Situated in beautiful gardens next to the Olympic Museum, L’Elysée in Lausanne is a museum dedicated to photography. The museum strives not only to preserve the photographic medium in the traditional sense, but also to explore and stimulate new advancements in the art of image-making. Currently on view are three politically charged exhibitions that explore the intersection of creativity and war.
Chaplin, between wars and peace (1914-1940) exhibits original prints, documents and film clips alongside historic photographs and posters culled from the museum’s collection, private collections and Cinemathéque Suisse.
Charlie Chaplin is the original movie star. He is best remembered as the Tramp, an iconic character with signature toothbrush mustache, bowler hat and whangee walking stick. As the character ripened, the Tramp came to reflect not only Chaplin’s maturation as a filmmaker, but also his political sensibilities in the face of geopolitical changes. Political satire is the backdrop of numerous Chaplin films, including The Great Dictator (1940), which satirized Adolf Hitler.
Chaplin’s progressive political expressiveness was controversial in the 1940s and he was accused of being a Communist sympathizer. In 1942 the Russian War Relief honoured his war efforts. In his after-dinner speech, Chaplin said, “I am not a Communist but I am proud to say that I feel pretty pro-Communist. I don’t want any radical change – I want an evolutionary change. I don’t want to go back to the days of rugged individualism. I don’t want to go back to the days of frustration. I don’t want to go back to the days of 1929. I don’t want to see again thousands of tons of good coffee burned. I don’t want to see thousands of tons of wheat and cotton destroyed. I don’t want to see again millions of gallons of perfectly good gasoline poured over mountains and mountains of good juicy oranges. I don’t want to go back to a sick and crazy world like the one we had and which produced Hitler and Hitlerism. No we must do better than that.”
Chaplin was eventually blacklisted by Hollywood and banished from the States. In 1952 his US re-entry permit was rescinded, despite his illustrious career, four-decades-long residence in California, and marriage to an American citizen. Evidence against Chaplin was ultimately unsubstantiated. Nevertheless, Chaplin said about the USA, “I wouldn’t go back there if Jesus Christ were president… my prodigious sin was, and still is, being a non-conformist.” Consequently Chaplin relocated to Vevey on the shores of Lake Geneva where he lived until his death in 1977.
In 2011 the Chaplin Photographic Archive was donated to L’Elysée, about which Joséphine Chaplin said, “I am thrilled that the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne will take care of my father’s archive. My siblings and myself totally trust that the museum will preserve this heritage which is so dear to us.” The archive contains over 10000 vintage prints and negatives chronicling Charlie Chaplin’s entire career, film by film – from his initial arrival to the United States in 1910. The archive originates from documentary photographs taken during the filming of Chaplin’s numerous films.
Chaplin, between wars and peace (1914-1940) positions selected photographs from the Chaplin Archive with parallel images from the First and Second World Wars. This juxtaposition opens a conversation about the motion picture industry and propaganda in the face of geopolitical change, and an artist’s attempts to grapple with it.
The other exhibitions currently on view at L’Elysée also probe the creative documentation of global conflict. Gilles Peress, Telex Iran features original prints, recently acquired by the museum, from the second edition of Telex Iran, published in 1997 by Scalo Editions in Zurich. These document the Iranian revolution and those who witnessed it in a matter of fact photo-journalistic style that led to Peress being unable to return to Iran again.
Amos Gitai, Architect of Memory, co-produced with the Swiss Film Archive, Cinemathèque francais and Galeries Brussels, is a fascinating forty-year retrospective of the Israeli filmmaker’s work, combining rare documents, film extracts and photographs taken throughout the Israel’s wars with its neighbours. This is a powerful display that puts this grinding conflict into distressing focus – how so many have suffered and died and still peace is no closer.
Chaplin, between wars and peace (1914-1940), Gilles Peress, Telex Iran and Amos Gitai, Architect of Memory are on view at L’Musée de l’Elysée until 04 January 2014. Tickets are CHF 8, concessions are CHF 4, and under 16s are free. L’Elysée is open Tuesday to Sunday from 11h to 18h. See elysee.ch for more information.
Stephanie Twiggs is an American art reviewer living in Geneva