A day at the art gallery

A day of foggy melancholy dawned so off I went to the Kunsthaus in Zurich so that winter doldrums might be moved by art.

Nothing will persuade me that I ought to spend any time looking at Ferdinand Hodler whose multitudinous canvases bedeck every museum in Switzerland with their figures that always appear to be strangely performing to be figures in a painting and landscapes drained of colour and artificially lit. I am struck by how much I dislike him. I usually just skip paintings that do not speak perhaps since love borders, rather than opposes, hate, I will suddenly see him, but not without a Damascene conversion)!

However, since I have not spent much time with the permanent collection (for many years), there was so much else to explore. There is a perfect Fra Angelico (is there any other kind) of the Saints Cosmo and Damien and two by Hans Memling in a similar spirit. There are several Claude Lorrain landscapes for which I noticed that his figure work is much more accomplished when of realistic peasants than when of disporting sprites or gods. It is as if his suns are sufficiently supernatural to bork no competitors and his gods always look stilted, as if added by other hands. There is half a room of Edward Munch with their strangely dissolving landscapes of liquid expression as if the world is never quite stable and might, at any moment, yet become something other. There is even a Robert Ryan that is not wholly white - it has the figure 68 painted within its white waving surface (though that is painted in white too, with shading).

However, it was three 'symbolist' painters that today caught my attention (as they often do). One is technically a 'Romantic' painter, William Blake's friend, Henry Fuseli, with canvases saturated in stories of transformation - betwixt worlds - either of fairy or dream or nightmare. The other two Arnold Bocklin and Albert Welti are 'symbolists' (within those categories beloved of art historians and occasionally of artists) and knew each other at the turn of the nineteenth century in Switzerland when the pressures of a secularising materialism (and accompanying industrialism) sponsored a reactive/responsive 'interior' turn.

What struck me today, especially coming to them immediately from the medievals, was that though there are many beautiful images, repeating motifs, there is no stability of symbolic language. Fuseli overcomes this by participating in known stories - either classical or Shakespearian (or both)  But with Bocklin and Welti, you are in a theatre of dreams but without a handling guide (either Freudian or religious), even when the 'themes' are known, they appear to have shifted somewhat. The very pressure of external loss of meaning and fragmentation leads not to answering interior certainty but to a part soothing, part haunting phantasmagoria, whose meanings can only be pieced together, woven out of a wider mysteriousness. They are often very beautiful but somehow strangely insufficient and as a 'movement' or 'trend' hardly made it to the First World War whose rigours would require different responses.

This left me wondering why yet I love it so? Perhaps because it reflects the juxtaposition between my own daily world and the fragments of meaning that come at night, that make the world more deeply soulful, even as they do not make it any less anxiously and wondrously uncertain and mysterious.

Here is Albert Welti's 'The House of Dreams' which is deeply suggestive, open ended with its interpretative opportunities and beautifully mysterious. Does the sleeping woman summon forth the other characters? Do they wait patiently, out of their own reality, for what the sleeping woman brings forth (as at the shrine of Asclepius)? Is it simply a domestic scene from a remote time and place? You mind can happily run on and on whilst partaking of its atmosphere of tranquility fused with loss: the fragility of such spaces of repose. 


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