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Sotheby's Swiss art sale promises a celebration of colour showcasing the country’s artistic output
Ferdinand Hodler, Der Mont-Blanc am frühen Morgen (The Mont Blanc in the early morning), 1918. Oil on canvas, 60 x 121 cm (est. CHF 600,000 – 800,000). Photo: Sotheby's.
ZURICH.- On the 27th of May, for its sale of Swiss art, Sotheby’s Zurich will present a fresh perspective on an ensemble of important works showcasing the country’s artistic output. From the 19th century to the present day, the sale presents fascinating insights which shed new light on the great masters of Swiss art. Through museum-quality pieces, Sotheby’s has carefully chosen a selection which reflects the mastery of the country’s finest artists including Ferdinand Hodler, Albert Anker, Ernest Biéler and Félix Vallotton. The sale will present 91 lots, with a total estimate of 6.3 million francs.

Urs Lanter, head of Sotheby’s Swiss Art department notes: “Collectors of Swiss art are increasingly interested in high-quality works which are fresh to the market. We are delighted to be able to offer in this sale a wide selection of rare pieces by celebrated Swiss artists, some of them from important private collections. We therefore expect strong interest both from international collectors and from institutions.”

Stéphanie Schleining-Deschanel, director of Sotheby’s Export department and Swiss Art specialist, comments: “For our spring sale, we are pleased to offer works whose quality, provenance, style and subject matter are emblematic of Switzerland’s most sought-after artists.”

Leading the sale in May is a masterpiece by Ferdinand Hodler, showing a Geneva scene: Der Mont- Blanc am frühen Morgen, 1918 (The Mont-Blanc in the early morning) (LOT 44, est. 600,000 – 800,000). This landscape is one of the last paintings completed by the Swiss master before his death on the 19th of May 1918. This impressive and important late work comes from the collection of the late Geneva-based dealer and collector Jan Krugier. In the last months before his death, Hodler painted nearly 20 landscapes depicting Lake Geneva and the Mont Blanc: some works show the snow-capped peaks in a cold, late-afternoon light; however the majority present the scene bathed in the first light of day. The composition of this last work by the artist is remarkable in his use of broad parallel strips without borders to either side, creating the impression of looking into infinite space. Hodler’s “view into infinity” evokes in the viewer a sense of cosmic distance. The light of day breaking over the horizon, along with the complementary shades of blue and yellow reinforce the impression of being confronted with infinite space. Yellows and golds bring to mind man’s relationship with the divine; their luminosity is enhanced in contrast with blue, the colour of transcendence and spirituality.

In offering this beautiful landscape of Lake Geneva and the Mont Blanc, Sotheby’s is delighted to return to a theme so dear to Hodler, following several record sales in Zürich of the artist’s work.

Hodler’s unparalleled skills are also shown in several important portraits. The sale offers a magnificent painting of his muse, Bildnis Valentine Godard-Darel (Portrait of Valentine Godard-Darel) dated 1909 and part of a series of portraits produced by Hodler at the peak of his career (LOT 28, est. CHF 800,000 – 1,200,000). The work is from an important Swiss private collection, and ranks among the most important of its genre. Among other characters painted by Hodler, the sale also comprises a beautiful oil painting, Bildnis Emile Borgeaud (Müller am Tisch) (Portrait of Emile Borgeaud (Müller at the table))(LOT 17, est. 150,000 – 200,000), and an impressive preparatory drawing in pencil and ink showing the motif of the woodcutter, a recurrent theme for Hodler, which would later feature on the country’s bank notes : Der Holzfäller im Tannenwald (The woodcutter in the Tannenwald) (LOT 18, est. 90.000 – 120.000).

The sale will also showcase the talent of Albert Anker and highlights the themes for which he’s known: the ordinary people of his time in a rural setting, and in particular their everyday activities. In this fine oil painting, Berner Mädchen (Young girl from Bern) (LOT 13, est. CHF 600.000 – 800.000), we see a young Bernese woman, Katharina Rosina, most likely from Ins, the village where Anker was born. Anker’s empathy with his subject is authentic, and he captures her inner world, lost as she is in thought. This painting offers us a captivating example of his famous and sought-after portraits, underlining his position as one of the most important Swiss portrait painters of the 19th Century.

