PRINT September 1974

Three Swiss Painters

AUGUSTO GIACOMETTI IS AN ARCANE figure in the history of modern art—known to many, seen by few. His name repeatedly crops up in informed conversation as an innovative figure in the origins of abstract painting. George Mauner’s exhibition “Three Swiss Painters” recently seen at the Guggenheim Museum allows us for the first time to deal with the real nature of Augusto’s contribution—which, while extremely provocative, is perhaps less than it seems. Whatever else this exhibition does, it serves to further isolate Augusto Giacometti from both his remarkable family and the larger nature of Swiss painting of the period. He is revealed as a loner.

To clarify this situation it is first necessary to discuss the more typical issues of Swiss painting at the turn of the century as they are revealed in the work of Cuno Amiet and Giovanni Giacometti. For a contemporary audience the most intriguing issues are those which engage the relationship of these Swiss artists to the career of Alberto Giacometti—after all, Giovanni was Alberto’s father, Cuno Amiet his godfather, and Augusto his uncle. Though this issue is not the intention of “Three Swiss Painters,” nor extensively documented in the catalogue, one cannot but fail to be startled by the similarity between the drawing of young Alberto made by Giovanni Giacometti in 1922 (plate 103) and the famous sculptor’s drawings. Similarly, the portrait bust of young Alberto made by Cuno Amiet in c. 1920 (plate 62) suggests a departure point for Alberto’s sculptural career. Intriguing as these connections may be, they are put forth as tentative.

Instead a more conservative and scholarly ambition is fulfilled by Mauner’s fleshing out our understanding of the Symbolist and progressive tendencies of Swiss painting at the turn of the century. This exhibition stimulates us not only because of its relationship to the work of Alberto, but also because it enhances our appreciation of the achievement of Hodler himself (as seen in the recent exhibition organized at the University Art Gallery, Berkeley) as well as Hodler’s Swiss colleagues of whom Cuno Amiet was among the most devoted—if different.

Cuno Amiet arrived in Paris in 1888 and shared a studio with Giovanni Giacometti. Amiet was still painting in a tight and anecdotal way, acquired during his Swiss apprenticeship. However, the free Academie Julian exposed Amiet to the progressive issues of the day. In 1892, he went to Pont-Aven, the site of the pictorial discoveries made by Emile Bernard and Paul Gauguin several years earlier in 1886–1888. The implications of Bernard and Gauguin’s achievement eluded Amiet almost entirely. This failure is traceable to the illustrative servitude of Swiss genre painting from which neither Amiet nor Giovanni Giacometti were able to fully break away, as well as to the influence of Hodler who, despite all the progressive potential of Amiet’s work, still remains dominant.

To his credit, Hodler’s tight line did not foster in Amiet the pseudo-gothic ambitions of, say, Carloz Schwabe; neither did it lead him to esoteric visions and architectural fantasies like those of Albert Trachsel. Nor is his art arresting for a connection with celebrated French sitters as in the portraits of Verlaine by the sculptor Rodolphe Niederhäusern. All these latter artists were in the circle of Hodler; all suffered his influence; all attempted to rise above it in varying degrees. Cuno Amiet alone was the Swiss painter who could have enlarged the implications of Hodler’s work specifically through the achievements of Gauguin—since he alone had a career marked by a sojourn in Brittany.

But his Brittany was no longer that of the heroic year of 1888 when the formal and iconographic ambitions of Bernard and Gauguin coalesced into the Cloissonist or Synthetist style. Excepting a tentative divisionism, Amiet’s Reclining Breton Girl with Orange (1893) misses the Pont-Aven point: she is not Bretonne as Virgin (as in the work of Maurice Denis), nor Bretonne as Sibyl (as in the work of Paul Serusier). Least of all is she Bretonne as decorative embodiment of esoteric myth, as she is for Gauguin and Bernard. For Amiet, she remains a realist incident depicted with a diffident divisionist touch. Amiet even missed the possibility that this Breton girl may be the new Venus—a natural assumption based on the orange in the picture’s title. Surely an allusion to the golden apple of the Hesperides is inescapable. The other notable Breton painting, Breton Girl With Cat, also indicated that Amiet’s affinities are closer to the homilies of Netherlandish and Barbizon genre painting of the mid-19th century rather than to the radicalism of Pont-Aven painting to which Amiet tardily appended himself.

I stress this point as much has been made of Amiet’s link with Pont-Aven, and it underscores a problem of Professor Mauner’s catalogue. The facts are usefully assembled. But the critical assessments persist in promoting the view that painting is pleasure-oriented, that it provides, as its primary end, agreeable visual stimuli. For some painting perhaps this is true, though certainly not for Symbolism. This assumption leads Mauner to overpraise Amiet’s achievements: “After Gauguin,” Mauner writes, “Amiet was the best of the Pont-Aven painters,” patently untrue when we remember the work, among others, of Emile Bernard and Armand Seguin and through Paul Serusier’s proselytizing, the Nabis and Intimist circle.

