Over the past several months, this jewel of a city has been celebrating the tercentenary of the birth of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) with exhibitions, musical events, literary forums, films, and promenades retracing his steps from the earlier and later years during which he lived in and around its bucolic landscapes.
As the centerpiece of these festivities, the Musée Rath mounted an illuminating exhibition called “The Enchanting Landscape in the Days of Jean-Jacques Rousseau,” which takes its title from the famous Letter 23 of Rousseau’s epistolary romance Julie, or the New Heloise, in which the hero, Saint-Preux, claims he could spend his entire journey in the Swiss Valais “enchanted by the landscape.”
The supernatural beauty in these mountainous prospects charms the senses of the mind both into forgetfulness of one’s self and of everything in the world.
More than architecture, the cultural history and development of landscape styles has always had strong literary ties, and this exhibition demonstrates how, despite Rousseau’s reputation as a political theorist and philosopher of the Enlightenment, his writings dealing with a direct experience of the natural world, as in the Julie novel, revolutionized attitudes in Europe regarding man’s relationship to sublime scenic beauty (much as the Augustan poets and essayists ushered in the picturesque landscape in England during the same period).
Until the 18th century, landscapes in art were more often used as backgrounds for religious, mythological, or historical scenes. In an early section of the show, though, the curator, Christian Rümelin, has assembled some exquisite 17th-century examples from local museums and private collections of drawings and prints of pastoral scenes by Claude Lorrain, Poussin, Watteau, and Rembrandt. In particular, Lorrain’s 1650 drawing in brown ink of a mountainous view beyond Lake Avernus, near Naples, is a precursor of what was to come.
The bulk of the exhibition—which displays some 320 drawings, books, and, especially, prints (which proliferated in the 18th century)—highlights scenic and gardenesque views from throughout Europe in Rousseau’s time. The sights are such as the writer himself would have seen—though his journeys were frequently made out of political necessity. In his catalogue essay, Rümelin suggests that while drawings and paintings mostly retained their national ambience, prints were more homogeneous in order to appeal to a vast clientele. He makes this point engagingly by hanging Swiss prints directly across from, say, English or Italian ones to make comparisons.
While views of Switzerland’s dramatic mountainous topography dominate the display, they never feel distant; the spectator, like the artist, is either at the edge of the scene or becomes one of the figures who usually people the foreground on a kind of terrace or plateau overlooking the snow-covered peaks, forests, waterfalls, and gushing rivers. Like Saint-Preux, “[forgetful] of one’s self and of everything in the world,” the viewer easily feels engulfed, if not transported, by the majesty of these scenes.
By dividing the works into categories—“In Nature’s Garden,” “Methods and Fragments,” “Ethers and Atmospheres,” “On the Water,” and “Sublime Summits”—the exhibit’s organizers call attention to those elements that compose what would become known as the sensitive or emotional landscape that carried forth into the Romanticism of the 19th century. Watercolor views of Vevey—across Lake Geneva from the Alps—by the Swiss artist Johann Ludwig Aberli capture the sense of human settlement in juxtaposition with the grandeur of nature; Thomas Gainsborough’s intimate ink and gouache drawing of figures resting under sketchy trees beside their horses and cart also hints at mountainous valleys beyond.
Trees as studies in themselves figure prominently throughout, bringing the scale of the exhibition to a more intimate level—from Rembrandt’s graceful etching of three trees (1643) to Carl Wilhelm Kolbe’s dark etchings of densely leafed oaks (1802-04). One whole gallery wall is devoted to John Robert Cozens’s remarkable series of 13 trees titled Delineations of the General Character, Ramifications and Foliage of Forest Trees (1789). Son of the British landscape designer and theorist Alexander Cozens, he created subtle aquatints portraying weeping willows, poplars, pines, and elms animated by winds, with scudding clouds above.
With printmaking at its height, the selection emphasizes how fine lines and crosshatching melded into the atmospheric effects that Canaletto achieved masterfully in his several fantasy views of romantic ruins. Geneva figures in Jean-Pierre Saint-Ours’s ideal view of the city in brown ink, imagining a classical Acropolis and a plan for Rousseau’s tomb. And, finally, Jean-Antoine Linck’s several views of Mont Blanc, like an ice castle against a pale blue sky, remind me how life in Geneva is at its best on a clear day, when those peaks come into view.