The mastery of portraiture as seen in Anker’s work can also be noted in the paintings of Ernest Biéler. The artist from Vaud, also widely acclaimed for his portrayals of rural life and countryside traditions, is well represented. The sale offers a wonderful example of Biéler’s work, Jeune Saviésanne (Young Woman from Savièse) (LOT 22, est. CHF 200.000 – 300.000), which perfectly illustrates the painter’s technique: a meticulous composition in the traditional technique of tempera, wherein focusing on an emblematic figure in the foreground with the village of Savièse in the background. This piece is a fascinating exposé of Biéler’s reaction to the avant-garde and to the modernist trends predominant at the time.

Félix Vallotton is celebrated in equal measure for his woodcuts, his illustrations and his paintings, executed in a style which is immediately recognisable. Following the very fine retrospective of the artist’s work at the Grand Palais in Paris this winter, which brought him to the attention of a wide international audience, we are fortunate to be able to offer a selection of his work which includes portraits, a landscape and several woodcuts. Just as with the group of works by Hodler, they reflect Vallotton’s outstanding skill. The leading highlight, a composite landscape, features an unusual composition for the artist, which will no doubt captivate collectors. The painting, Femmes portant des corbeilles à Marseille, 1901 (Women carrying baskets in Marseille, 1901) (LOT 32, est. CHF 380.000 – 450.000), sees Vallotton reconcile himself with classical perspective, in contrast to the majority of his landscapes. From 1901 onwards, the artist spent his winters in the South of France and this work dates from the beginning of that period.

The May sale also includes two paintings which illustrate the genius of two masters of post- impressionism in Switzerland: Cuno Amiet and Giovanni Giacometti.

The Swiss colorist and ‘painter of light’, Giovanni Giacometti, was fascinated by this row of houses in Capolago, close to Maloja, and their reflection in the waters of Lake Sils (Capolago, LOT 23, est. CHF 300,000 – 500,000). Over the course of the year 1907 he painted four versions of this scene: among them one can be found in the Graubünden museum of fine arts in Chur; a second, almost identical in terms of composition and palette, was bought in 1919 by Arthur and Hedy Hahnloser.

Cuno Amiet settled in the Bernese hamlet of Oschwand in 1908. For this landscape, Amiet takes his cue from the misty conditions in the title and gives himself licence to move away from painting into the details of the scene. Instead, he creates a kind of impression of a landscape, in which the representation of space and contours verges on abstraction. Only the barely horizontal line, painted with seeming nonchalence, makes it clear that the lower half of the canvas is a hill or plateau. In the upper half, the mountains in the background hold very little depth, layered almost like the backdrop in a theatre (Nebellandschaft, LOT 45, est. CHF 180,000 – 250,000).

Fascination with light and colour reaches its culmination in the work of Augusto Giacometti. The sale features a painting which the artist himself described as a key work in his manifesto, Die Farbe und Ich (Colour and Me) in 1933. This masterly still life is significant in its exploration of the harmony of colours, with its variations of red and orange. The depiction of real objects is simply a pretext for this exploration, which signals his move towards abstraction (Maiskolben und Orangen II, 1946 (Corn on the cob and Oranges II, 1946)) (LOT 59, est. CHF 180,000 – 250,000).

The interaction of colours is central to the universe of the avant-garde painter Richard Paul Lohse, whose work features in the modern section of the sale. The colours in his painting Neun vertikale systematische Farbreihen mit horizontaler une vertikaler Verdichtung, 1955/69 (LOT 85, est. CHF 150,000 – 200,000) are chosen according to a strict system and applied in solid blocks on a flat surface. The artist’s interest is in the viewer’s experience of this colour arrangement.

Another stand-out piece in this section: Martin Disler’s powerful work Tornado Tango, 1984 (LOT 78, est. CHF 20,000 – 30,000), which perfectly demonstrates the energy expressed by the painter in his use of colour. The painting showcases the artist’s well-known characteristics: experimentation, intuitive painting style and an obsession with death and pain.

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