Visitors guide
The Collection

Visitors guide
The Collection

To see here what cannot be seen elsewhere! This is the guiding spirit behind this hanging of the MCBA’s collection. Since 1816, acquisitions, gifts, bequests and deposits have constantly enriched this collection. It allows visitors an opportunity to more fully appreciate the work of artists from the canton of Vaud and French‑speaking Switzerland more generally, whether they pursued their careers at home or abroad, and to compare and contrast it with international art trends.

The collection is especially strong in relation to movements such as Neo‑Classicism, Academicism, Realism, Symbolism and Post‑Impressionism; abstract painting in Europe and the U.S; Swiss and international video art; New Figuration; Geometric Abstraction; and, in every period, the work of socially and politically engaged artists. It also comprises major monographic collections, including work by Charles Gleyre, Félix Vallotton, Louis Soutter, Pierre Soulages and Giuseppe Penone.

Installed on two levels, the selection from the permanent collection changes regularly, and pieces from the MCBA’s holdings are brought into dialogue with work on loan from private collections. In this way, our view of the astounding vitality of art as seen from Lausanne is always renewed.

Print version

1st floor

Room 1
The road to modernity

Religious painting

The 12th century saw the emergence of a new sensibility in pre‑ Renaissance Europe as artists began to centre their work on the representation of human beings, even though the Bible and the apo‑ cryphal gospels remained their main source of inspiration. Sentimental episodes of the childhood of Mary and Jesus lent themselves to a more realistic rendering of individual faces, landscapes and architectural details (FRANCESCO DA RIMINI, CIRCLE OF PIETER COECKE VAN AELEST). The Old Testament inspired ambitious, large‑format compositions. After Caravaggio, the Neapolitan School used chiaroscuro to dramatize grand moral themes (ANDREA VACCARO, LUCA GIORDANO).


Portraits of individuals pervaded the arts in the second half of the 17th century. Under Louis XIV, French portraitists sought to accurately record the physical appearance, social status and distinctive qualities of their sitters, whether members of the nobility or the bourgeoisie (HYACINTHE RIGAUD). Painters, now demanding that their work be recognised as a liberal art, would depict themselves surrounded by the attributes of their profession (NICOLAS DE LARGILLIERRE).


At the end of the 18th century, many Swiss artists emigrated to Paris or Italy, seeking to make a name for themselves in history painting. LOUIS DUCROS and JACQUES SABLET settled in Rome. Ineligible for religious art commissions (reserved for Catholics), they specialised in other genres, the former in large‑format views of ancient monuments and picturesque sites, and the latter in open‑air group portraits and popular scenes. A generation later, CHARLES GLEYRE, who had studied art in Paris and visited Rome, set out for a long eastward voyage that would take him to Greece and down the Nile. After his return to Paris, he devoted himself to classically inspired history painting in a singular style midway between Romantic passion and academic rigour. He also took up teaching; students at his studio included the future Impressionists Monet, Renoir and Sisley.


Starting in the late 18th century, highly meteorological landscape paintings expressed the anxiety prevalent during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. Catastrophe painting, full of storms and erupting volcanoes, as well as vast, desolate landscapes, contrasted human solitude with the sublime grandeur of nature.

History painting

For Swiss artists, the great challenge resided in the invention of a history painting that would express their country’s spirit of inde‑ pendence and democratic ideals and help construct a modern national identity (JEAN-PIERRE SAINT-OURS, CHARLES GLEYRE).

