BERN (Reuters Life!) - A gaggle of lively children, some barefoot, take a nature walk with their young teacher; a downcast farmer counts coins from his purse to pay a tax debt; a dozing old man cradles his sleeping grand-daughter on his lap.
These are some of the iconic scenes of late 19th century life captured by an artist little known outside his homeland that can be seen in reproduction today in homes and offices across the modern Switzerland of technology and high finance.
They are also key works in a major exhibition, “Beautiful World,” at the Bern Fine Arts Museum marking the centenary of the 1910 death at the age of 79 of Albert Anker, often described as the “national artist.”
“For us, I think, Anker offers a view of a society that has in many ways gone forever but which we don’t want to forget,” says Therese Bhattacharya-Stettler, curator of the show that is drawing visitors from all over the country.
Children and childhood in a small provincial town, and their relationship with the older people around them, are at the focus of the exhibition.
“Anker saw children as little personalities in their own right, quite outside their own class, age or gender,” says Stettler who has spent years studying his work.
Among the most striking paintings on display are an 1867 full-figure portrait of his blonde daughter Louise, aged 3, clutching a doll, and his son Rudi, aged 2, lying on his deathbed in 1869, a work exuding calm but also high emotion.
The exhibition also includes some of Anker’s best still lifes, paintings on historical themes, commissioned portraits and the watercolors and fine-china decoration to which he turned later in life.
Sometimes described as a realist, largely because he avoided the mistier style of the emerging impressionists and others that he met in Paris during a five-year stay in the late 1850s, Anker, eschewed any sharp ideological or critical message.
Experts on his work, like Stettler, say many works reflect his strong conviction that the participatory democracy then emerging in Switzerland — if only for men — and universal education were shaping a good society for all Swiss citizens.
Works on display include “Farmer Reading a Newspaper” — another of his best-known which shows an elderly peasant in glasses and work clothes studying the regional daily of Lakeland (or Zeeland), where Anker was born and died.
The oil, says Stettler, suggest the importance the artist — originally destined for the Protestant clergy — attached to the growth of political awareness among all sections of the population and their interest in taking part in governance.
Education also figures strongly in his portrayals of childhood in and around his home town of Ins (Anet in French), on Switzerland’s linguistic “Rostigraben” frontier near Lakes Neuchatel and Murten, some 50 km (30 miles) west of Bern.
Typical are the happy children on the nature trail of “The School Promenade” of 1872, but also the serious and apprehensive pupils of “The Examination,” painted 10 years earlier, showing boys and girls under questioning from a school inspector.
Others portray young and even just-out-of-infancy girls learning with clear fascination the “women’s” craft of sewing and weaving, but often with a book not far away — like the 1878 “Schoolgirl with Slate and Sewing Basket.”
In Ins itself, the home where he lived and worked for much of his life is now partly open as a museum — owned and curated by his grandson. The educational toys of the four Anker children who survived to grow up are still strewn around.
Anker, who was for a period a member of the Bern cantonal parliament, was clearly well aware that the lives of young Swiss of the time — like that of their elders — was not all roses despite his patent optimism for the future.
In his canvases, children carry heavy buckets of water or collect brushwood for the hearth amid heavy winter snow. A boy and girl forge their way home from the village school in a rainstorm, holding tight to an umbrella.
Why Anker’s work has scant fame abroad, despite the fact that in the 1860s and 1870s it made a strong impact on the European art market, is a mystery to many Swiss, aware that his near contemporary Ferdinand Hodler is a world figure.
The monumental, mystical and often magical work of Hodler — whose portrayals of mythical hero William Tell are widely seen outside the country as the best of Swiss art — are in galleries across the United States, in Germany and Scandinavia.
Anker has little such international exposure, although a handful of works can be found in France and one or two others — often little displayed — in storerooms of museums and galleries in other European countries.
An exception is Japan, where a major exhibition travelled to four cities in 2007-2008, and another is in preparation. What is his attraction for the Japanese when peoples closer to Anker’s home appear indifferent?
“I think for us he speaks to the heart of a nation for which keeping the link between the generations and with past times when life was tougher but simpler is still very important,” said an art historian from Tokyo visiting the Bern show.
— For a link to more information on the exhibition and Anker himself, go to: www.kunstmuseumbern.ch. For more information on his home and workshop museum in Ins, go to: www.albert-anker.ch)
Editing by Steve Addison