Enfilade

Exhibition | Exotic Switzerland? Looking Outward

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on September 19, 2020

Opening next week at the Palais de Rumine:, with additional information, including programming, available here»

Une Suisse exotique? Regarder l’ailleurs en Suisse au siècle des Lumières
Exotic Switzerland? Looking Outward in the Age of Enlightenment

Palais de Rumine, Lausanne, 24 September 2020 — 28 February 2021

Organized by Noémie Étienne

What is exotic? How long has this word been used? How do we define what is exotic and what is not? Is Switzerland exotic? In Europe, the Enlightenment is a key period in building up this view, of which we are still the heirs. This era was that of both human rights and the quadrangular trade, including trade in enslaved people. It can be reread critically. Swiss history is often only considered within the borders of Europe, but the Swiss maintained close and complex ties with distant countries.

Why This Exhibition?

This exhibition is the result of a collaboration between the team of Professor Noémie Étienne (Bern University, Swiss National Science Foundation) and the three museums of science and history of the Palais de Rumine. Exotic? will be presented in the large temporary exhibition rooms of the Palais. It offers a historical and critical perspective in order to understand the emergence of this view of the Other and the acts of classification that accompanied it. Indeed, nothing is ‘exotic’ in itself: exoticism is the product of representations, mediations, and translations, which assign a place to things and people in a given historical and political context. This exhibition depicts the image of a dynamic and complex Switzerland that became part of the world, mostly through individual initiatives. It also adds complexity to an idealised interpretation of the 18th century, which was certainly an era of great scientific and artistic innovation but also of the first economic globalisation, and colonisation.The issues of colonialism, power, gender, race and economy are at the heart of this exhibition, which aims at reflecting about Switzerland’s past, especially the careers of individuals who wished to take part in colonisation and international trade.

Who Were Swiss Travellers in the 18th Century?

Many Swiss People travelled beyond the borders, mostly individually. However, these journeys were often made under the aegis of a foreign crown and were often linked to economic, political, and religious networks that could go beyond the borders of the territory (Huguenot, banking, missionary, foreign service, and military networks). These travellers settled in the countries they visited and developed their careers in close cooperation with the peoples and territories concerned.The objects that were collected by artists and scientists in the 18th century were brought back to Switzeland and included in local collections. Two types of collection can be differentiated: on one hand, those made through intermediaries that accompanied British and French national explorations, and on the other hand those created directly by Swiss People. During these voyages, which lasted several years, the crews collected objects and specimens that they brought back to Europe and then traded or sold. At the same time, they kept travel journals and filled sketchbooks in which they described the objects and the contexts of what they collected as well as the peoples they encountered.

The nature of the objects that were collected by Swiss People has many commonalities with examples that can be studied in neighbouring countries. One of the characteristics was the use of collections for education, particularly due to the presence of cabinets in the Protestant Academies, such as in Lausanne and Zurich. This use was part of a pedagogical process that favoured a pragmatic view of things, and differentiated the cabinets of the Swiss Academies from the German ‘Wunderkammer’, the royal cabinets and the princely collections of European courts.

Innovation and Technology Transfer

The circulation of techniques and objects that came from the outside world promoted the development of new technologies all over Europe and especially in Switzerland. This was the case of the porcelain factories in Zurich and Nyon that produced for a local clientele. However, other factories that developed in Switzerland manufactured objects (watches, enamels) for export to China and Turkey. The cities of Basel, Geneva and Neuchâtel also produced printed textiles known as ‘Indian chintz’, imitating a technique used in India.

Is Switzerland Exotic?

Switzerland became gradually a subject of curiosity for travellers who were interested in its folklore and landscapes: it was therefore exotic for those who visited it. This movement was prepared from the 18th century onward by the inhabitants of the large cities: they built up an image of Alpine and rural cultures that was a great success and that can still be found today in advertising and in tourist marketing.

Public and Cultural Mediation

The exhibition aims at reaching all kinds of people, especially through a varied scientific and cultural programme, while putting forward a new approach to Swiss history. It will attempt to connect the images that were produced in the 17th and 18th centuries to imaginations by offering avenues for thinking about alterity today through a historical perspective and contemporary art (performances, sounds, images). In view of the sensitive subject, many mediation activities will accompany this exhibition: guided tours and workshops, of course, but also a play produced by high school students, short films made by the students of the Swiss film director Lionel Baier at the University of Art and Design ECAL, lectures in coffee grounds by the Women Telling The Future collective, lectures, and a partnership with the programme of the Vidy theatre.

Objects Displayed

The exhibition will bring together 150 pieces from more than 30 Swiss collections and cultural institutions. Most of these pieces are very rarely shown. The typologies of the objects are diverse: specimens of natural history, paintings, textiles, porcelains, non-European artefacts, archives, books and maps.

Contemporary Artists

There will be a selection of works by contemporary artists (Marie van Berchem, Fabien Clerc, Susan Hefuna, Senam Okudzeto and Uriel Orlow), giving a different perspective of the exhibited objects and of the more general aims of the exhibition.

Publications

The English edition of the catalogue is distributed in North America and Britain by The University of Chicago Press:

Noémie Étienne with Claire Brizon, Chonja Lee, and Étienne Wismer, Une Suisse exotique ? Regarder l’ailleurs en Suisse au siècle des Lumières (Dijon: Les presses du réel, 2020), 376 pages, ISBN: 978-2889280520, 40€.

Noémie Étienne with Claire Brizon, Chonja Lee, and Étienne Wismer, Exotic Switzerland? Looking Outward in the Age of Enlightenment (Lausanne: Diaphanes, 2020), 256 pages, ISBN: 978-3035802276, $40.

Why is an object, an artwork, or a person deemed ‘exotic’? How is the gaze built upon those things or people who seem to belong to other regions or cultures? This notion is studied here in relation to a specific context: the Enlightenment era from the Swiss perspective. The publication brings together for the first time research from academics and specialists of the museum world in order to rethink this time period and this geography. It assembles contributions of essays as well as shorter texts centered on pictures, objects, books, and natural specimens from Swiss museum collections. ‘Exotic’, in this context, means that which comes from elsewhere and can be used and ‘improved’ for the benefits of European powers. This adjective invites us to reconsider both the long eighteenth century and the international history of Switzerland.

Noémie Étienne is professor of Early Modern Art History at the University of Bern. Claire Brizon is a doctoral student in art history at the University of Bern. Chonja Lee is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bern. Étienne Wismer is a doctoral student in art history at the University of Bern.