From medieval to modern, Geneva covers the history of art
Cradled in the southern tip of Switzerland’s biggest lake (Lac Leman to locals, Lake Geneva to the rest of us) and straddling the River Rhone which flows out of it, Geneva is the biggest city in the French region and the country’s most cosmopolitan. Host to the highest number of international organisations in the world, including the United Nations, Red Cross and World Health Organisation, the population of this surprisingly small city – a little more than six square miles – is around 40 per cent non-Swiss.
Geneva’s charming Old Town, topped by the St Pierre Cathedral, spills down to the lakefront, where the Jardin Anglais (English Garden) looks over to the famous ‘jet d’eau’, the city’s official symbol, spouting 450 feet into the air. Visitors can reach it via a stone jetty, hoping not to find themselves drenched after a change in wind direction.
Geneva is relatively short on art museums, but makes up for it by being long on independent galleries, which tend to be conveniently clustered in two main areas.
On the facade above the grand entrance to the Museum of Art and History Gianni Motti’s Big Crunch Clock, 1999/5,000,000,000 is a strip of 20 neon digits counting down the years, right down to tenths of seconds, until the explosion of the sun. (It’ll happen in about five billion years time.) Fortunately, this rather sombre thought is lifted inside with over 3,500 items on display in some of the most monumental rooms of any Swiss museum.
The fine arts section covers the Italian, Flemish, Dutch and English schools as well as Impressionist works by Monet, Cezanne, Renoir, Corot, Sisley, Vuillard, Pissarro, Van Gogh and others. There are also a number of 20th and 21st century works, such as Hans Arp’s Portrait of Tzara, Picasso’s Bathers at La Garoupe and Tinguely’s Si c’est noir, je m’appelle Jean.
The museum’s exceptional Swiss collection includes a roomful of works by the revered Ferdinand Hodler (shared with a group of sculptures by Rodin), a native of Bern who settled in Geneva. He covered a wide variety of genres, including portraits, history paintings and symbolic scenes, but is best known today for his landscapes such as Lake Geneva and the Mont Blanc, with swans, which he painted from the balcony of his flat at 29 Quai du Mont-Blanc and now hangs here.
Another strong suit is the museum’s collection of 17th century art from the “Golden Age” of the Netherlands, at the time the world’s commercial powerhouse. This fuelled the development of the arts, as members of the merchant class had themselves portrayed for posterity. History paintings, biblical and mythological scenes, landscapes and depictions of daily life were also popular, and all are well represented.
The museum also has sections dedicated to works on paper since the 15th century (one of the most important collections in Europe), applied arts (goldsmithing, textiles, furniture, musical instruments, weapons and armour), archaeology (Mediterranean, Greek, Roman and Egyptian antiquity) and watchmaking, jewellery and enamelling. There is a peaceful inner courtyard cafe, while a Henry Moore sculpture sits atop a small park across the street.
A few blocks away in its elegant 19th century townhouse, the Baur Foundation Museum of Far Eastern Art has some 9,000 Chinese and Japanese art objects acquired by the Swiss collector Alfred Baur (1865-1951). Spanning the eighth to the 19th century, it is the most important collection of its kind open to the public in Switzerland.
The fact that the more delicate objects have survived intact is miraculous in itself, and many are delicately embellished and symbolically painted or etched with motifs drawn from nature such as flowers, fruits, plants, birds and dragons.
An upstairs display is dedicated to Japanese swords, which hold a unique place in that culture and are prized for their superb craftsmanship and often gorgeously decorated scabbards, while another display is dedicated to that peculiarly Japanese cultural phenomenon, the tea ceremony, a complex ritual embracing a range of fields such as architecture, gardens, calligraphy, painting, literature and ceramics.
Like the Museum of Art and History, admission to the Rath Museum is on a pay what you want basis. Standing opposite the Grand Theatre on the bustling Place de Neuve and near the lovely Parc des Bastions, it was built partially by funds which General Simon Rath bequeathed to his sisters to create a home for his art collection. It was opened in 1825 as the first purpose-built art museum in Switzerland and originally housed the Museum of Art and History.
The Rath was also the first to show paintings and sculptures together, thus creating a new approach to displaying with a blend of genres, school and periods – unlike the previous way, which divided works according to school, chronology or artist. Today it is used exclusively for temporary exhibitions.
Geneva’s most beautiful museum, the Ariana Museum was built in the late 19th century by Genevan Gustave Revilliod (1817-1890) to house his extensive collection, which at the time included paintings, sculptures, furniture, silverware, ceramics and glass. Revilliod bequeathed his collection to the city of Geneva, and in the 1930s it was divided up and redistributed among municipal museums, with the Ariana focusing on ceramics, glass and stained glass.
