Le cinéma avant le cinéma: Lavanchy-Clarke, pionnier suisse

Lavanchy-Clarke at the Cinématographe © Fondation Herzog, Basel

Cinema before Cinema: Lavanchy-Clarke, the Swiss Film Pioneer
19 October 2022 – 29 January 2023

François-Henri Lavanchy-Clarke (1848–1922) made films of Switzerland to show at the Swiss National Exposition in Geneva as early as 1896. His extravagant pavilion in which they were screened was perhaps the world’s first cinema. An inventive media pioneer and Switzerland’s first colour photographer, Lavanchy-Clarke was also a tireless and unabashed promoter of Sunlight Soap – and an ardent reformer of the care for the blind. Yet for a long time he was all but forgotten, and his filmic oeuvre, presented to Belle Epoque Switzerland using the ground-breaking Cinématographe Lumière, seemed to have been lost with him. This exhibition brings Lavanchy-Clarke’s films and photographs back into the limelight and introduces us to a cosmopolitan impresario from Vaud, who besides being a pioneer of early cinema was also a designer of automata.

Lavanchy-Clarke's pavilon at the Geneva Expo 1896 © Cinémathèque suisse

Lavanchy-Clarke's pavilon at the Geneva Expo 1896 © Cinémathèque suisse

The year is 1896 and change is in the air. The century is drawing to a close and modernism is dawning. Revolutionary discoveries, inventions, and art movements are creating new realities; the Belle Epoque is turning out to be a ‘Gilded Age’. On the cusp of this surge is the famous Cinématographe designed by the Lumière brothers in Lyon, which by year’s end will have taken the whole world by storm. Its victory parade, however, is headed not just by Edison and the Lumières, but also by an incredibly charismatic Swiss inventor and sadly neglected pioneer of modern media history. It was this self-made man, François-Henri Lavanchy-Clarke, who at his pavilion at the second Swiss National Exposition in Geneva in 1896 became the first person in history to put Switzerland on the screen. That momentous performance is the focus of our exhibition.

The family of Lavanchy-Clarke, Cannes 1906 © Fondation Herzog, Basel

The family of Lavanchy-Clarke, Cannes 1906 © Fondation Herzog, Basel

The fascinating story of why and how this born salesman became the first man in Switzerland not only to shoot moving pictures but also to screen them is greatly enhanced by its odd admixture of ingredients: Sunlight Soap, chocolate, the Egyptian Mission, the Red Cross, international banking, and the care of the blind.

Lavanchy-Clarke’s biography from that phase of his life when he toured Switzerland with his Cinématographe Lumière sheds light on what reality then looked like for most Swiss, two generations after the founding of the Swiss Confederation. It is also a piece of Swiss media history; for it would be hard to find a more interesting individual to exemplify the eerily familiar turbulence of fin-de-siècle Europe than the extraordinary Monsieur François-Henri Lavanchy-Clarke, some fifty of whose films were recently rediscovered in a Paris archive. Thanks to modern image-processing technology, these can now be shown to the public once again – for the first time since 1898! Not only are they moving documents of an era that disappeared five generations ago but still reverberates today, but they are also the ground-breaking work of a man who was the world’s only pioneer of early cinema to have a command of all the fields that together make up the composite medium of cinematography: chronophotography, automation, the chemical industry, banking, lobbying and marketing, and entertainment.

Lavanchy-Clarke at the Cinématographe © Fondation Herzog, Basel

Lavanchy-Clarke at the Cinématographe © Fondation Herzog, Basel

An exhibition in cooperation with Fondation Herzog and point de vue – audiovisual productions