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Venice: From Canaletto and Turner to Monet Opens at Fondation Beyeler
Canaletto, The Molo from the Bacino di San Marco, 1733/34. Oil on canvas, 48.5 x 80.5 cm. Collection Juan Abelló, Madrid.

BASEL.- Since its founding eleven years ago, the Fondation Beyeler has focused on art of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in its collection presentations and changing exhibitions. Yet we have always been aware of the fact that modern art did not simply appear out of a clear blue sky. This insight occasioned our 2001 exhibition “Ornament and Abstraction,” which placed modern approaches in their historical context. Another example was “Francis Bacon and the Tradition of Art,” an exhibition mounted in collaboration with the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, devoted to the involvement of a prototypical modern artist with the traditions of Western painting. Here, for the first time, works by Old Masters such as Titian, Velázquez, and Rembrandt hung between Bacon’s paintings on the purple walls of the Fondation’s exhibition spaces.

“Venice. From Canaletto and Turner to Monet” goes a step farther. Beginning with the views painted by Canaletto and Guardi in the eighteenth century, the exhibition traces a grand arc to the series of canvases Monet painted in Venice in 1908. Based on the work of twelve European and American artists, an unprecedented panorama emerges of the forms of visual representation developed in Venice by forerunners and early representatives of modern art in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

It is a panorama that does almost without Venetian artists. The epochal Venice pictures of the period were created by artists from northern Europe and the United States. Canaletto and Guardi in the eighteenth century were the last great Venetian painters of views, whose cheerful and festive works, a few fine examples of which are on view in the exhibition, continued to shape the popular image of Venice long after the Serenissima’s demise.

Already likely the most frequently depicted city at Canaletto and Guardi’s period, Venice advanced in the nineteenth century to cult status, a place that fueled the imagination of some of the greatest and most significant artists and intellectuals, including painters and photographers, authors (George Sand, Marcel Proust, Henry James, Thomas Mann) and poets (Lord Byron, Rainer Maria Rilke), composers (Richard Wagner, Peter Ilich Tchaikowsky, Frédéric Chopin), and philosophers (Friedrich Nietzsche, Georg Simmel). The depictions and descriptions of artists and intellectuals were a key reason why Venice, more than any other city, became a “pre-established” experience in the public mind. In the nineteenth century, the image of Venice developed into a palimpsest in which diverse and very ambivalent pictures were superimposed: images of power and demise, love and death, beauty and transitoriness, joie de vivre and melancholy.

The foundation for this new image of Venice was laid in the early nineteenth century by Lord Byron and his poems and dramas. His enthusiastic devotion to the city, understood as an allegory of decline and fall, was shared by his countryman, the English artist William Turner. As the magnificent loans from the Tate show, the painter’s transcendent visual inventions are no less compelling than the poet’s evocative imagery.

In 1874, Edouard Manet became the first early modern artist to paint in Venice. This is all the more surprising for the fact that Manet and his Impressionist confreres, advocates of a self-reflexive, “pure” painting, tended to avoid genres and subjects that were all-too freighted with sentimental and literary meaning. This sort of thing was the domain of academic artists who showed regularly at the official Paris and London salons. Still, some of the most important representatives of early modernism could not remain immune to the unique atmosphere and beauty of Venice. For Manet and James McNeill Whistler, Odilon Redon and Paul Signac, painting in Venice meant confronting clichéd visual stereotypes with new and original imagery. Each of the artists represented here developed his own approach to this end, based on his previous oeuvre.

The exhibition brings together outstanding works by prominent representatives of the French and Anglo-American avant garde who were active in Venice in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In addition, with John Singer Sargent and Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Whistler, artists who maintained friendly ties from early on are shown here together for the first time.

The Swedish artist Anders Zorn, an internationally acclaimed painter in his day, stands in our exhibition for the magnetism exerted by cosmopolitan, fin-de-siècle Venice on a growing number of moderately progressive artists. The city’s attractiveness for these juste milieu artists was increased by the Biennale d’Arte, which opened its doors for the first time in 1895. This new forum also had an inspiring effect on local artists, as seen in the painting by Pietro Fragiacomo on view here.

A new chapter in the media dissemination of the image of the City on the Lagoon, which did not remain without effect on contemporary painting, had already begun around 1850, with the continually growing influence of photography in Venice. Crowds of tourists stimulated a demand for photographs of the city’s main landmarks and its popular life, especially around 1900, when Venice found its true raison d’être in tourism. We consider ourselves fortunate in being able to include a representative selection of early Venice photographs from the Herzog Collection, Basel, in our exhibition.

Claude Monet avoided going to Venice for many years. When he traveled there for the first (and last) time with his wife, Alice, in 1908, he was sixty-eight years old. After hesitant beginnings, even Monet succumbed to the mysterious fascination of what Paul Morand called “the water-lily city.” In the course of two months, he blocked in paintings at several locations, which he would finish in his Giverny studio in the years to come. These works were exhibited in spring 1912 at Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris. One hundred years after their emergence, we have attempted to reconstruct Monet’s Venice series, which has never been on view in its entirety since its first Paris showing. In retrospect, this elegiac series of paintings has the effect of a farewell to the image of Venice held by an epoch that would come irrevocably to an end two years later, with the outbreak of the First World War.

The exhibition unites about 150 works, including 80 paintings, 50 works on paper, and 20 historical photographs. Leitmotifs are the famous views of Venice, such as the Piazza San Marco, the Canal Grande, Palladio’s San Giorgio Maggiore Church, and Santa Maria della Salute Church.

With a commitment far beyond the ordinary, over 70 institutional and private lenders in Europe, the U.S., and Japan have agreed to make available their often rarely shown masterworks, without which the exhibition would never have been possible in this form. The most important institutional lenders include the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff; the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon; the Tate, London; the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid; the Zornsamlingarna, Mora, Sweden; the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Alte and Neue Pinakothek, Munich; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York; the Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Pola Museum of Art, Japan; the Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vermont; the Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, Turin; the Galleria Internazionale d’Arte Moderna di Ca’ Pesaro, Venice; the National Gallery of Art and Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; the Akademie der bildenden Künste, Vienna; the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts; and the E.G. Bürhle Collection, Zurich.

Guest curator of the exhibition, which will be shown only at the Fondation Beyeler, is Martin Schwander.

In parallel, a contemporary photographic project on the theme of Venice by Vera Lutter (1960) and David Claerbout (1969) will be on view.

The exhibition will be supplemented by a wide-ranging program of events, including a reading by Donna Leon and a lieder soirée with a vocal ensemble from the Basel Theater Opera.

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