Reality sometimes gives such cruel denials to theories and systems that it would be imprudent to accept them absolutely, without control and without reserve, as it would be foolhardy to deny them completely. Some philosophers and economists have tried to establish a direct relationship between the political state of a people and the rise of the artistic level. Making rather cheap use of history, they have seen in democracy the government most favourable to the development of all the arts. The theory is certainly attractive, and "Liberty protecting the Arts," an allegorical subject, would be an appropriate theme for an academic competition. But is it really true that the influence of liberty is manifested in such a favourable way? Is it really true that the great artistic eras correspond to eras of freedom, of independence, drawn? Alas, that is not what history says. And without wishing to enter into too many considerations, which peoples should lead the modern artistic movement? Is it not the Americans, the English, the Swiss? But it must be admitted that far from being in the lead, these three nations are far behind France, Sweden, Italy, etc... And let no one object that the great superiority of the Italian sculpture exhibition contradicts what I am saying. If Italy is free today, was it not under the Austrian protectorate, under the government of the dukes of Modena, Parma, etc., under that of the king of Naples, that the sculptors who exhibited this year's Dying Napoleon, or The Sleep of Innocence, were trained? No, it must be acknowledged that the arts only find the broad, effective protection that is necessary for their development, for their very existence, under absolute governments. Democracy perhaps sets too high a value on certain interests, on industry, commerce, and finance, to give painting, music, literature, and statuary the place and rank they should occupy. What are the memorable periods of art? Those in which a powerful, absolute sovereign, a Francis I, a Leo X, honoured art and artists and gave them the first place in the State.
The customs, more than the political principles, mark their imprint on the productions of art. Thus, while the elegant corruption of the regency, of the reign of Louis XV, had given birth to the terracottas of Clodion, to the shepherds of Watteau, Lancret, and Boucher, to the rhyming mignardises of Dorât and Gentil-Bernard, the imitation of the republican mores of Rome inspired the severe canvases of David and of his school. And, to conclude, shall I remind you that in the organisation of his republic, Plato rejected artists, men of imagination? Wasn't he saying that art, a source of intellectual pleasure and enjoyment, has no place in a society preoccupied with material interests?
The Swiss Fine Arts Exhibition proves my point. In this classical land of freedom, should not all manifestations and productions of art reflect the feeling of greatness, strength and power that should animate the independent man and that he carries in all the acts of his life? And if this is so, will we find in the works of Switzerland this feeling which is expressed in art by the choice of subjects, the vigour of the execution, the expression of physiognomies?
Sculpture is represented at the Champ de Mars by Messrs Caroni, Imhoff, Menn, Soma-jini, Ch. Topfer.
M. Emmanuel Caroni has given three marbles, the first, Love conquering Force, reveals in its author the study and assimilation of the procedures of the eighteenth century school, grace and delicacy of form replacing anatomy and truth. L'Amour is modelled with great finesse. Although the drawing is not always correct, although the proportions are not always exact - the left leg, for example, is disproportionately long - the whole is graceful, the attitude is good. Love is sitting on a lion that is licking his feet. The pose is natural and effortless. As for the lion, despite the libretto's claim that it is made of marble, it seemed to me to be a cardboard lion. - I prefer Ophelia, a natural size marble. She is standing with her head bowed, and her whole attitude and the languidness of her body indicate a deep reverie. Here the drawing is more correct. The lines are still graceful, and I will only reproach this marble for the complete absence of expression in the figure. While the body speaks, the face is mute. - The Slave at the Market combines the same qualities, the same defects. Gracefully crouching, her arms chained, she waits for the one on whom her fate will depend. But the face does not reflect any of the feelings that should animate her. What does she feel? Is it the worry, the anxiety that such an expectation must give rise to? Is it the joy of leaving an abhorred master? Is it the carefree attitude of a slave to whom everything is indifferent? The face expresses nothing. Here again, one must admire the plasticity, the physical grace, the elegance of the forms and contours. But where is the life, the intelligence, the divine radiance? I do not see it. Mr. Caroni is a sculptor, not a poet. I would add that in this exhibition he represents the materialist school.
Mr. Imhoff, from Uri, is exhibiting a marble statue of Rebekah, which was commissioned by the museum in Raas. Will this statue fit well in a gallery which enjoys a fair amount of fame? The attitude, the pose of Rebekah is cold, without grace, without naturalness. Her left arm, bent at mid-body, lets her hand hang down. Her right hand holds the traditional urn. There is an awkwardness in all these movements that is not redeemed by the expression of the head or the elegance of the draperies. - The Jesus Christ Teaching in the Temple, by the same artist, is no better. Too large for the age of the figure, he seems to be prey to that malaise, that half-suffering of children who have grown up too quickly.
