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Exhibition frames 19th-century France

Claude Monet's unique vision of the French coastline (Kunstmuseum Basel)

A vivid portrait of France in the second half of the 19th century has gone on show at Basel's fine arts museum.

It offers an insight into the different approaches to reality represented by the most important visual media - painting and photography - between 1850 and 1900.

"Sites of Impressionism" features some 50 paintings by Manet, Monet, Degas, Pissarro, Renoir, Cézanne, Gauguin and van Gogh alongside an equal number of historical photographs from the important Herzog Collection in Basel.

Curator Hartwig Fischer told swissinfo that his intention was to bring back to life the Impressionist paintings in the museum's collection. "We are so used to seeing them as masterpieces that often this stops us from really looking at them," he said.

Juxtaposition

"By juxtaposing them with the photographs, we have two different kinds of pictures that normally we read in different ways. When you go from one to the other, you start seeing both in a different way."

The exhibition combines landscapes and cityscapes, the coasts of Normandy and the Mediterranean, the metropolis of Paris and its suburbs, railway stations, streets and squares, gardens and parks, horse races and factories.

"The Impressionists depicted these sites with such variety that they have left us an extraordinarily vivid portrait of the first leisure society of modern times," said Fischer. "We want our visitors to feel or realise what that time was like in all its complexity, at the dawn of modernism and industrialisation."

Capturing images

As the exhibition shows, the Impressionists portrayed the crowds on the new boulevards with quick strokes of the brush, and painted the railway stations of Paris and the bridges across the Seine. They also depicted the port of Argenteuil with its sailing boats, promenades and regattas, and captured the changing light in Normandy and the Mediterranean.

Meanwhile, contemporary photographers were capturing the same subject matter with a wide variety of compositional and technical procedures, making studies of nature and landscapes as both self-contained compositions and as source material for the painters.

"The photographs match the paintings," said Fischer. "We did not place a photograph of the same place alongside a painting. We wanted to avoid making comparisons between the two because that would degrade both, making them documents rather than pictures."

"Sites of Impressionism" ends on July 13,

swissinfo, Richard Dawson

In brief

"Sites of Impressionism" looks at late 19th century France through the eyes of painters and photographers.

Fifty paintings by Manet, Monet, Degas, Pissarro, Renoir, Cézanne, Gauguin and van Gogh can be seen alongside an equal number of historical photographs.

The exhibition offers an insight into the different approaches to reality represented by the two most important visual media between 1850 and 1900.

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