The Museum of Art and History in Geneva is lucky enough to have over 280 Flemish and Dutch paintings dating from the 15th to the 18th centuries. Most of these were donated or bequested by several generous collectors (such as Jacob Duval, Gustave Revilliod and Lucien Baszanger, for example) and the collection is now the largest ensemble of paintings representing Flemish and Dutch Schools in Switzerland. Its quality is remarkably consistent which makes it an outstanding example in the history of the collections. Between 2002 and 2009, the paintings underwent systematic restoration work and scientific study and the resulting catalogue confirmed their status in the museum’s treasures and the collection’s vital importance at the international level.
Our exhibition offers a selection of 81 paintings focussing on the 17th century: the Golden Age of Rubens and Rembrandt. Set out in six thematic sections, the show highlights the phenomenon of painters’ specializations in a particular genre, emphasizing the contrast between the wide-ranging market of the mainly Calvinist Seven United Provinces (today’s Kingdom of the Netherlands, often referred to as Holland by metonymy) and the more centralized market of the Spanish Netherlands (today’s Belgium, sometimes referred to as Flanders) which remained Catholic. The exhibition has two main aims: to reveal an essential but little known facet of the Geneva collections to a wider audience and to put the paintings back into the context of the history of taste.
Symbolism was a late 19th-century movement which arose in dramatically changing times: industrial revolution, rural exodus, population growth, the development of socialism, the emergence of biology and the evolutionist theory, awareness of the ‘self’ and the role of conscience. It evolved as a reaction against materialism, positivism and realism in art. Although admittedly reactionary, it influenced the advent of Modernism and heralded movements such as Abstraction and Surrealism. Upholding a perception of reality infused with spirituality, Symbolist artists favoured the subtle expression of moods, ima- ginary worlds and dreams, and were naturally fascinated by the elusive, ever-changing nature of the liquid element with its infinite poetic variations and powerful mythological and symbolic imagery. Water is both surface and depth, purveyor of death or life-giving energy, opaque or transparent, crashing waves or total peaceful calm; it also expresses the strong polarization which inspired Symbolism, oscillating between the blackest pessimism and idealism, the quest for a new formal language or the return to pre-Renaissance roots. The exhibition aims to reveal all Symbolism’s different facets through the prism of water whose rich and varied repertoire was to inspire painters, sculptors, poets, musicians, cabinetmakers, glassmakers and ceramists. Part of the exhibition will travel and be shown at the Musée Félicien Rops, in Namur, Belgium.