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Caspar Wolf, Lower Grindelwald Glacier with lightning (Les Séracs du glacier inférieur de Grindelwald avec un coup de foudre), around 1775. Oil on canvas / huile sur toile, 54 x 82 cm. Aargau Kunsthaus, AarauPhoto Credit: Brigitte Lattman

BASEL.- The Alps as magnificent spectacle of nature — a surprisingly recent opinion. It was only during the course of the 18th century that people began regarding jagged mountain ranges as “sublime” and aesthetically pleasing. The Swiss landscape painter Caspar Wolf (1735– 1783) was one of the first to discover the largely untouched Alpine highlands as subject matter for artistic treatment. In his spectacular compositions, massive boulders, thundering mountain torrents, and bizarre glacier formations impede the viewer’s path. The human being, standing in awe, is reduced to a tiny figure before expansive panoramas. With his radical visions of the Alpine landscape that leave the Baroque idyll far behind, Wolf emerges as one of the most significant precursors to European Romanticism. At the same time, his work breathes the spirit of Enlightenment.

54 x 82 cm; Öl auf Leinwand / oil on canvas / huile sur toile

Caspar Wolf, View from the Bänisegg on the Lower Grindelwald Glacier (Vue depuis la Bänisegg vers le glacier inférieur de Grindelwald), 1778. Oil on canvas / huile sur toile, 54 x 82 cm.Private Collection / Collection privée. Photo Credit: Reto Pedrini

The exhibition includes 126 works by Caspar Wolf and his contemporaries as well as a selection of recent photographs of the Alpine scenes where he painted. In conjunction with this exhibition, the Kupferstichkabinett at the Kunstmuseum Basel presents highlights from its rich holdings of drawings and graphic works by Caspar Wolf.

Caspar Wolf; Ausgang der Dala-Schlucht nach Süden / Dala Gorge near Leuk, Looking South / La Gorge de la Dala près de Loèche, vue vers le sud

Caspar Wolf, Dala Gorge near Leuk, Looking South (La Gorge de la Dala près de Loèche, vue vers le sud), oil on canvas / huile sur toile, 82 x 54 cm.Sion, Musée d’art du Valais. Photo Credit: Heinz Preisig, Sion

A fluke of history can be credited for Caspar Wolf’s ascent from impoverished childhood in the village of Muri (Canton Aargau) as carpenter’s son and moderately successful beginnings to a figure of standing in European art history: “most important pioneer of Alpine painting” and “one of the most significant precursors to European Romanticism” are the labels most frequently attributed to Caspar Wolf.

31 x 46 cm; Gouache

Caspar Wolf, Dragon’s Cave near Stans (La Caverne du Dragon pres de Stans). Gouache, 31 x 46 cm.Aarau, Aargau Kunsthaus. Photo Credit: Jörg Müller, Aarau

The fluke in question is Caspar Wolf’s encounter with the influential Bernese publisher Abraham Wagner (1734–1782). Wagner, one year his senior, had an ambitious project: to issue an encyclopedic publication of the Swiss Alpine landscape complete with illustrations of the highest artistic standard; more to the point, these illustrations would be worked immediately from nature. The motifs that the publisher had in mind were to be found in the rarely travelled and difficult to reach high Alpine region. Wagner’s idea was to offer viewers a new conception of the Alpine landscape in images of previously unparalleled precision and magnificence. To author the written sections of this publication, Wagner engaged the Bernese pastor and eminent natural researcher Jacob Samuel Wyttenbach. Wolf was to accompany the two men on their extensive excursions through the mountains. His task was to document and depict in paintings these unique encounters with nature.

54 x 81 cm; Öl auf Leinwand / oil on canvas / huile sur toile

Caspar Wolf, Vue de la vallée de Gadmen avec le Titlis, le glacier de Wenden, le Grassen et les Fünffingerstöcke (Gadmen Valley with Titlis, Wenden Glacier, Grassen and the Fünffingerstöcke), 1778. Oil on canvas / huile sur toile, 54 x 81 cm. Aargauer Kantonalbank, Aarau. Photocredit: Aargauische Kantonalbank, Aarau

What resulted was a comprehensive picture cycle of the Swiss Alps. Working in his studio from the nature studies completed on location, Wolf created close to 200 paintings of imposing quality that bring together spontaneous observations and highly artistic formulations. Wolf devises a captivating painterly vocabulary to depict mountain ranges and glaciers, waterfalls and caves, bridges and raging torrents, lakes and high plateaus, portraying them now in wide panoramas, now in close, claustrophobic compositions. His paintings include many prominent natural monuments, some no longer existent due to the environmental destruction of recent centuries: such as the famous “séracs” (ice needles) of the Lower Grindelwald Glacier, evident in two exceptionally powerful paintings by Wolf, that have long since melted away.

