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Fine Arts and Architecture

I. Switzerland's Multicultural Art - A Crossroads of European Ideas and Styles
Art in Switzerland very often has been associated with Swiss artists who lived in foreign countries, in France, Italy, Germany, or the United States-- for example, Francesco Borromini, Felix Vallotton, Alberto Giacometti, Le Corbusier, Heinrich Füssli, and Jean-Luc Godard, to name just a few.

This phenomenon historically has been attributed to a certain puritanical hostility in Switzerland toward painted or sculpted images dating back to the 16th century; at the same time, it also evolved in part from a narrow-mindedness often typical in small countries.

Italian, Romansh, French, Austrian, and German ideas of "culture" converge in this small area, which can be seen as a crossroads of styles and schools in neighboring European countries. This was at once a disadvantage and an advantage, since many artists strove for inspiration and acclaim within Paris, Rome, Berlin, or other major cities of surrounding countries, rather than from a small Alpine country that was often regarded as provincial.

In Switzerland, a major communications hub of Europe, the evolution of art has thus hinged in large part on the immigration of artists from all over the world and the emigration of indigenous artists.

During World War I, neutral Switzerland's political and cultural isolation had a great influence on art. It was in Zurich where Dada, heralding a new artistic spirit, was created by immigrants -- a movement that responded to the destruction of European traditions by breaking radically with conventional aesthetics and politics of any kind. From this very soil of anarchic Dadaism later sprung theories and principles of the French surrealists.

The Swiss artist Meret Oppenheim's most famous work, "Fur Breakfast," became an icon of surrealism, a creation depicting alienation of familiar things like dishes and fur, and sparkling with visual wit and humor.

During World War II Switzerland again became a refuge for a great many people, including artists of all disciplines, giving rise to a new constructive art form. Max Bill and Richard Paul Lohse are considered to be the founders and the principal proponents of the "Zurich School of the Concrete." For Max Bill, concrete art wasn't figurative but rather a representation of abstract ideas given life within geometric forms. He regarded art as "pure expression of harmonic proportions and laws." The Zurich School of Concretes is one of the most important Swiss contributions to 20th century art.

II. Swiss Art Today
In the 1980s, the Swiss art scene began to experience a revitalization that quickly captured the world's attention and interest.

Various factors played a role in this surge of artistic creativity in Switzerland. It erupted amid an outraged Zurich citizenship in 1980, mirroring a period of anarchism in politics, culture, and art in Switzerland to a degree that had not been experienced since the time of the Dada movement.

Furthermore, in spite of globalization -- or rather because of it -- there emerged a new international trend, regionalism, wherein provincial seclusion of peripheral regions managed to produce artistic manifestations of "universal importance" that seemed to suit Switzerland most favorably. Until then, the country's inherent narrowness was often considered as something negative.

Switzerland's isolation from Europe and the critical reexamination of the role she played during the Second World War might also have somewhat influenced artistic expression. For whatever reason, Switzerland experienced a surge of creative energy and an emergence of new media for artistic creativity such as video, multimedia, performances, and installations. These gave rise to new artists who experimented with these new means of expression in diverse artistic fields, from visual art and architecture to music, dance, and literature.

Visual Art:
In 1981, the artistic duo Fischli/Weiss surprised the public with a work of about 250 small sculptures entitled "Und plötzlich diese Übersicht" ["And Suddenly this Overall Perspective"]. Fischli/Weiss, who explore the fascinating world lying beneath the surface of trivial everyday life with a sense of humor and irony, soon achieved recognition abroad. Their works, featuring video and photo art, installations, and objects, today belong not only to the Swiss but have been embraced by the international art scene as well.

Pipilotti Rist, another internationally renowned Swiss rising star, creates video installations characterized by freshness, humor, poetry, sensuality, lightness, and a playful, magical use of words, paintings, and music. In her installation "Ever is Over All," for example, she employs clichés of "femininity by appropriating images dispersed in society which once constrained women." She recycles those clichés to create free, lighthearted images of a new woman who is not simply driven by her gender or controlled by men and social systems, but is a free individual enjoying her beauty by accepting physical differences.

Roman Signer creates "sculptural events" -- i.e., sculptures that are not static monuments but are changing, transforming, exploding. Ice, water, fire, smoke, and wind make Signer's creations works in progress: a helicopter model crashes, a barrel breaches into a sea of rods, kayaks sink, tables break, painting bags explode, chairs fly. Indeed, Roman Signer is a unique phenomenon in the international art scene.