Room 2
The triumph of realism

During the 19th century, Switzerland went through a step‑by‑step process that transformed it into a unified federal state. Since the country lacked a centralized art education system and a dynamic market, its artists often went abroad. Their unique qualities flourished in landscape and genre painting. Geneva’s FRANÇOIS DIDAY and ALEXANDRE CALAME were the founders of a truly Swiss art featuring its emblematic landscapes. Diday portrayed Alpine peaks, with a monumental and sublime vision still strongly infused with Romanticism. His student Calame, influenced by 17th‑century Dutch painting, preferred middle altitude views. The triumph of realism in the second half of the 19th century, from Naturalism to Impressionism, allowed Swiss artists to shine at the Paris Salon. Their work tended to represent the traditions and customs of people living far from big cities, spared from the Industrial Revolution that dissolved traditional communities of farmers and craftsmen. EUGÈNE BURNAND and ERNEST BIÉLER did animal painting and genre scenes in monumental formats previously reserved for history painting. FRÉDÉRIC ROUGE and ALBERT ANKER painted portraits of social and professional archetypes, while also looking to the world of children for inspiration. The Barbizon School and the long stays in Western Switzerland of Jean‑Baptiste Camille Corot and GUSTAVE COURBET (living in exile in La Tour‑de‑Peilz) greatly influenced a younger generation who turned toward intimate landscapes. A proponent of atmospheric plein‑air painting, François Bocion took Lake Geneva as his main subject, tirelessly recording the play of sunlight on the water and the passing clouds above. After finishing his art studies in Paris, he spent the rest of his days in his native Lausanne, where he cultivated a local clientele. In the field of portraiture, Impressionism invited painters to represent quiet moments in natural surroundings or bourgeois drawing rooms. The act of painting became a moment of truth free from social conventions. Models were seen in informal poses, at rest or carrying out leisure activities and other daily pursuits (LOUISE BRESLAU, CHARLES GIRON). Like the Belgian sculptor CONSTANTIN MEUNIER who realistically portrayed men labouring under harsh conditions, Switzerland’s THÉOPHILE-ALEXANDRE STEINLEN put his art at the service of his political convictions and his commitment to the struggle against social injustice. Making Montmartre his home, he chronicled the days and nights of the Parisian lower classes whose voice he became.

Room 3

At the end of the 1880s, the Impressionists (CLAUDE MONET) were eclipsed by a new generation of artists. Many new styles and movements appeared during this transitional period in the years leading up to the avant‑gardes of the 20th century.

A Europe‑wide movement called Symbolism invaded literature, music and the visual arts. Its representatives, sworn enemies of material‑ ism and rationalism, sought refuge from modernity in dreams and ideal worlds. They recast all traditional approaches, re‑envisaging them through the prism of subjectivity and poetic suggestion. The portrait became introspective and focused on the mood and mental state of individuals, which it revealed in symbols, absent expressions, and ambiances that are infused with unease and melancholy (FERDINAND HODLER, AUGUSTO SARTORI). Landscapes became a mirror of the soul and privileged surface for its projections, propitious for dreams and suggesting mystery (EDMOND BILLE, ALEXANDRE PERRIER). Ancient myths were retold and yet the heroes of these epics were stern and uneasy, embodiments of the fragility of human beings and the vanity of their hopes (PLINIO NOMELLINI). Ovid’s Metamorphoses, fairy tales and stories of enchantment were held in high esteem. They made it possible to question the increasingly permeable barrier between masculine and feminine (ERNEST BIÉLER).

During the same period, a new graphic style burst onto the international scene, employing, even in portraiture and landscape painting, a flat picture plane, a preference for combining disparate elements, stylised forms, and a musical organisation of the composition. The Nabis, under the influence of Paul Gauguin, no longer considered a painting a window onto the world, but rather the expression of a vision, expressed by an assemblage of coloured, smooth and juxtaposed surfaces. One member of this group was FÉLIX VALLOTTON, whose youthful paintings show the influence of Hans Holbein and already reveal the artist observing contemporary society with a critical eye. Vallotton also adopted this new aesthetic and in his landscapes would remain, into the early years of the 20th century, attached to two‑dimensionality and constructing the image through colourful pictorial planes.

