Wolfgang Pusch is the only craftsman in Europe who has mastered the detailed relief construction of mountain ranges and peaks. A visit to the studio of the former mountain hunter in Bischofswiesen.
Text and photos: Angelika Jakob
Wolfgang Pusch, the summit artist
"I can't be bothered with flatlands," Wolfgang Pusch clarifies while dusting a glacier with a damp brush. "Rugged walls, steep climbs, edges and slopes, rock needles and glacial rivers, they all excite me."
K2, the second largest mountain in the world after Everest, stands before him as an approximately 60-centimetre-high, half-finished step model made of plaster on a scale of 1:15 000. Behind it, on two computer screens speckled with plaster, views of the eight-thousand-metre peak rise into the ice-blue sky above the Karakorum.
Pusch is now scraping at a boulder field with a wire brush, crumbs of plaster trickle onto the table and keyboard. If you were to imagine these crumbs to scale, you would be dealing with a huge rockfall. It would be raining skyscrapers! So the modeller must not sloppy under any circumstances, one wrong carve into a flank or pinnacle means many metres on the real mountain, which would then not match the model.
Shrinking mountains with perfect form
No one in Europe, perhaps even in the world, can shrink mountains so beautifully. Only Wolfgang Pusch is so obsessed with the bizarre shapes of the massifs that he hides out in his workshop in Bischofswiesen with podcasts and piano concerts until his small-scale mountain world resembles the real thing down to the last cirque gully.
It is a lonely long-distance race, at the end of which there is a perfect object. "I meditate above the mountain, I think of nothing but the next step. Just like climbing a difficult wall, the carousel of thoughts spins slower at first, then later, if I'm lucky, it lets me go. It's liberating," he describes his best moments.
14 eight-thousanders for Messner's museum
Stone giants from all over the world have been piled up by the 46-year-old geodesist and geoinformatician over the past twenty years. Zugspitze, Drei Zinnen, Ama Dablam, Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau stand ready for delivery on the workshop shelf.
King Watze with his wife and the five Watzmann children including Königssee sell well even in small scales, for 50 to 200 euros. Tourist offices and national parks order large models for their visitor centres, hotels for their foyers, private individuals as a memento of their most adventurous tour. Reinhold Messner presents all fourteen eight-thousanders in his museum in Firmian.
Climbing the peaks in a child's basket
"I have always liked maps. My father had these maps with him on which the contour lines were drawn when he took me hiking in the Karwendel," says the model maker, putting the wire brush aside, "I then built my first mountain out of papier-mâché and plaster, crooked and inaccurate probably, but no matter, it was a small mountain I could walk around.
Mountains as natural works of art shaped by inconceivably great forces
The idea never left me: Mountains as objects. Mountains as natural works of art, formed over millions of years from sedimentary rock and by incomprehensible geological forces. A process that never stops. Right now we see with dismay how fast the glaciers are melting."
From the jackdaw's point of view
Actually, Wolfgang Pusch is too modest to talk much about himself. He shows his likeable, somewhat wry smile and walks over to the heavy-duty shelf that takes up the entire length of his studio in Bischofswiesen. He lifts his local mountain, the Watzmann, from the shelf.
He can run his finger along the narrow ridge between the three Watzmann peaks, which he has already climbed at least fifty times. Or retrace the descent from the southern peak into Wimbachgries. Pictures of the bizarre beauty of the legendary east face, the view of Lake Königssee are forever in his mind. But Pusch wants more, a view of the massif that only jackdaws are granted.
Addicted to mountain air
You can see the mountain climber and former mountain fighter in his face: wiry and muscular, he stands there, not tall, but very straight, his movements are efficient. To breathe in the mountain air at lunchtime, he runs either up the Rauher Kopf, the Grünstein or the Brettgabel, then it's back down to plaster, paint and plywood, back to work on the third dimension, which is often not at all what it pretends to be.
"If we think we see distant mountains in three dimensions, we are under an illusion. Because we know that the world is not flat, our brain presents us with a wide space. Only with close scenes can we perceive spatial depth. When I see a relief, I can recognise the whole shape of a mountain range and admire it from all angles."
The heyday of reliefs
Models of landscapes, fortifications and cities have probably been around for a very long time. A relief of the eastern Alpine region is known to have been made by the Habsburg Maximilian I more than 500 years ago.
Because we know that the world is not flat, our brain presents us with a wide space
The heyday of relief engineering began in 1870, when an atlas appeared with maps that included contour lines. This enabled topographers and cartographers to create detailed three-dimensional landscapes.
"The Säntis from 1903 at a scale of 1:5,000 is the most beautiful relief ever created," Wolfgang Pusch enthusiastically says, "it's not just the unbelievable precision for the time that makes it a work of art, it's simply beautiful. Technically, I have completely different possibilities today. Most mountain ranges are covered by satellite remote sensing, so accuracy is no longer a problem. It's only the wind, clouds and scents that I can't depict."
Layer by layer to the model
He replaced his father's maps with the contour lines he loved so much by databases in which the corresponding altitude is stored for each coordinate, he gets satellite images and photos on the net, plywood, carving tools and plaster are needed, a wire brush for gouges and sand grooves, green dyed sand to make cripple slippers grow, paint and polystyrene for settlements.
He has the contour lines printed out to scale on paper and glues them onto plywood boards that are exactly as thick as the distances between the contour lines in this scale. He saws out narrow strips along these lines, layer by layer. Glued on top of each other, they form a kind of hollow layer cake mountain. He turns it over and fills it with plaster to create a stair-shaped positive.
Now he can begin with the fine work and, after taking many photos, extract the details. From this original he creates a silicone mask with which he produces small series. There are always orders for striking and popular mountains. Nevertheless, such a mountain model remains handmade, if only because of the painting.
The soul of the mountain
For the digital competition, which works with 3-D printers and programmed milling machines, Wolfgang Pusch only has a disinterested shrug of the shoulders: "They are just precise, that's all. With a hand-carved relief, on the other hand, I can highlight what makes a mountain beautiful, emphasise its peculiarities, make its soul visible."
Wolfgang Pusch has precise ideas about the beauty of mountains. They have to be spectacular, steep, rocky and wild. "Wild means that nature is the opposite of civilisation, of normal landscape," he insists, "such a peak stands for itself, is majestic and can only be conquered by a few. And only for a short time. When dozens of metres of thick ice flow down a flank, framed by steep, icy rock faces, I'm blown away. It's wild!"
A moment ago his blue eyes were shining with excitement, now he squints over at the half-finished K2 and laughs his somewhat crooked smile. This time it means that there has been enough talking now. Wolfgang Pusch finally wants to resume his dialogue with the glacier. Altitude metre by altitude metre, he works out how the ice nestles against the legendarily beautiful summit, rigid, yet always in motion. If you look closely, the glacier also flows on Pusch's model. You just have to get involved with the mountain.
More about Wolfgang Pusch's work and his mountain models (only in German)