Also to mark the tercentenary, the city of Geneva and its Grand Théâtre commissioned the opera JJR (Citoyen de Genève) by the French composer Philippe Fénelon, with a libretto by the British playwright Ian Burton. Performances took place in Geneva’s popular second opera house—a former Beaux Arts water-power station on the Rhône River which was transformed when the Grand Théâtre was under renovation in 1998. Inspired by Rousseau’s one-act opera, The Village Soothsayer (itself a pastiche from Baroque operas with his own libretto), JJR was billed as a philosophical divertissement in seven scenes with an eighth a musical vaudeville.
It was a very entertaining romp through Rousseau’s life and ideas, intermingling characters from both his real and fictional worlds. With the Baroque sounds of the harpsichord alternating with a piano in the orchestra, Fénelon, like Rousseau, borrowed familiar strains—from Bononcini, Scarlatti, Mendelssohn, Messiaen (his former teacher), and even a Swiss folk melody—along with his own distinctive contemporary music, all harmoniously conducted by Jean Deroyer.
Rousseau, at age 66 (a tenor), first appears in the aisles returning from a botanical expedition and is soon joined onstage by his two younger selves, at 22 (a baritone) and at 12 (a countertenor), all dressed in grey as befits their ages. The blend of their arias together was quite affecting, and they divided to play each appropriate scene, with the elder Rousseau serving as a narrator throughout.
With a mother who died shortly after giving birth to him and a watchmaker father who ultimately abandoned him, Rousseau sets out on his own into adventurous times of political intrigues and romantic encounters. Voltaire, his nemesis, makes an appearance, as does Diderot, who, from his prison cell, guides Rousseau to confirm his vocation as a writer.
As this pageant unfurls across time with elaborate period costumes but minimal sets, it builds to a scene with the pastoral lovers from Rousseau’s own opera. Voices in the epilogue repeat the writer’s familiar declarations—“Man is born free but everywhere lives in chains” (The Social Contract)—but in the last moments, Rousseau reverts to his study of nature and “plants that have been scattered profusely across the earth like the stars in the sky.”
Finally, in a program called “La Faute à Rousseau” (“Blame It on Rousseau”), a collaborative of local film groups invited 55 Swiss and international filmmakers to demonstrate Rousseau’s life and philosophical works in four-minute fictional documentaries to show how relevant his ideas are to contemporary life. Selections of these have been playing on monitors all over the city, and I selected one on the Ile Rousseau, situated at the confluence of Lake Geneva and the Rhône River. With its semicircle of poplars, this island suggests the setting of the writer’s original tomb in 1778 on a lake island in the Romantic landscape garden Ermenonville in France, where Rousseau stayed at the end of his life under the patronage of the marquis René-Louis de Girardin. The monitor was placed next to his statue, seated with pen in hand and “Citoyen de Genève” incised into the base, the honorific he once lost but finally regained.
In one film, “Vacant Lot” by Bruno Cellier, two brothers play until the elder begins taunting the younger, who walks away ignoring the shouts until finally he turns and knocks his brother to the ground so hard he thinks he has killed him. When the elder brother finally opens his eyes, the two embrace heartily. The screen then showed the passage from the “Fourth Walk” in Rousseau’s posthumous work Reveries of a Solitary Walker, in which he describes a comparable boyhood incident on Geneva’s Plainpalais—at the time, still an open plain—where Rousseau was struck in the head by another boy and lay bleeding: “He flung himself on to me, took me in his arms, and hugged me tightly, weeping.”
In another film, “Out of Reach” by Mirjam Landolt, a man simply rows to the middle of a lake and lies in his boat drifting, a reminder of the time in the “Fifth Walk,” during Rousseau’s idyll on the Ile de St. Pierre in the Lac de Bienne, when he drifted so far out in his boat in reverie that he had “to row with all his strength to get back before nightfall.” So much did Rousseau love this island, with “its greenery, flowers and birds” and its “romantic shores bordering a vast stretch of clear and crystalline water,” that in later years he would transport himself there “every day on the wings of my imagination.”
Having absorbed the essence of Rousseau over several days—through art, music, and film—I yearned for an amble in the countryside to experience the panorama firsthand. And for this, no better village nearby can be found than Jussy, surmounted as it is by the Château du Crest, a romantic pile with Savoyard turrets and sloping vineyards that catch the warm light of the setting sun with the summit of Mont Blanc clearly delineated in the distance.
It is not easy to leave behind the scenic effects that give rise daily to the dramatic landscape views around Geneva. But then, as I headed the next day for an early train to the airport, I realized, too, how one comes to love a city whose railroad station is filled with the aroma of fresh-baked bread at six in the morning.
Paula Deitz is editor of the Hudson Review.