In sculpture, AUGUSTE RODIN proved the most remarkable innovator of an art form going through revolutionary change between the classical tradition and modernity. He was utterly focused on the human figure and exalted its movement, which lent concrete form to idea and emotion. His heirs, sculptors like ÉMILE-ANTOINE BOURDELLE, went a step further by working with cuts, crevices and mutilations; pedestal and base were made an integral part of the volume’s design.

Room 4
From the avant‑gardes to the 1950s

In Paris, on the eve of the First World War, ALICE BAILLY and GUSTAVE BUCHET found an art scene in full effervescence. They discovered Cubism and Futurism and integrated the representation of movement into their aesthetic aims. Buchet pursued his quest as one of the avant‑gardes artists influenced by Purism, a doctrine formulated by Amédée Ozenfant and Le Corbusier, who advocated a return to order, rigour and formal purity.

During the interwar years, a significant number of artists rejected the race of the avant‑garde towards abstraction, and, haunted by the need to return to the human, reexamined figurative art. The work of FÉLIX VALLOTTON’s mature period is actually in tune with magic realism. In his landscapes, light gains in intensity, pallid in his views of Honfleur, warm in Cagnes and before the Seine estuary, flickering in forest undergrowth. The rejection of Expressionism is obvious in the work of NIKLAUS STOECKLIN, who adopted the critical cool of the Nouvelle Objectivité (New Objectivity), and in FÉLIX LABISSE’s output, which was akin to Surrealism, enlisting a hyperrealist style to help create a dreamlike world. The style of BALTHUS is equally ascetic. The awkward postures of his models and their vacuous gaze produce a sensation of malaise, also found in the paintings FRANCIS GRUBER made during World War 2. This artist evoked the harsh reality of those times and of the human condition by shining a cold light on emaciated human figures frozen in oppressive spaces.

Shortly after, ALBERTO GIACOMETTI took up representing the figure to convey his philosophical vision of human life. Instead of sculpting these men and women’s physical and psychological characteristics – which proved to be an impossible objective – he brought them down from their pedestal and interrogated their relationship with the viewer and space. These elongated characters, meant to be seen frontally, apparently made of shredded magma, are in fact constructed of vigorously kneaded and gouged material.

Like Giacometti, JEAN DUBUFFET engaged in a physical confrontation with his raw materials. He loaded his canvases with thick layers that he would then scratch away. In search of a new kind of figuration he simplified his practice by adopting the thick outlines and rudimentary drawing techniques that he admired in the work of self‑taught artists, especially the so‑called “primitives” and people labelled “insane”. Many artists in the first half of the 20th century ruptured with the codified vocabulary inherited from the classical tradition and explored new and more primordial forms of expression. PAUL KLEE searched for a universal language rooted in humanity’s origins, and LOUIS SOUTTER directly engaged his body in the making of vibrant, powerful and poetic finger paintings.

2nd Floor

Room 5
A more figural abstraction: the 1950s

The postwar period in both France and the United States saw new trends in abstract art quite different than the geometric approach of abstractionist pioneers such as Kasimir Malevitch, František Kupka, Piet Mondrian and Sonia Delaunay. Various labels such as “Lyrical Abstraction” and “Abstract Expressionism” were put forward, but none of them successfully embraced the diversity of these artists. For example, in Paris, MARIA HELENA VIEIRA DA SILVA made allusive paintings whose fragmented compositions sometimes suggested architectural forms, while Pierre Soulages explored the effects of textures and light using a variety of tools, raw materials and supports. Europe also attracted American painters. In Italy, CY TWOMBLY developed an intimate and erudite abstraction steeped in references to antiquity. In Paris, BEAUFORD DELANAY was experimenting with the possibilities of a queer abstraction, both fluid and luminous. The impetus of the creative project itself finds expression in the freedom of the artist’s gesture, which goes as far as saturating the pictorial space, as KIMBER SMITH’s painting testifies.

