The Belgian painter Magritte is not exactly a paragon of abstraction. Neither is Henri Rousseau. Nevertheless, these painters – their famous bowler-hatted men against cloudy skies and exotic utopias respectively notwithstanding – are central to an exhibition at Kunsthaus Zürich revolving around how abstraction has propelled the development of modern art.
The interpretation of abstraction, here, is one of visionary objectivity.
All too often, we think of abstraction as having to entail a stark play of line and colour – like in a Mondriaan or a Rothko.
But in the case of the artists, which this exhibition focuses on, their visionary imagery makes use of stylistic modes of representation that capture their unique views on the world – a universe so purely theirs it can only be seen through their eyes.
Drawing from the Kunsthaus’ permanent collection, the exhibition features works by the late 19th century painter Félix Vallotton, and other Swiss painters who captured the visible world with a precision worthy of the Old Masters, firmly rooted in the academic tradition.
At around the same time, the ‘naive’ autodidact Henri Rousseau depicted exquisitely neat, visionary worlds of the imagination that referenced exotic utopias of the colonized continents.
His human forms and depictions of nature are abstracted to the extent that they are archetypes, not individuals, thus objectifying an idea to the point of a purely imaginative vision.
After the First World War, representational description of the world took a different, more scientific turn. ‘New Objectivity’, as seen in the works of Adolf Dietrich, showed a naturalist picture of its subjects – old men, dogs in the countryside – but allowed for a personal touch that radiates emotion rather than reflecting anatomic correctness. Then, later on, the influence of the unconscious came to the foreground in Surrealism, where René Magritte and Salvador Dalì created dream worlds that were objectively impossible, but abstractly true – in the dreamer’s own mind.
Kunsthaus Zürich’s emphasis on Swiss art along with its ability to draw parallels with international masters makes their exhibitions, and this one in particular, worth visiting – if only for its wealth of local talent both from the Middle Ages, up until contemporary art.
Take a scenic walk along the Rathhaus bridge from the Widder Hotel; it’s only a 10 min walk from the David Chipperfield-extended Kunsthaus building.