On 12 November 2016, Museums in Switzerland are free. Valais resident Peter Hulm suggests going to the Pierre Arnaud Foundation in Lens, just below Crans-Montana.
Not just because of its magnificent building and a restaurant whose young chef was trained by a three-star Michelin cuisinier.
The chances are you won’t have seen the “Dutch and Flemish painters from Geneva’s Art and History Museum” at the museum itself, though it has more than 280 works from these artists, particularly from the 15th to 18th century and the Golden Age of Lowlands portrait painting. Together, the works on canvas, copper and wood now make up a reference collection of this period’s Lowlands painters. But Geneva’s museum director Jean-Yves Marin says lack of space makes it impossible for the museum to show all the paintings.
But another reason is that these genre specialists have gone out of fashion. So the title of the Pierre Arnaud’s latest exhibition (21 Oct-22 Jan) could really be the rise, fall and rehabilitation of Lowlands painters among Geneva’s art enthusiasts. If ever you’ve walked round the museum you might have passed these painters by, if they were present. I know I did.
So I’m glad I waited till the Lens show to discover the 80 works presented. As always, the Pierre Arnaud offers an impeccably staged exhibition. But the curator Frédéric Elsig of Geneva University has also turned the display into an object lesson for exhibition organizers and art history students. I have never read a more informative standard guide (in English and French) to a small show – or one that shows more awareness of the influence of the art market and patrons on the subjects that professional artists paint. If you’ve ever read or seen John Berger’s path-breaking Ways of Seeing (the book or TV series), his arguments about bourgeois uses of art seem irrefutably supported by these works.
For your CHF18 entry fee, in the space of an hour you can educate yourself on at least seven important topics in art history. Six are the thematic sections of the exhibition, from portraiture to still life. The seventh lesson is an instructional history in the ever changing vagaries of artistic taste and public interest.
Gathered together by Geneva’s discreet and acquisitive families, then donated to the city, the Lowlands paintings in the first exhibition – held at the Musée Rath in the first half of the 20th century – “met with a comparative lack of interest, ” Marin notes in his introduction to the guide. Museum buyers at that time were more interested in revolutionary contemporary art, adds Prof. Elsig.
Elsig, under the directorship of Cäsar Menz, put together an exhibition entitled “The Birth of Genres” in 2005 and in 2009 “Art and its Markets” using paintings from the collection. “A remarkable conservation and restoration campaign, completed by a university seminar, brought the ensemble back to life,” says Marin.
The ground-breaking Pierre Arnaud exhibition is worthy of your interest, as well, because at the completion of its Geneva run, it will travel to Caen in France and three Catalan museums in Spain before the works return to the Geneva vaults. On 12 November (the free museum night) and on 13 November Christophe Flubacher will offer a guided tour of the exhibition.
The ornate gold frames may at first shock the contemporary minimalist eye. However, the extravagant Baroque and Rococo carvings and later framing, often decorated with gold leaf, reflected much needed light onto the dark works and the dim environments where they were often displayed. Historically, frames were sometimes as valuable as the paintings they held.
Despite the restoration work under Victor Lopes, however, many of the paintings – particularly on copper or wood – remain impenetrably dark to old eyes. When asked about the dimness of the paintings, a tour guide pointed out that the style of the time was (at least in the Calvinist United Provinces) a reduced (North European) palette. And in a time without electricity, people were used to a greyer range of light. If you can afford the price of the catalogue, the reproductions there have been digitally treated to increase their contrast at the cost of very little loss of authenticity.
As for the six lessons (Prof. Elsig’s notes are much more expansive), here’s my quick summary:
Lesson 1: portraits. The 17th century ushered in the Golden Age of Lowlands portrait painting, reflecting the accumulation of great wealth and cultural achievement by the rising bourgeois. Artists moved away from the formality of the Italian fashion of presenting subjects in profile as on coins (see the website) to more relaxed positions and formats such as collective portraits and the three-quarters posture.
It’s amazing how many of the people in the Foundation’s show could be our contemporaries in their immediacy and self-satisfied prosperity. Under the tutelage of Rembrandt, Nicolaes Maes’ 1673 family portrait is almost a masterpiece for its free brushwork as well as his eye for character. But as Elsig points out, Italian-inspired theoretical treatises of the time put portrait-painting at the bottom of the genre scale and treated such artists as “slaves” of their patrons.
Lesson 2: There is a differentiation in artistic tradition between the Calvinist Holland (the United Provinces) and the more baroque inspired Flemish/Spanish Netherlands. Still lifes vs animal paintings, particularly of hunting.
Lesson 3: The same divisions can be found in history paintings. Religious subjects were made commercially attractive by the troubles of the 1560s. The success of 16th-century Venetian painters led Lowlands painters to take on what was considered the most difficult of all genres at the time. For example, the Antwerp painter Willem van Herp, represented by two works in Lens, specialized in paintings on copper for the Catholic art market, most notably in Spain.
Lesson 4: Architecture and interior paintings, with the depiction of scenes of everyday life, are perhaps the most appealing to a contemporary viewer for their apparent documentary aspect. But David II Teniers, featured in Lens by his Alchemist, produced “rustic interiors full of weird figures and odd objects”.
Lesson 5: The Lens show indicates how two trends emerged in the representation of landscapes and cityscapes — “vernacular” Dutch scenes and “Italianate” idealized and warmly lit landscapes.
Lesson 6: Cavalry, hunting and pastoral scenes. These could have an exhibition to themselves. Medieval tapestries found in noble houses inspired bourgeois patrons to commission hunting paintings for their walls in the 16th century. The frequent depiction of horses related both to the vogue for pictures of historic battles from the 16th century on and provided artistic opportunities for painters to show skill in expressing movement, Elsig observes. Pastoral scenes of animals in idyllic country sides harkened back to themes from classic authors such as Virgil. It was clearly all very much about having a painting that impressed the neighbours.
The most disturbing picture to me was a meticulous, imperturbable portrait of a young nun on her deathbed amid all the prosperous, celebratory religious and lively scenes on the walls around.
By Peter Hulm