Quite a number of other excellent Swiss artists could be mentioned here, such as the painter Franz Gertsch, known for his hyper-realistic paintings and monochrome wood prints suggesting inspiration from Japan; Dieter Roth, with his breathtaking silk-screen prints of the Bernese Oberland; the sculptor Jean Tingely; Markus Raetz (painting, drawings and objects); Rémy Zaugg (painting); Christian Marclay (sound installations); Silvie Fleury (installations, conceptual art, objects); John Armleder (painting, objects, installations); and many more.

Roman architecture, frescoes, and mosaics have been preserved in the Roman colonial towns of Augusta Raurica (Augst/Kaiseraugst), Aventicum (Avenches), Octodurum (Martigny) and Vindonissa (Windisch). There is also a rare example of artistic work from the early Middle Ages: the Carolingian frescoes in the abbey church of St. Johann in Muestair (Graubuenden) dating from the ninth century. The plan of a monastic complex, drawn around AD 820-830 on the Lake Constance island of Reichenau for Abbot Gozbert of St. Gall, is preserved in the abbey library of St. Gall; it is a unique source of information on monastic life at the time. An example of twelfth-century Romanesque art is the painted wooden ceiling in the church at Zillis (Graubuenden). Impressive examples of Gothic architecture include the Fraumuenster church in Zurich and the cathedrals of Berne, Basle, Lausanne, and Geneva. Characteristic stained-glass work from the fourteenth century can be seen at Koenigsfelden, the burial place of the Hapsburgs, and a highlight of manuscript illumination is the Lucerne chronicle of Diebold Schilling from the sixteenth century.

The emergence of individual artists heralded the Renaissance: Konrad Witz from Rottweil in the Black Forest painted the first authentic Swiss landscape scenes in 1444. Urs Graf (approx. 1485-1527) from Solothurn accompanied the Confederates on their military campaigns, and his drawings record the misery on the battlefields with a sharp sociocritical eye. Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), Switzerland's most important Renaissance painter, produced most of his work in Basle. At the time of the Reformation, however, he left the city because of lack of commissions for his work and went to live in London. Johann Heinrich Fuessli (1741-1825) was another artist who moved to London, where he had a successful career. Swiss Baroque can be characterized by a few landmarks: the architects of the Ticino, Catholic churches, and the monasteries of Muri, Rheinau, Disentis, Einsiedeln and St. Gall. Carlo Maderno, Francesco Borromini, and Domenico Fontana were important figures in seventeenth-century architectural history who did most of their work in Rome. Swiss portrait painting experienced a golden age in the eighteenth century with the work of Jean-Etienne Liotard from Geneva and Anton Graff from Winterthur. Landscape painting became popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and numerous 'minor masters' earned their living by it. In the second half of the eighteenth century Caspar Wolf discovered the Alps as a subject, and later Alexandre Calame and Barthelemy Menn founded the well-known Geneva school of landscape painting. Frank Buchser from Solothurn (1828-1890) painted political and military personalities in America, taking a special interest in the lives of Native and African Americans.

Prominent figures include the Bernese Albert Anker (1831-1910), with his idyllic paintings of rural life, and Arnold Boecklin from Basle (1827-1910), with his mythological and fantastic paintings. Ferdinand Hodler's (1853-1918) monumental figures and mountain landscapes are among the most beautiful and inimitable examples of Swiss art. The Giacomettis, a family of artists, originated from Bergell in the canton of Graubuenden; its most famous member, the sculptor Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), achieved international renown in Paris. Among the modern classics are Paul Klee (1879 -1940) and the main representatives of the Zurich movement of 'concrete artists,' Richard P. Lohse (1902 -1988) and Max Bill (born 1908). Pioneers of the surrealist movement include Meret Oppenheim (1913 -1985), the sculptor Robert Mueller (born 1920), Jean Tinguely (1925 -1991) and Bernhard Luginbuehl (born 1929).

A few names must suffice to represent the various branches of applied art: the tapestries of Elsi Giauque are famous far beyond the borders of Switzerland, as are the ceramics of Edouard Chapallaz. Le Corbusier (1887-1965) is an outstanding figure in twentieth-century architecture, and recently the work of the Ticino architect Mario Botta has exercised a great influence. Information about the fine arts in Switzerland can be obtained from the Schweizerisches Institut für Kunstwissenschaft (Waldmannstrasse 6-8, CH-8024 Zurich). Printed in Switzerland, 1993
Reproduction permitted
Art 24

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