The enchanted Apple. Critical essay by Carole Haensler, director of Museo Villa dei Cedri, Bellinzona.

La mela incantata: (re)considering the collective memory of the 20th century.

The period under consideration here was one of tumultuous creativity in the arts, but also, and above all, in society as a whole, which is reflected, sometimes critically, in the arts. The cards were shuffled and pre-established norms rewritten. The industrial revolution, urbanisation, technological development and the advent of the capitalist economy radically altered shared ways of life, which have yet to be reinvented. Ideologies were also involved, anarchism, socialism, nationalism, etc. The world was undergoing secularisation and democratisation with the integration of practically all social strata into the state organisation. Even if political regimes at the beginning of the 20th century were still mainly monarchist and imperial (such as England, Germany, Italy, Austria–Hungary, in the case of neighbouring countries) and a privileged class remained the principal beneficiary of the French Third Republic, social progress was on the march. It was no accident that it would take no fewer than two world wars to recover a form of stability in Europe.

The industrial revolution prompted a redefinition of our approach to nature, the emergent post-naturalism signalling by its name the direction of that relationship. The notion of society, the place of the state and of the individual altered radically. As life became increasingly concentrated in cities, class relationships and the relationship with the body/bodies were reinvented. In the arts, too, the rationales of genre distinctions became less compelling and practices mingled and merged. One has only to think of Bauhaus Dessau, the Berlin-based “Die Brücke” group, the Amden community in St. Gallen canton or the Monte Verità community at Ascona, all of which, during the Belle Époque – as the 1871–1914 period came to be known retrospectively in France – aimed to reconnect the arts and life, each in its own language. Painting, printmaking, the decorative arts, architecture and sculpture engaged in new dialogues. The era of abstraction had begun: abstraction from nature, abstraction from norms and traditions, abstraction from society. Forms took on a meaning other than that of imitation and appearances. The debate over sensuality and rationality, which, for the Rubenists and the Poussinists in the 17th century, had centred on colour and drawing, and focused, in the 19th century, on Eugène Delacroix and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, returned to the forefront, but in another form, that of a revolution, a revocation of naturalism and of the preservation of the heritage of the old classical masters, from the Renaissance to the 17th century. Ultimately, expressionist pessimism seemed well and truly to triumph over gracefulness and curves, in response to the zeitgeist that prevailed as the First World War approached. The exhibition La mela incantata attempts, in its own way, to challenge this conclusion, to consider this period from another standpoint, that of those who were erased from the collective memory as reconfigured in the post-war period.

One of the characteristics of the process of civilisation[1] of human societies is the integration of individuals into units of ever greater size, since the time of the hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic. The beginning of the 20th century was marked by what amounted to a new distribution of the units that make up modern (and now global) society, and by power relations that were determined not only by economic but also by demographic realities[2]. However, assimilation into new, often bigger, units, for example, the creation of modern states from territories previously delineated by monarchist regimes—Germany unified its Länder around Prussia, Italy the provinces and kingdoms of the peninsula, like Switzerland and its cantons or the United States of America – “calls into question the transmission of collective memory in which that memory loses its meaning with the new group identity and, as a consequence, at the same time, the we-image”[3]. History appears to have made its selection, but the current exhibition asks whether it can be rewritten, whether the artists on display have really been erased from the collective memory as reprogrammed in the mid-20th century, or whether their reintegration into History might not open the door to a better awareness of the great cultural diversity that makes up Europe and, consequently, to a better understanding of the richness and of the critical and constructive contribution of the differences on which our collective identity is founded. Art has always played an active role in political history. Utilised by those in power, it has also systematically fulfilled the role of the jester, or the king of fools, of the medieval world; the role, that is, of the sole element that, by indirect means – laughter and derision in the case of the jester – is able to point to the excesses of power. The current exhibition asks the question: what active role can art play in the process of civilisation under way today?

Carole Haensler, August 2023.
Translated from French by Simon Chapman


[1] See Norbert Elias, On the Process of Civilisation, published for the first time in Basel: Basel, Verlag Haus zum Falken, 1939.

[2] Between 1891 and 1911, the French population increased, on average, by 63,000 annually. Elsewhere on the continent, the population soared. In Germany, for example, the comparable annual average rise was around 500,000. The French rate was, in fact, the lowest in Europe.

[3] Norbert Elias, Die Gesellschaft der Individuen, Frankfurt/Main, Suhrkamp Verlag, 1987. The quotation is an English translation from the French version, La société des individus, Paris, Agora-Pocket, 1997, p. 290.


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