I don't like the Surprise Bathers by Mr. Somajini from Ticino either. One is kneeling in an attitude of terror. The other is bent over and leaning on her companion. Both seem to see in the distance a frightful danger approaching. I complained earlier about the lack of expression that the sculptors had given to their statues. Here I find an exaggeration in the sentiment expressed. It is not, in fact, an indiscreet person that the bathers have seen. For their faces and gestures express more terror than frightened modesty. Finally, the bather who leans on her companion seems at least her grandmother. Has she suddenly aged from fright? The libretto unfortunately says nothing about this.
M. Menn offers us a bust of Émile Chevé which, without reaching perfection, has the great merit of recalling very accurately the features of the eminent innovator.
To these works should be added a few bronze or plaster medallions of little importance.
The oil paintings are represented by 1 12 canvases, most of them rather mediocre and generally belonging to the landscape.
History and what is called the great painting (religion, antiquity), etc., number barely seven or eight paintings. The Duchess Glocester, by Mr. Weckesser, whose composition is awkward and whose colour is weak. - Romeo and Julie in the village, by M. Stuckelberg; the two children (twelve and thirteen years old) walk down a path holding hands. There is nothing prettier, more graceful, sweeter than the young girl's head; Romeo's eyes have a liveliness, an animation well in keeping with his attitude. The charm that Mr. Stuckelberg has managed to put into these two characters reveals a remarkable painter of portraits. But why should the two children be stuck to the rock, to the path they are following? This lack of perspective, which we will find in many Swiss landscape painters, spoils the effect of this painting, which contains some delightful details.
The genre paintings are hardly superior to them. Mr. Landerer, from Basel, exhibits the Wedding of the Last of the Ramsteins, which at first glance, and even at second glance, can be taken for a good coloured lithograph. The religious assembly in a forest in the Swiss Alps, by the late Adrien Kuukler, aims at the effect without achieving it. The setting sun taking the figures in slings scatters rays, glitter, on the faces and on the shiny parts of the costumes. This search for a momentary effect tires the eye more than it charms it. I do not mention the Departure of the procession of a Wallachian wedding by M. Jacot, who has found it appropriate to have his characters travel on painted wooden horses. - The newborn of Mr. Anker, from A-net, is one of the successes of the Swiss exhibition. Is it much better? No, but it is one of those good bourgeois paintings, clean, decent, conscientiously painted, where nothing is too bright or too bold to offend public taste. I repeat, it is one of the successes of this exhibition. And this is not a praise. - Mr. Bachelin's Swiss wrestlers are more vigorous. There is a certain movement in this painting. The peasants who surround the wrestlers are not badly grouped, but, always the same defect, no perspective. The background falls on the foreground. - The painting by M. Vantier: Courtier and peasants, reminds us of the manner of Téniers. The drawing is easy, the composition intelligent, the colour sober. All in all, it is a fairly good painting. I notice the same qualities in another painting by the same artist: The Crossing. A family is carrying the coffin of a child who has just died across Lake Brienz. The attitudes, which are inevitably somewhat similar, are simple, the figures are expressive, and the painting leaves a melancholy impression. I don't like the lake, whose slats are a little too reminiscent of the regularity of parquet floor joists. - M. Zuber-Buhler has borrowed the subject of his painting, the Bacchanalian Queen, from The Wandering Jew. He has rendered the scene of the procession with great spirit and verve. I do not want to forget the Women of Peggli, by M. Ma-riani. A woman hangs out washing, while her companion leans on a barrel. Chickens, roosters, etc. come and go in the carriage. - The subject is rather bizarre. But the woman leaning is drawn with great talent. The various planes are well layered, the colour is good; in short, this singular painting is one of the best of the Swiss Salon.
Portraits are rare at the Salon Suisse. When I have cited that of Émile Chevé, by M. Poggi, of Geneva, a portrait whose drawing is a little soft, but which recalls the bust of M. Menn, - that of Mme B. . by M. Henri Berthoud, a painting quite inferior to the other works of this artist, it will only remain for me to review the landscape.
