A love divided between desire and distrust
By François Jaunin
For a long time, Lausanne and its canton have maintained a unique relationship with painting, created both from insatiable desire and an inherent distrust in the seduction of images. Many of their artists are conflicted between showing and hiding, revealing all yet concealing a part, as if to intensify desire. Even today, the explosion of techniques and media for contemporary art does not prevent painting from holding a special place, with an almost physical attachment to the act of painting into a completely contemporary level where this show-hide argument has not entirely disappeared.
From Turner to Major Davel
In the absence of a school, institutions, sponsors and collectors, Lausanne first painted through foreigners and visitors from other cantons. In the 18th century, Turner, Aeberli, Biedermann and Dunkel immortalized the city’s charm. But it wasn’t until the 19th century that Lausanne’s residents tried their hand at the canvas. Its first two local champions of landscape art were Charles Vuillermet, who illustrated the old Lausanne at risk of disappearing, and of course François Bocion, the first native artist to paint Lake Geneva and a poet of its light and pearly transparency. Based in Paris, the melancholy Charles Gleyre, who worked with the neoclassical and oriental and sometimes leaned toward the romantic and symbolic, completed the first commission from the Vaud government: a “Major Davel”, the great beheaded hero of Vaud’s independence, who would be executed a second time in 1980 by arson, almost completely destroying the painting.
Vaud’s golden age of painting
The turn of the 20th century saw the dawn of a great “golden age” of Vaud painting. Without a school or a movement because it was made up of distinct, steadfast individuals, it took place at a paradoxically key time in which Vaud art first recognized its own existence, while being completely turned toward Paris. From Lausanne, Eugène Grasset was a leading figure in the Art Nouveau movement, Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen the bittersweet chronicler of the Belle-Epoque human comedy, Marius Borgeaud the champion of a Brittany starched in the hieratic silence of suspended time, and the dark Félix Vallotton, one of the major painters and engravers of his time, carried out a remorseless study of the other side of the bourgeois dream and end-of-the-century malaise. The pictorial alter ego of the great Ramuz, René Auberjonois found his way after his return from Paris in scholarly archaism, anxious and refined in his quest for the “primitive”. Two “outsiders” complete the picture: Aloïse Corbaz, known as Aloïse, a schizophrenic and the most flamboyant colourist ever born in all of Vaud who was more inclined to using halftones and dull agreements than highly colourful exuberance. And the brilliant Louis Soutter who, despite the lack of knowledge surrounding him even now, should appear among the greatest of the 20th century. Following a deep physical and mental breakdown, he produced a moving drama that was both intimate and universal at once, clearly leaving his mark on it.
In 1955, a small group of Lausanne artists, including Jean-Claude Hesselbarth, Arthur Jobin and André Gigon, founded the “Collège vaudois des artistes concrets”, which promoted abstract modern art. Starting in the 1970s, Jean Lecoultre and Pietro Sarto became guardians of painting in Lausanne, the former with his “thriller” moods, his hybrids between the animal and the hunt, and the latter through the spaces of his “curved perspective”, which depicts an infinite and cosmic Lake Geneva. In Canada where she regularly returns, Francine Simonin has found freedom in the great wide open space that allows her movements to spread out to their fullest degree, directly in contact and quasi-choreographically with the movements of her body.
The international turning point
Like cities much larger than it, Lausanne’s lack of resources and its conservatism did little to allow its greatest artists to reach their fullest potential. Things began to change in the 1960s. The opening of its Musée des Beaux-Arts to the new avant-garde, the active and innovative militants of Impact (Jean-Claude Schauenberg, Jean Scheurer, Henri Barbier) and the gradual expansion of its public and private institutions gave a tremendous boost to Lausanne’s artistic life. Canvas, colours and paintbrushes were then at stake as the act of painting was fundamentally questioned and reinterpreted. Through the minimalist geometry of Jean-Luc Manz, in a paradoxical mix of very intimate and very distant images. In the “skin” of painting with Sylvie Mermoud, who layered colour infinitely, almost physically. Through instinctive gestures as a means of measuring nature’s movement, with Catherine Bolle. By revisiting traditional subjects as pretexts for “painting the painting” with Olivier Saudan. Or through instilling malaise beneath beauty, which Katherine Müller practised with delicately perverse refinement.
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