Wonder where the Sixties hippy art style came from? Or the fairytale animations we’ve seen lately from Hollywood? The Pierre Arnaud gallery in Lens below Crans-Montana has an answer in its current exhibition (open till 21 May 2017).
Those diaphanous female figures, pastel patterns, dreamy landscapes and hokey mythological allusions: the 19th-century Symbolists had them all, well before the 1960s Paisley revival, Laura Ashley patterns and washed-out LP covers. You know: Arnold Böcklin, Gustave Moreau, Félicien Rops, et al.
But would you believe it? They also included Auguste Rodin, Ferdinand Hodler, Gustav Klimt, that dark portraitist Félix Valloton and Ernest Biéler, co-founder of the Savièse school celebrating Swiss peasant life.
With its exhibition entitled Symbolism: the magic of water, the Arnaud demonstrates in just 100 pieces that Symbolism was much more varied in its production than its later reputation. The show’s curator, Ingrid Beytrison Comina, has assembled European works from private collections as well as museums.
The deliberate narrowing of its theme – to the topic of water in the Symbolist imagination – just strengthens her argument for giving these artists a new look and appreciating their achievements more fairly. The water theme, she points out, inspired painters, sculptors, poets, musicians, cabinetmakers, glassmakers and ceramists. The audio guide includes a recital of Verlaine’s Claire de lune and an extract from Debussy’s Pelléas and Mélisande.
The exhibition has six thematic sections, the same topics set out for the first entirely Symbolist exhibitions in the 1890s: dreams, the ideal, myth, legend, allegory and paraphrasing the great poets.
The variety of works on show reminds us that Symbolism was a pan-European movement striving to abolish genres and re-unite the arts as well as presenting material forms of an intangible reality. It also inspired artists over an amazingly long period: the magnificent Biéler door frame decoration from a private collection dates from 1898, while his painting Le Lac (also privately owned) was painted in 1930.
There’s even an Edward Burne-Jones, drawing a clever link to inspiration from the British Pre-Raphaelites. But the exhibition is full of surprises in its eclectic assemblage of pieces. It offers several beautiful glass pieces by Emile Gallé as well as intricate marquetry you might never get the chance to see on public show together after this year.
I asked one of the assistants what she found the most impressive of the works seeing them day after day. Her surprising choice was the Félix Valloton landscape of astounding delicacy from 1915. I could understand.
And if you imagined the Symbolists were all sweetness and light, take a look at Fantastic Animal by Jean-Joseph-Marie Carriès (1892) loaned from the Petit Palais in Paris. A humanlike frog sculpture with a tail, as large as a basin, is swallowing with difficulty what looks like another, much smaller frog.
This might not be the best place to tell you, but on Thursday, 9 March, from 17:30 at the Indigo restaurant associated with the gallery, a programme of music and an aperitif will be followed by a meal “around the various products of the sea related to the current exhibition”. Reservations: 027 483 46 11.
After a series of stories about the Foundation’s financial troubles – CHF 800,000 in the red, loss of a major supporter, four workers made redundant , cancellation of an exhibition – it is encouraging to see that the direction is still putting together courageous and innovative shows that are worth anybody’s time. It is a pity that the gallery has only been able to attract half the 70,000 hoped-for visitors a year, a third of the 250,000 who crowd the much bigger Gianadda in Martigny, with each staging two shows over 12 months.
Escalating exhibition-assembly costs have also played their part in the Arnaud’s woes. Deals with other institutions are now helping to defray expenses. The currently expected deficit is around CHF300,000, which the directors consider manageable.
Véronique Carpiaux from the Félicien Rops Museum in Namur, Belgium, was a member of the Symbolism scientific committee. The Swiss works in this exhibition are due to go on show at the Belgian museum on 26 June-24 September 2017.
The Foundation’s next exhibition is Two Faces of the East, the portrayal of women in Orientalist painting and popular imagery from Islamic lands. It runs from 2 June to 24 September 2017.
Where: on the map – around 1 hour from Verbier or Montreux
Address: 1 route de Crans, 1978 Lens, Suisse, Case Postale 39
When: open: 10:00-18:00. Closed: Monday and Tuesday
Website: Pierre Arnaud Gallery
Entry: standard entry fee: CHF18
By Peter Hulm