In this genre, Switzerland makes us forget the mediocrities that I have mentioned above, not that its landscapes are masterpieces. But among the sixty or eighty canvases it exhibits, there are several remarkable ones in which a very lively love of nature, a clear and sure feeling for effects, that intelligence, that understanding of great spectacles, which the tourist meets at every step in the Swiss Alps. The very conformation of this picturesque region develops early on in artists a penchant for natural beauty. Every site is a painting, every escape is a landscape. A gorge, a plateau, a waterfall, a forest dominating a valley, a stream meandering down a hill, green hillsides succeeding arid and majestic mountains, this is what strikes the child's gaze at any time. And what a variety of aspects, sunrise, sunset, and seasons, do they not give to these sites, which seem to await only the painter's brush! - Does this mean that all the landscapes in the Swiss Salon are good? No, they are not. But, first of all, they are very numerous, and moreover, the proportion of good ones to bad ones is relatively considerable. So I can only mention the best ones.
At the head of the list I would place the Bergamasques guarding their herds on the banks of the Bernina, by M. Albert de Meuron. The cattle graze scattered, while, gathered in the shade, the shepherds are grouped together, waiting for the evening. Around them stretches a landscape that rises to the horizon. In the background, and far away, in a bluish cloud, we can see the hillsides that the hill will join. The planes are naturally tiered, the well-distributed light allows one to follow the sinuosities of the terrain; the air circulates at leisure and it seems as if one is breathing deeply in this landscape. M. de Meuron has exhibited six landscapes, and in all of them I find a quality that is too rare among landscape artists, the sense of perspective. A morning on the top of the Alps, by M. Veillon, is distinguished by that breadth of horizon which I have just noted in M. de Meuron. M. Jacottet's La chute du Beichenbach is very striking.
An immense black rock, which bathes its feet in a bubbling foam, all painted with great width. In the background, the sky, on which the mountain is cut out, brings out, with light tones, this great black mass which pours torrents of foam. I like the Cascade du Giessbach, by M. François Diday. The colour is very vivid, without being violent, the drawing is firm, vigorous; one feels a skilful hand, sure of its effects, obeying a lively and enthusiastic imagination. U Interior of a forest, by M. Duval, is a bit of a showpiece. But there are some charming details. A little too much crudity in the colour is redeemed by an easy and graceful drawing. The Entrance to the Lauterbrunnen Valley, by Mr Karl Girardet, belongs to Mr Emile Péreire. I can only compliment the famous financier for having placed this beautiful painting in his gallery. The emperor gave to the museum of Lille a painting by M. Castan, entitled: An October evening. This landscape is not without merit. The colour, though moderate, is not without brilliance, and the foreground is very good, but the horizon is impasto, and the background is skilfully concealed by a forest whose position I cannot quite explain.
Let us quote again, the Approach of Evening, by M.Baudit, A la mort, by M. Berthoud. The hunter holds one of the victims of the chair and shows it to the dogs* who rush towards it barking. A setting sun illuminates the scene and produces a happy effect. - But how, next to this landscape, which is not without merit, does M. Berthoud exhibit the Morning Effect and the Jungfrau summit, which do not even suggest that their author could ever be a landscape artist? I end this list of landscape artists with the First Autumn Snow in the Mountains, by M. Humbert, of Geneva. Humbert, of Geneva. This painting can compete without fear with that of Messrs Jacottet, Diday and de Meuron, which I mentioned earlier. The science of effects is not given to everyone, and M. Humbert, who possesses it, uses it with great skill. A beautiful autumn sun illuminates this first snow of October which announces winter, and gives its note in this great harmony of colours which gives such a striking character to autumn landscapes.
It remains for me to speak of pastels, watercolours and engravings.
There are, in these various genres, some successful works. I will mention the portrait of the Bishop of Hebron, a pastel, by Miss Louise Revon, the Little Beggar, by Miss Anna Collignon, which recalls a pretty statuette from the Italian exhibition, the Reichenbach Waterfall, a pretty watercolour by the late Juillerat. But I will stop in front of the engravings of Messrs Paul and Édouard Girardet, which reproduce various paintings by Knauss, Vernet and Dela-roche (among others the Virgin in contemplation before the crown of thorns), and also those of Messrs Mertz and Weder, from Basel.
From my journey through this exhibition, which includes no less than 211 works, I take away the impression that Switzerland has only been influenced by nature itself, by physical nature, by its glaciers and valleys. If the democratic state had had the slightest effect on the movement of the arts, would the Exhibition not provide some historical pictures? Without comparing it to the great nations, this republic has a glorious past. Directly or indirectly, it has long taken an active part in the events that have shaken Europe. Well, Switzerland only brings a historical picture, it is a scene borrowed from Shakespeare, a quasi-historical statue, it is a character from Shakespeare. Do we see here this liberal breath, which, animating all souls, directing all minds, manifests itself in all acts, in all productions, in all works? And would we not be led to conclude that if democracy fecundates and develops strength, energy, generous feelings, patriotism, it is without influence on art and imagination?
©L'Exposition Universelle de 1867 Illustrée