24 x 38.7 cm; Bleistift und Öl auf Karton / Crayon et huile sur carton

Caspar Wolf, La grosse pierre sur le glacier de Lauteraar (The Great Stone Table on the Lauteraar Glacier). Crayon et huile sur carton; 24 x 38.7 cm. Kunsthaus, Aarau. Photocredit: Jörg Müller

Wolf’s paintings can neither be grouped with the type of vedute, so popular at the time, nor can they be described as explicitly documentary images. Instead, they play on a more fundamental level: they ultimately consider the relationship between the sensual perception of the world of the mountains with a rational concept of the phenomenon of mountains.

But what was the origin for the remarkable aesthetic assurance with which the artist entered new ground in the Alpine project?

Caspar Wof; Staubbachfall im Winter / La cascade du Staubbach en hiver  / The Staubbachfall in winter

Caspar Wolf, La cascade du Staubbach en hiver (The Staubbachfall in winter), vers 1775. Oel auf Leinwand, rentoiliert. Kunstmuseum Bern, Verein der Freunde. Photocredit: Kunstmuseum Bern, Schweiz / Muse

Wolf’s intense engagement with French painting while in Paris in 1770/71 proves to be of central importance, as the exhibition demonstrates with works by François Boucher, Claude-Joseph Vernet, Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg the Younger, and Hubert Robert. Amazingly, Wolf drew particular inspiration from the marine painting of the day with its dramatic storms at sea and shipwrecks.

Caspar Wolf; Panorama des Grindelwaldtals mit Wetterhorn, Mettenberg und Eiger / Panorama of the Grindelwald Valley with the Wetterhorn, Mettenberg, and Eiger / Vue panoramique de la vallée de Grindelwald avec le Wetterhorn, le Mettenberg et l’Eiger

Caspar Wolf, Panorama of the Grindelwald Valley with the Wetterhorn, Mettenberg, and Eiger (Vue panoramique de la vallée de Grindelwald avec le Wetterhorn, le Mettenberg et l’Eiger), oil on canvas / huile sur toile, 82 x 226 cm. Aargauer Kunsthaus, Aarau. Photocredit: Jörg Müller, Aarau

The exhibition includes 126 works by Caspar Wolf and his contemporaries as well as a selection of recent photographs of the Alpine scenes where he painted. In conjunction with this exhibition, the Kupferstichkabinett at the Kunstmuseum Basel presents highlights from its rich holdings of drawings and prints by Caspar Wolf.

Caspar Wolf; Sturm über dem Thunersee / Storm over Lake Thun / Tempête sur le Lac de Thoune

Caspar Wolf, Storm over Lake Thun (Tempête sur le Lac de Thoune)oil on canvas / huile sur toile, 54.4 x 81.7 cm. Kunstmuseum Basel, gift of Edith Raeber-Züst, Basel, in memory of her husband, Dr. Willi Raeber/ Kunstmuseum Basel, legs de Mme Edith Raeber-Züst, Bâle, en mémoire de son époux, Dr. Willi Raeber. Photocredit: Kunstmuseum Basel, Martin P. Bühler

Caspar Wolf; Rhonegletscher, von der Talsohle bei Gletsch aus gesehen / Rhône Glacier from the Valley near Gletsch / Glacier du Rhône depuis la vallée près de Gletsch

Caspar Wolf, Rhône Glacier from the Valley near Gletsch (Glacier du Rhône depuis la vallée près de Gletsch), oil on canvas / huile sur toile, 54 x 76 cm. Aargauer Kunsthaus, Aarau, gift of the banks of Aargau / Aargauer Kunsthaus, Aarau, donation des banques Argoviennens. Photocredit: Jörg Müller, Aarau

54 x 82 cm; Öl auf Leinwand / oil on canvas / huile sur toile

Caspar Wolf, Leukerbad with the Gemmiwand Rock Face (Loèche-les-Bains avec les falaises de la Gemmi), oil on canvas / huile sur toile, 54 x 82 cm. Musée d’art du Valais, Sion. Photocredit: Heinz Preisig, Sion

Staubbachfall

Caspar Wolf, La cascade du Staubbach en été (The Staubbachfall in summer), oil on canvas / huile sur toile, 81.5 x 54 cm. Museum Oskar Reinhart, Winterthur. Photocredit: SIK-ISEA (Philip Hitz)

53.5 x 81 cm; Öl auf Leinwand / oil on canvas / huile sur toile

Caspar Wolf, Les séracs du glacier inférieur de Grindelwald avec la Lütschine et le Mettenberg (Lower Grindelwald Gglacier, with the Lütschine River and Mettenberg), around 1775, oil on canvas / huile sur toile, 53.5 x 81. Museum Oskar Reinhart, Winterthur. Photocredit: SIK-ISEA (Philip Hitz)

Caspar Wolf; Ausgang der Dala-Schlucht nach Norden/ Dala Gorge near Leuk, Exit Looking North / La Gorge de la Dala près de Loèche, vue vers le nord

Caspar Wolf, Dala Gorge near Leuk, Exit Looking North (La Gorge de la Dala près de Loèche, vue vers le nord), oil on canvas / huile sur toile. Musée d’art du Valais, Sion. Photocredit: Heinz Preisig, Sion