to his encounters with the artists André Breton and Tristan Tzara in Paris, the young Swiss artist came into contact with Surrealism and immediately espoused its poetic and artistic goals. During his Parisian experience Brignoni became interested in Ethnic Art and started to collect Indonesian and Melanesian sculptures.
The discovery of ethnic figurative languages had a great impact on Brignoni’s art: he begun to integrate wooden sculpture and the use of eclectic materials into his own artistic practice and became a strong supporter of Primitivism. His personal artistic research was aimed at finding a synthesis between simple volumes and basic contents.
Serge Brignoni is more important to the Museo delle Culture for his intense and careful collecting than for his own artistic production, even though these two aspects are strongly interrelated.
In 1925, Brignoni's first encounter with so-called "Primitive" art was connected to African sculpture, which he experienced through Cubism and art lessons at the Académie Lothe. He admired African sculpture for its stylization and the purity of its forms.
In 1926 he started collecting ethnic art by wandering around Parisian fleamarkets and the small antique galleries that offered artworks from the French colonies in Africa. He was later motivated by a lively curiosity about the unusual and the fantastic and also by the Surrealist experience. He therefore broadened his collection to include artworks from Oceania which, in the Surrealist vision, embodied the spiritual and spontaneous aspect of artistic creation and the expression of desires and dreams.
In the 1930’s, the growth of international trade brought many objects from remote and almost unknown areas like Indochina, Indonesia and Melanesia onto the antiques market.
Brignoni gradually refined his interests and taste and by taking advantage of his German language skills, made excellent purchases from private collectors, galleries and museums in German-speaking countries like Switzerland and Germany (especially in Dresden, Berlin and Hamburg), the Netherlands and Belgium.
In 1940, Brignoni returned to Switzerland because of the war, leaving many of his paintings and sculptures in Paris where they were destroyed or stolen.
His ethnic art collection survived as it was stuck in a French customs warehouse where it was protected, but Brignoni had to wait until the end of the war to retrieve his works. He spent some time in Basel where he met Paul Wirz, who worked at the Museum der Kulturen and had travelled extensively through Papua New Guinea. In 1940 and 1941 Brignoni cooperated with the Bernisches Historisches Museum in Bern and struck up a lasting friendship (including the purchase and sale of ethnic artworks) with the museum director Ernst Rohner.
Since 1946 Brignoni dedicated himself tirelessly to the search for ethnic artworks and collections, regardless of the distance he had to cover in order to find them. An amusing anecdote tells that he once left home one morning thinking he would return that afternoon with a new piece for his collection, but the artist ended up pursuing the object from Switzerland to Sweden and then down to Portugal before coming home with the artwork in his hands.
In spite of his real passion and his true expertise in Oceanic art, Brignoni never visited these remote islands. In 1985 he donated his collection to the City of Lugano.
The solid reputation of Brignoni as an ethnic art expert explains its success as the preferred art merchant for the avantgarde artists, who where all collectors of ethnic masterpieces. These artworks impacted systematically on the artistic production of said artists, which were strongly "contaminated" by the comparison with what the ticinese artist sold them. The "pedigree" of an ethnic art who used to belong to Brignoni is still solid nowadays, and translates to astonishing results at art auctions, up to three times its initial asking price.
Brignoni had shown an aptitude for art even as a young child, and in 1919 he enrolled at the Kunstgewerbeschulein Bern and at the same time attended painting and sculpture classes at Viktor Surbek’s school. Two years later he enrolled at the Brera Academy in Milan and then at the Hochschule für Bildende Kunst in Berlin, where he met the first artists who broke with the classic figurative art of the 19th century. He also experimented with his first Impressionist artworks in Berlin.
In 1923 Brignoni moved to Paris where he attended André Lothe’s classes at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, experiencing Cubist painting and coming into contact with major representatives of the Avant-garde movement. In 1926 he exhibited his works at the Salon des Indépendantsand had his first solo exhibition at the Galerie Bucher in Paris.
During his Parisian years he kept in contact with several painters from Basel such as Otto Abt, Walter Bodmer and Walter Kurt Wiemken, and became a member of the Gruppe 33. Thanks to a federal grant he took part in the Surrealist exhibition in Copenhagen in 1935 and 1936, but had to return to Switzerland in 1940 because of the war.
Initally, he settled in the Ticino, but in 1945 he moved to Bern where he could find a more stimulating environment. During those years he often had exhibitions throughout Switzerland and taught at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Zürich.
With his artistic research Brignoni developed the themes of metamorphosis, vegetable and animal fragments and experimented with the techniques of lithography, collage, painted bas-relief and iron sculpture. He also painted murals: in Bern, in Bellinzona (Government Headquarters, 1958) and in Comano (Television headquarters, 1975). In 1979 he participated in the exhibition "Neue Sachlichkeit und Surrealismus in der Schweiz 1915-1940" in Winterthur, and in 1997 the Kunstmuseum in Bern dedicated an important retrospective exhibition to Brignoni and his art.
Serge Brignoni died in Bern in 2002, at the age of 99.