Room 6
Escape from the canvas: 1960s – 1970s

In the late 1960s, the social revolution sweeping throughout Western Europe erupted in art‑making as well. Artists were eager to cast off the weight of tradition. Painting was the first medium to undergo this transformation as Pop Art made consumer society its subject, using vivid colours and slogans evoking the advertising signs per‑ meating the urban environment (JANNIS KOUNELLIS, ÉMILIENNE FARNY). In Paris, the Nouveau Réalisme artists (DANIEL SPOERRI, DIETER ROTH) embedded real‑life objects in their work. Others, inspired by the Fluxus movement, erased the boundaries between life and art. With a touch of humour, they absorbed everyday routines, images and objects into their work and appropriated industrial materials such as neon, phosphorous and plastic (TADEUSZ KANTOR, JANOS URBAN). Video art emerged as a medium for visual and all sorts of experimentation as some artists turned their own bodies into a political statement (VALIE EXPORT), while others experimented with the medium itself (JEAN OTTH, NAM JUNE PAIK).

Room 7
Spaces of the body: 1980s

During the 1980s a new trend in painting and sculpture arose, a counter current to the austerity of the minimalist and conceptualist mouvements of the preceding decade. Neo Expressionism, instead, drew inspiration from earlier twentieth century art. Its avatars in Germany and Austria were the Neue Wilde (New Fauves); in Italy, the Transavanguardia; in the U.S., the Bad Painting artists. Called “figuration libre” in France, and appearing in Switzerland as well, this rough but often euphoric art was the product of a determined, violent attack on a surface, grappling with a quickly emerging image. Drawing and painting lost their distinctive attributes. Charcoal, ink, watercolours and acrylics were applied directly, often on paper, with no preliminary sketch, as in the work of MIRIAM CAHN, GÛNTHER BRUS, and BIRGIT JÜRGENSSEN. The sheet of paper shows signs of the artists at work (crinkles and folds), their entire body engaged in an intense and immediate moment of creation. Although the body or
a trace of it is clearly present, other artists make use of an altogether personal mythology to signify it. HÉLÈNE DELPRAT, for example, adopts a type of figuration that references totemic forms in her pictures from the 1980s, while ALBERT OEHLEN reappropriated motifs that are full of associations in a gestural painting that rejects any and all technical constraints.

Room 8

Once they are stripped of all reference to the exterior world, paintings are no longer about anything but their own forms and materiality. This is what OLIVIER MOSSET, in 1969, called “the degree zero of painting.” The absence of events is manifest in his large red monochrome done twenty years later. JOHN M ARMLEDER, associated with the Neo‑Geo movement, made what he called “furniture sculptures,” a droll reminder that the purpose of artworks is to decorate living rooms. The thinking of these two artists about the renewal of abstractionism encouraged a strong interest in geometric abstraction in the Lake Geneva region, beginning in the 1980s and continuing today. Insteadof bearing the artist’s signature touch, the canvas is covered with a uniform application of paint; subjectivity, neutralized by geometrical forms, is evident almost only in the formal choices. While some artists allude to personal stories in their work (JEAN-LUC MANZ), others stick to a pre‑established protocol (CLAUDIA COMTE) or explore the painting as an object and the sculptural qualities of the surface (PIERRE KELLER).

Room 9 – 10
Reclaiming the stage

Throughout history, many artistic positions have been marginalised or rendered invisible. This is particularly true of queer practices, which draw their political significance and aesthetic strength from the history of non‑normative communities, without constituting a stable, fixed category. On the contrary, by refusing to promote a normative system marked by binarity, the artists brought together in these rooms place the fluctuating and multifaceted nature of our identities at the heart of their thinking. Beyond their diversity, these forms of expressions are united by the same drive to regain visibility. Often incorporating elements from the world of design, TOM BURR’s work focuses on the erosion of public areas and our status as viewers before a fantasised space. The two platforms look like theatrical spaces that are free of (re)presentations and demonstrations, like a set waiting to be activated. Humorously reappropriating the trompe‑l’oeil technique by including fragments of the body, SARAH MARGNETTI questions the political dimension of the domestic sphere and its architecture.The complex dynamics that exist between the individual and the collective, the private and the public, interior and exterior are at the heart of these strategies of visibility. While LUCIANO CASTELLI appears as his alter ego Lucille in Haarzupfer, NINA CHILDRESS, fascinated by the mechanisms of celebrity and the images it generates, immortalises the androgynous figure of Swiss singer Patrick Juvet in a defiant pose that suggests self‑affirmation Parodying the biopic genre, the performative element also gives substance to GUILLAUME PILET’s series of autobiographical drawings.

