Lens re-opens our eyes to the Symbolists

Ernest BiƩler door frame Galle glass

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.

Six sections

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 link to its 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 gallery assistants what she found the most impressive of the works seeing them day after day. Her (perhaps unexpected) choice was the Félix Valloton landscape of astounding delicacy from 1915 (below). I could understand.

Valloton landscape

A chapter in the beautifully produced catalogue by the exhibition's scientific director Christoph Flubacher seeks to revive aesthetic appreciation for the intricate enamel work of Armand Point, a French artist-craftsman represented by the breathtaking Lady with swans from a private collection.

photo of Point enamel

The theosophist poet Jean Delville (1867-1953) — Symbolists gravitated to alt-mysticism such as Rosicrucianism and the like — shows himself an evocative painter (with works from private collections).

Ethereal female figures that represent the clichés of Symbolism drift through the works of Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer, Filippo Franzoni and Alphonse Osbert. William Degouve de Nuncques could have made a career in 21st-century Disney. Albert Trachsel should get a percentage on every psychedelic poster.

But pride of place has to go to Carlos Schwabe, designer of the 1892 Salon Rose+Croix (also from a private collection) that put Symbolist art on the map.

One of the Pierre Arnaud Foundation's strengths is that it does not focus on individuals. Its selection from Schwabe, however, shows that the artist could work in several styles, including a series of almost three-dimensional dramatic pencil studies.

Schwabe pencil studies

And if you imagined the Symbolists were all sugar, drama and smoke, take a look at Fantastic Animal by Jean-Joseph-Marie Carriès (1892) loaned from the Petit Palais in Paris.

Fantastic manfrog animal

A humanlike frog sculpture with a tail, as large as a basin, is swallowing with difficulty what looks like another, much smaller frog.

Food for thought

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.

Courageous, innovative

After a series of stories about the Foundation’s financial troubles – CHF800,000 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.

Deals to defray costs

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 2 June-24 September 2017.

Orientalism

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.

Standard entry fee: CHF18. Open: 10:00-18:00. Closed: Monday and Tuesday.

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