Named after Revilliod’s mother Ariane, the building borrows from Renaissance and Baroque styles. The facades are studded with statues and busts, the magnificent entrance hall is surrounded by red marble columns and the soaring ceilings are richly painted with gold and silver stars.
Today the museum has over 28,000 pieces – 90 per cent ceramics and 10 per cent glass – including plates, vases, sculptures, coffee pots, ashtrays and other objects, broadly spanning the ninth century to the present day. Over 90 per cent of the items are Swiss-made, with the rest from the Far East and elsewhere in Europe.
The collection traces the history of ceramics from when it was first perfected in China until the secret of its manufacture was discovered in Europe a thousand years later. In between, European traders organised into national companies – notably the Dutch East India Company – and chartered fleets of ships to transport the “white gold” on long, perilous sea journeys.
The museum presents the full spectrum of ‘les arts feu’ (the fire arts), from hand-blown pieces of Venetian glass from the famed island of Murano to delicately painted Meissen figurines to objects from Swiss workshops resulting from experiments with a wide range of techniques.
Tucked away in a quiet back street in the Old Town near Geneva Cathedral, the Barbier-Mueller Museum occupies the ground floor and basement of a 16th century building, where a collection of tribal objects from Africa, Oceania, Asia and pre-Columbian America, begun by Josef Mueller in 1907 and continued by his heirs, is beautifully displayed in an intimate atmosphere.
The largest collection in the world in private hands, it includes sculptures, fabrics, ceremonial masks, idols, vessels and ornaments, a number of which are considered indispensable masterpieces with great historical value. The permanent display is accompanied by twice yearly special exhibitions. In the summer months visitors can relax in the pretty inner courtyard.
Also in the heart of Geneva’s Old Town, you can step into 18th century elegance with a visit to the Tatiana Zoubov Museum, one of the finest examples of a private, French-style mansion from the period with a courtyard in front and a garden in the back, an arrangement known as ‘entre cour et jardin’. This address was one of the most prestigious in the city, frequented by personalities and aristocracy of the day, including the composer Franz Liszt.
The museum was founded by the Argentinian-born Countess Rosario Zoubov (1892-1984), who wished to unveil to the public her collection of over 500 pieces of 18th century art and applied art. Heiress to a fortune made in cereals, sugar cane and property and married to a Russian Count, she named the museum after her daughter, who had been killed in a car crash in Argentina.
The house remains more or less as it did when the Countess called it home. Among the many pieces are portraits of the French painter Elisabeth-Louise Vigee-Lebrun, Catherine the Great of Russia and Louis XIV of France as a child. The numerous objets d’art include busts, vases, porcelain, tapestries, French cabinets, chandeliers and items from the Chinese Qing dynasty, including a magnificent incense holder in cloisonné enamel decorated with exotic fruits to symbolise prosperity and longevity. In the dining room are copies of Chippendale chairs and a fireplace, ornamental picture frames and wainscotting from Hamilton Palace in Scotland. PLEASE NOTE: Booking is essential.
Over in the Quartiers des Bains, or Baths District, the Batiment d’Art Contemporain (Contemporary Art Building, known as the BAC) is part of a former factory which is home to several art institutions. (The building is due to be renovated by 2026.)
The Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (known by its French acronym, MAMCO) is the largest and newest contemporary art centre in Switzerland. Its collection comprises over 6,000 works created between the second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st.
The Contemporary Art Centre, or CAC, is involved in all fields of contemporary practice, including installation, music, painting, performance, photography, photography, sculpture, dance, drawing and video art. It is particularly active in the field of moving images, with its Dynamo Cinema and a biennal dedicated to the genre. Some of the huge rooms still smell of the oil from industrial days, which has permeated the wooden floor tiles.
Founded in 1984 by a group of photographers to champion their medium as one of the fine arts, the Geneva Photography Centre defines itself as a research laboratory for new ways of presenting and thinking about photography. Exhibitions are typically documentary in style to emphasise the photographic image as a means of investigating the world and exploring the role of photography in society.
Agora is a new exhibition space in the BAC dedicated to presenting artworks from Geneva’s public collections and works by artists who have received support from local and regional public institutions.
There are two areas in particular in Geneva with fairly dense concentrations of independent galleries.
In the aforementioned Quartier des Bains you’ll find around 20 galleries and other art spaces within a few city blocks of one another. The area is abuzz four times year – in March, May, September and November – for Bath Nights, which correspond with openings at member galleries. There is also a January opening preceding the international art fair Art Geneve, while in November an open house weekend brings together galleries and cultural institutions in the city and canton of Geneva.
Another great place for gallery-hopping is the Grand’ Rue, the main street running through the Old Town, where a clutch of galleries specialise in everything from high end commercial art and Renaissance-inspired art with a contemporary twist to art by emerging and mid-career artists and 18th and 19th century works on paper.