Finally, the practice of PAULINE BOUDRY / RENATE LORENZ is based on a “queer archaeology” that revives forgotten drag figures by super‑imposing images. The film Normal Work is inspired by archival photographs taken in England in the 1860s by Hannah Cullwick, who worked her entire life as a servant. She is seen posing in her work clothes but also in “class drag” and “ethnic drag”, that is, dressing up as a bourgeoise or a black enslaved woman. Re‑enacted by the performer Werner Hirsch, this gesture raises the question of crossing boundaries laid down by social norms and, to borrow the title of a book by the philosopher Judith Butler, of the visibility of “bodies that matter”.

Room 11 + 13
Words and images

The title of these two rooms comes from René Magritte, who described in a 1929 text titled “Les mots et les images” the poetic use to which he was putting objects and their names in his work. Almost a century later, this turn of phrase by the Surrealist painter invites us to discover the diversity of formal vocabularies artists have developed over time. The works on view here represent a few of them, both suggesting words that translate thoughts and playing with perceptual illusions that alter and transmute forms and meanings. As an introduction, visitors pass through RENÉE GREEN’s Space Poem that is made up of coloured flags sporting lines of a poem written by Laura Riding in the 1930s. In the work of CHÉRIF and SILVIE DEFRAOUI, writing is cut horizontally to become both sign and decoration. LOUISE NEVELSON, on the other hand, combines familiar objects to produce new forms while neutralising their initial function by painting them black. Certitudes arise and then crumble in MARKUS RAETZ’s anamorphoses, a distortion also found in the works of GIUSEPPE PENONE, who analyses the mysteries of vision and its representation. The series of sculptures by WILLIAM KENTRIDGE creates a vocabulary of objects taken from his previous work. When turned over to the gaze of the viewer, the subjectivity of the artist reveals its universal potential by creating, in a way, the elements of a language.

Room 12

In 1982, Maya Lin, then an undergraduate architecture student at Yale, won a competition for the design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, black marble walls like notches in the earth, an explicit counterpoint to the triumphal verticalism and whiteness of Washington statuary. Since then, many artists have transcribed the complexity of memory processes and their representation by making anti‑monuments that emphasize absence, void and loss rather than a unifying narrative. Examples in this case include the Monument Against Fascism by Esther Shalev‑Gerz and Jochen Gerz (Hamburg Harburg, 1986‑93) and Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust Memorial (Vienna, 2000), but also works made for the museum rather than for a particular public space. Alfredo Jaar’s Real Pictures (1995‑2007) and Gurbet’s Diary by BANU CENNETOĞLU come to mind, and in a more dystopian vein, JULIAN CHARRIÈRE’s Pacific Fiction – Study for a Monument. In their way, all these works are part of an anti‑monument approach to memorialisa‑ tion while making plain the difficulty of lending concrete form to both the commemoration of violence and the great tragedies of history.

Publications en lien

Guide to the Collection

A presentation of more than two hundred artworks gives a glimpse of the museum’s holdings.

Texts by Bernard Fibicher, Catherine Lepdor, Camille Lévêque‑Claudet, Laurence Schmidlin, Nicole Schweizer and Camille de Alencastro.

A coedition by the Musée cantonal des Beaux‑Arts de Lausanne and Scheidegger & Spiess, Zurich, 2020.

(separate French and English editions). 248 pp., 226 colour illustrations.

CHF 25.-