In an exhibition entitled "Idyll in an Obstructed Landscape", to run from February 26 until May 16, 2010, Kunsthaus Zürich
presents the work of the painter and poet Salomon Gessner, a long-time resident of Zurich. The show reconstructs Gessners cabinet, the cornerstone of todays Kunsthaus collection laid in the first half of the 19th'century.
Salomon Gessner (1730-1788) was celebrated during his lifetime for his art and poetry, the latter translated into more than 20 languages. In Europe and the Americas as well as in Russia, Armenia and the Caucasus, Gessners "Idylls" elegantly naïve tributes to the ideals of the Enlightenment, met with an enthusiastic reception. Gessner spent the better part of his life in Zurich, painting, writing, publishing, practising politics and raising a family, while his gouaches, watercolours, drawings and engravings made their way into the most renowned cabinets in Paris, St. Petersburg, Weimar and Vienna, among other places. Committed to a lyrical school of painting guided by the subjective experience of nature and independent study beyond the walls of the academy, Gessner had admirers and detractors in equal numbers.
Gessner's Cabinet of Watercolors in Kunsthaus Zurich
Now, in his reconstruction of Gessners once-celebrated Cabinet of Watercolors for the Kunsthaus show, curator Bernhard von Waldkirch affords contemporary viewers just such leisure. The exhibition comprises some 70 pieces, including 24 gouaches, watercolors, hand drawings and engravings from the museums own collection complemented by works on loan, and provides a survey of Gessners oeuvre. Zurichs first publicly accessible 'painting collection', the cabinet survived the Napoleonic Wars intact and in 1818 was presented by the city to the Künstlergesellschaft, the predecessor of the Zürcher Kunstgesellschaft, as a permanent loan. A standing exhibition throughout the first half of the 19th-century, it constituted the cornerstone of the Kunsthaus Zürichs collection.
Challenging the Precepts of Systematic Landscape Painting
Visitors are offered fascinating insight into the minutiae of Gessners cosmology. Self-taught, the painter contrived what he hoped would be a short cut on the royal road to eminence. His models for the realistic creation of a paintings foreground were drawn from no lesser Dutch masters than Nicolaes Berchem, Anthonie Waterloo and Jacob van Ruysdael. He owed his ability to conjure an idyllic Arcadian ambience, meanwhile, to such major innovators of classical landscape painting as Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain. At the same time, he broke with the systematic approach to landscape as preached by the French academy and Germanys prolific and influential Jakob Philipp Hackert.
Arm in Arm with Lyrically-Minded Viewers
Gessners profound admiration for the Old Masters sensitized him to states of mind, or moods, as evoked by plain rural motifs like a stream bed or a waterfall. As the exhibition demonstrates to marvellous effect, such a topos, together with moss-covered cliffs, symbolizes a gentle melancholy. The eye of viewers susceptible to lyricism is silently guided over picturesque wooden bridges and past cottages sheltering under mighty walnut trees, and ultimately, as it were, to the very monument of harmony and sodality. Gessners Alpine landscapes sound with the heroic ideal of a rejuvenated nature.
The poetry and naturalism of Gessners paintings are at their most intense in compositions whose evocation of enclosure creates the impression of an obstructed landscape. The horizon is positioned high in the tableau, and the painters eye is trained on the proximate rather than the distant. Subjects and narratives are couched in a virtually impenetrable foreground arrogating the surface of the painting almost completely.
Admirers and Detractors
His formal innovations made the idyll-painter of Zurich a pioneer of 19th-century poetic landscape and history painting, whose material is taken directly from human nature. For the first time ever, a publication to accompany the exhibition will address Gessners reception with selected examples. Sources consulted include the statements of the artists critics and disciples alike painters and graphic artists such as Claude-Henri Watelet, Pierre Narcisse Guérin, Adam Friedrich Oeser, Adrian Zingg, Carl Wilhelm Kolbe, Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, Arnold Böcklin and John Constable, as well as poets who also wielded a paintbrush, like Gottfried Keller and Adalbert Stifter. The latters observation rings true to this day: The gentle law of nature that holds sway over Gessners microcosm is the very same whose broken lines and interplay with the visible world continue to preoccupy us even now.
The Gessner show is the first in a series devoted to the various media used in depictions of landscape (drawing, gouache and print-making). Gessners cabinet will be succeeded at the Kunsthaus by comparable exhibitions of the work of Carl Wilhelm Kolbe (September 10 to November 28, 2010), Adrian Zingg (2011) and other artists.