Lithographs bring early age of tourism to life

Locals and early tourists out for a stroll in 19th century Interlaken. Museum of Communication in Berne

The Museum of Communication in Berne is showing an exhibition of lithographic prints by the French painter Eugène Guérard (1821-1866) who was among the first artists depicting the advent of tourism in Switzerland midway through the 19th century.

This content was published on July 24, 2000 minutes

Guérard's prints, which were issued in Paris in several series in 1851 and 1852, show typical alpine and lakeside landscapes (they will be on display at the museum until October 1.)

But it's his depiction of the holidaymakers of the day that say as much about the period as the changes to the landscape. "The romantic era, at the beginning of the 19th century, brought the first tourists to Switzerland who travelled for travel's sake", says Rolf Wolfensberger, one of the organisers of the exhibition.

"They stood in awe of the mountains. They mythologised the Alps as well as their inhabitants. Half a century later, the tourists made their first daring attempts at mountain climbing, because they wanted to have fun."

Guérard's prints are an excellent study in period dress as well as 19th century climbing gear. They also marked the first time alpine villagers were depicted in travel pictures.

There are sketches of wealthy foreigners relaxing: skidding down a snowy slope, throwing snowballs at each other or trading blows in a pillow fight in their hostel room (hotels were still extremely scarce).

"He also wanted the pictures to be humourous," says Wolfensberger. Tourists flirt with each other, or indeed with local girls. "Travelling was often done by young single men. Conquering the hearts of local girls, or at least pretending to, was almost as important to them as conquering a mountain."

Like photographs of natives in colonial territories in the 20th century, the Swiss are portrayed as exotic, often in traditional costumes - as if they were on display for the visitors - parading up and down a street in Interlaken or gasping at the mountain climbing skills of the foreigners.

Guérard himself travelled to Switzerland on several occasions with friends. He made sketches, and then combined or adorned the themes upon his return. His lithographic prints still show an eye and quest for the symbolic.

Lithography was invented only a few decades before Guérard made his prints, which found a ready market among members of France's and Britain's bourgeoisie. Their appetite for the exotic was rapidly growing, but many didn't have the time or money to travel themselves.

The prints made Guérard's publisher rich. The artist himself saw little of the money, and lithography, making use of copy techniques, would soon be made obsolete by the invention of the photographic camera.

Guérard died of tubercolosis in his native Nancy.

by Markus Haefliger

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