Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Karl Bickel & Helvetia

The pilot at the controls of his plane - this is a classic essay by the master Swiss stamp designer Karl Bickel (1886 - 1982) taken from the ‘Air’ set of ten stamps issued in 1923.  It was to be Bickel’s very first collection of designs in a remarkable forty year long career producing some 500 different postage stamps in not only his native Switzerland, but for other countries too, including Liechtenstein, Luxembourg and Portugal. Today, ninety years after Bickel’s very first designs, there must still be millions of examples of his work mounted in stamp albums across the world!

Karl Bickel was born in Zurich, Switzerland, and served an apprenticeship as a lithographer, and later worked for a graphic institute producing fashion, merchandising catalogues and postcards. By his early twenties, he owned his own art studio.  A visit to Florence to study the works of Michelangelo was a key influence on Bickel, who soon after returning to Zurich in 1913 contracted tuberculosis. Ironically, this would be a turning point in his life. 

Bickel sought out the medicinal waters at Walenstadtberg. In this peaceful and majestic mountain world, he experienced a series of cosmic visions. From then on he would go on to lead a lifetime of creativity away from the crowds, as a recluse in his beloved natural environment - and combined his more commercial poster and stamp designs with his paintings and drawings, studying the physiognomy of the mountains and rock faces, and his Michelangelo-like representations of people.

Karl Bickel's 40 centimes, violet, 4 cms x 2.5 cms philatelic masterpiece, 1923

But that was not all. For 'cosmic' Bickel also had a more personal project - the creation of what he would call ‘The Paxmal’. This was a peace monument located high above Lake Walen, in front of the dramatic Churfirsten mountain range. A massive spiritual hub which would take Bickel twenty five years to make between the years 1924 to 1949. 

The covered altar-like area with a massive neo-Greek columned entrance has a walled courtyard complete with water pool and sculpted symbols of human endeavour and development. In a Europe decimated and corrupted by the carnage of WW1, Bickel had crafted a far-out place which could stimulate meditation and reflection - for universal peace.

All this began just one year after those 1923 Swiss 'Air' stamps - with the close-up of the pilot's face, half hidden behind goggles and headgear, soaring in the sky above and beyond snow-capped mountains...

'The Paxmal' - 25 years of endeavour

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