Art in the Alps, or Divisionism Revisited

The Fondation Pierre Arnaud has finally opened.  A sharp and shiny facade overlooking the lake at the centre of the small alpine village of Lens, it reflects the majestic sweep of mountains that embrace the valley of Saviese, descending down through tier upon tier of vineyards to the Valais capital of Sion.musee.lens.11_zoom945

The foundation was conceived by the daughter and son-in-law of the late industrialist Pierre Arnaud, a Provencal who made his money in Tangiers before retiring to the Valais where he died in 1997.  The paintings of the Ecole de Saviese seem to have sparked his interest in collecting art, and thus presumably the location of the new foundation.

Though the actual content of Arnaud’s collection remains mysterious – all the paintings currently exhibited appear to be on loan from other public or private collections (largely Swiss) – the curatorial intent is made clear.  The foundation has a five-year plan, with a summer and winter exhibition planned for each year covering all the significant movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  This stands in contrast to the single artist shows or presentation of single owner collections that often form the core of neighbouring galleries such as the Fondation Pierre Gianadda at Martigny or the regional museums in Sion.  Its key aim is to locate Swiss painting within an international artistic narrative, in confrontation with movements across Europe from 1850 to 1950.

This is achieved with flair in the superb inaugural exhibition, ‘Divisionnisme: Couleur maitrisee? Couleur eclatee!’ (it doesn’t translate well).  Local Swiss artists are displayed among international masters such as Seurat, Signac, Cross and Rysselberghe, and make one consider how limited our understanding of a movement is when confined to only those paintings considered ‘masterpieces’.  This exhibition reveals a far broader picture of the range and development of the Divisionist style across Europe, and is consequently far more interesting than a blockbuster show of ‘greatest hits’.

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Albert Muret certainly stands his ground with light-suffused pictures such as ‘End of the Winter at Lens’ (left, 1904).  There is something quite wonderful about seeing a painting that was created only yards away from where it hangs; glance out of the plate glass window and one could almost see where he might have stood, palette in hand.  Muret was born in Morges, just outside Lausanne, and in 1901 discovered the Valais and decided to build a chalet in Lens to which he brought groups of artistic and literary friends.  His art from this period centres on Alpine country life and all its associated activities, filtered through the stylised modernity of post-impressionism.  With visible brushstrokes layering the still subtle gradations of colour, Muret captures the deceptively solid blue shadows and the dazzling transience of sunlight on snow.

Oskar Luthy requiem dans les Alpes

Oscar Luthy moved from Bern to the Valais in 1903-7, and it was here that he turned to plein air painting. ‘Requiem in the Alps’ (1909) shows the same eagerness to describe in paint the intense colour contrasts and dramatic natural forms of the Alps.  But in the silhouetted foreground figures he also addresses the hardships of life in the mountains, as they pull a small coffin on a sledge across the frozen landscape to the distant church.

Perrier Lac Leman Grammont 1901

Alexandre Perrier was considered one of the most eminent Swiss artists at the turn of the 20th Century, his work exhibited alongside that of Ferdinand Hodler at the Vienna Secession in 1901 and also at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900.  It is certainly worthy of greater acclaim.  I suspect that the reason why his work is almost unknown today is that most was bought by Swiss museums and collectors due to the particularity of his subject matter.  Perrier painted, almost exclusively, views of Lac Leman, Le Saleve and Le Grammont, obsessively rendering the ever-changing light and atmosphere of the lake and mountains which are imbued with an ethereal majesty, the very finely divided brushstrokes almost invisible beneath the more powerful symbolism of forms.  There develops an expressive aura to this phalanx of mountains that suggests an affinity almost with Munch, or perhaps rather the French Symbolists Denis and Ranson.

giuseppe pellizza da volpedo Le miroir de la vie 1895-8

This style of Divisionism – the fine, barely distinguishable, strokes of colour that when combined produce a intense shimmering effect – is also the technique used by the Italian artists displayed in the lower gallery.  Most of these I had never heard of, so entirely are they ignored by French-centric art history; indeed only Segantini had previously entered my consciousness – and he is supposed to be ‘one of the most famous artists in Europe in the late 19th Century’!  All are large-scale, powerful compositions full a heightened sensibility which the Divisionist style works so well to transmit.  Giuseppe Pelizza da Volpedo’s ”The Mirror of Life’ (above, 1895-8) depicts a frieze-like line of sheep, the sunlight endowing the creatures with a halo, giving them a mysterious significance.  A few decades later, Singer Sargent’s ‘Gassed’, the frieze of soldiers following one another blindly, full of trust and faith and human frailty, might reveal the universal meaning within Volpedo’s cryptic picture.  It is also telling that his most famous painting was entitled ‘The Fourth Estate’, an openly political subject that came to stand as an icon for progressive and socialist causes in Italy.

carlo fornara Le vent d'Aquilon 1902-4

Carlo Fornara’s ‘Aquilon – The North Wind’ (right, 1902-4) echoes Luthy’s ‘Requiem’, conveying all the harsh conditions of mountain life, the dogged determination of the old woman bent double under her load of sticks, oblivious to the strange beauty of the dusk that shines purple on the snow.   A generation younger, Fornara won the respect of both Volpedo and Segantini, having come under the influence of neo-impressionism while studying in Lyon.  The Gallery Grubicy also seems to be a uniting force among the Italian Divisionists, giving them the Europe-wide exposure they needed.

By the second half of the exhibition, the artists begin to break free from the strict limitations of Divisionism (or neo-impressionism).  There are examples of artists such as Balla and Boccioni, whose early work shows them experimenting in what was by the early twentieth century a pervasive (though still avant-garde) manner, but who would both go on to be better known as Futurists.

cuno amiet l'auberge d'oschwand 1906Cuno Amiet and Giovanni Giacometti (father of the more famous sculptor Alberto Giacometti) complete the show, taking Divisionism in the contrary direction, their mark-making becoming bolder, their pigments purer, until it is more akin to Fauvism in the juxtaposed daubs of red against green or cobalt blue (for example Amiet’s ‘The Inn at Oschwand’, left, 1906).  Both Swiss, they met at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, after which both, inspired by Impressionism, travelled to Paris to study at the Academie Julian, through which doors almost all the great modernists seem to have passed.  Amiet then went on to Pont-Aven in Brittany, while Giacometti returned to Switzerland where he met Segantini.

Cuno Amiet La Lessive 1904

Amiet’s ‘Washing’ (right, 1904) is indicative of their experimental attitude, appearing to combine numerous different styles.  While the background is exaggeratedly Divisionist, the woman and the shirts and bloomers flying in the breeze are outlined in bright blue or left as negative white shapes against the background colour; it is somewhere between a Symbolist and a Fauvist approach, a unique combination that perhaps stems from the combined formative influences Munich and Paris.  Giacometti too, in ‘Evening in the Alps’ (below, 1906), shows an increasingly daring use of the Divisionist style from a tame Post-Impressionist stippling to a thick, bold, directional strokes of colour that form a stylistic bridge between the tortured, sinuous, expressive brushstrokes of Van Gogh and the dynamic, mechanical coloured marks of the early Futurists.

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Next up in Lens, ‘Surrealisme et arts primitifs: vers une revolution du regard’… If there is anything like as much surreal and primitive art to discover within the hidden hordes of Swiss collections as there is Divisionist, it will be a revelation.

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