A misappropriation of progressive issues—endemic, in fact, to these three Swiss painters—reveals itself particularly in Amiet’s incorrectly “scaled” illustrations. Amiet, in his Winter of 1904, for example, depicts the vastness of the snow-covered landscape traversed by the long ski trail of a tiny traveler. The image is panoramic—for us cinematographic—but for Amiet it is a miniaturist occasion. Similarly, the Landscape by Moonlight of 1904 takes as its subject a large natural panorama and again underscales it to cabinet proportions. Amiet’s paintings look better in reproduction (where scale discrepancies are less jarring) than they do in real life.

By 1906, Amiet’s painting improved. He joined der Brücke on an invitation from Erich Heckel. The small divisionist touch—the Segantini stitch as it was called—grew to a bolder stroke, an enlargement of facture accompanied by a flattening simplification of shape. Here, in his Expressionist phase, the odd palette—pinks, ochres, acidulated greens, lavenders—despite brusque application, reveals the lessons of Pont-Aven more succinctly than the naturalism of his “Pont-Aven” style. In this Expressionist phase, the early quasi-Fauve simplifications of The Yellow Girls (1905), The Violet Horse (1906–7), and The Violet Hat (1907) are exemplary and, to my taste, represent the highest achievement of Amiet’s career.

Giovanni Giacometti is a naturalist painter whose art is rendered eccentric by following the example of Van Gogh’s Expressionist divisionism. At every instant, Giacometti is betrayed by a sentimental subject matter treated illustratively: landscape, peasant life, children in sunlight, sick children or children playing. Like his friend Cuno Amiet, by 1909 Giovanni is both unsure where he has been and unsure where to go. For the remainder of their long lives, they both produce a diffident body of work foundering in Expressionist illustration. In the teens, Giovanni attempted broad-ranged syntheses by merging color issues derived from divisionism, formal issues derived from Cézanne, and Expressionist issues derived from Van Gogh. This eclecticism is characteristic of nearly all modern painters’ beginnings whether in Europe or America straight through the 1930s. By the teens, therefore, Giovanni’s painting—whatever its occasional early divisionist virtue—had been reduced to talented busywork.

Augusto Giacometti is a far more cerebral artist than either Cuno Amiet or Giovanni Giacometti. The break between abstract ambition and suppleness of hand leads Augusto, say, to a career of failed painting––failures of a far more arresting type than those of Amiet and Giovanni, who are hamstrung in the first place by their uncritical allegiance to representationalism.

As early as 1900, Augusto found in the mosaics and stained glass of Byzantine and Gothic art the model upon which to subvert an initial draftsmanly style. Shimmering mosaic tesserae led Augusto to imagine a painting based on an accord of small stonelike compositions. The result was a mock-Expressionist painting, since it derived from analysis and linearity rather than from spontaneity and painterliness.

Augusto’s analytical turn of mind led him to an extremely early abstraction predicated on checkerboard expansions. Augusto’s grid structures are of a special type. Instead of square figures, Augusto substituted a figure the sides of which are curved so that what reads as a checkerboard is really an interlocking field of quatrefoil shapes. The point of such a variant square, I believe, is to deny the rigidity and absolutism of the inflexible grid. Such a figure induces both the static reading of the checkerboard as well as the active reading of triskelion or swastika interlockings, intended to be understood as signs of motion and of life akin to, say, antique running spirals. In this way, Augusto imagined that he had conquered the best of both worlds—linear analysis and painterly synthesis.

Mauner brings a salient biographical detail to this issue; in 1897 Augusto studied under Eugène Grasset, the Art Nouveau designer and theorist. Surely, Augusto’s exposure to Grasset—and through him to numerous Art Nouveau theorists—reinforced a desire to discover a decorative and abstract sign which, though static and reduced, symbolized an entire world of action and vitality as well. Similar binary figures are to be found throughout the full range of Art Nouveau design.

This motif discovered by Augusto, perhaps as early as 1898, allowed him to paint some remarkable works in a confectionary range of color that attempted to convey the sense of the distilled brilliance of light passing through stained glass. Augusto’s use of even comparatively thin media still produced work too physically embodied to satisfy the artist’s intentions. Unexpectedly, they provide models for Robert Delaunay’s similar visual color-light intentions in his Window series of 1912 and Solar Spectra immediately prior to World War I. They also prefigure Giacomo Balla’s Iridiscent Interpenetrations of the same period, shimmering fields of light rendered as continuous networks of lozenge shapes.

Despite these reservations “Three Swiss Painters” is an important exhibition. Taking the recent Holder retrospective into account as well, these two exhibitions provided an American audience with a comprehensive understanding of the relationship of Swiss art to the international issues of the early 20th century. What these two exhibitions have done is to call for still a third Swiss overview, one which would examine the early careers of three Swiss artists who were able to staunch the compromises of regional solutions—Paul Klee, Louis Moilliet and August Macke. (The latter is German, but intimately allied with the evolution of progressive Swiss painting.) By 1912 they internationalized and Europeanized the esthetic issues of Swiss divisionist and Symbolist illustration.

––Robert Pincus-Witten

Three Swiss Painters, the catalogue for the exhibition organized by the Museum of Art, Penn State University, was written by George Mauner. It contains essays on the individual artists, chronologies, a bibliography, 27 color plates, and numerous black-and-white illustrations.