For centuries, the Swiss, with their trademark matter-of-factness, did not regard art with the same passion as their German and Italian neighbors. Sculpture and painting were secondary to architecture, useful only as embellishments to the major work of art, the building itself.
As a result, “Swiss art” didn’t fully emerge until around the 1700s. Among the most acclaimed artists of that time were Salomon Gessner (1730–88), who painted landscapes and mythological scenes, Johann Heinrich Füssl (1741–1825), best remembered for his visionary painting The Nightmare, and Angelica Kauffmann (1741–1807) the country’s most acclaimed neoclassical painter, known for her depictions of allegorical, religious, and mythological themes.
Some critics say the artist Ferdinand Hodler (1853–1918) “liberated” Swiss painting, making effective use of color and rhythmic tension in gargantuan murals like Retreat of the Swiss Following the Battle of Marignano. His works are displayed in Zurich’s National Museum and Geneva’s Museum of Art and History, among others. But the biggest name in Swiss art is Paul Klee (1879–1940), who made Expressionist breakthroughs as a member of the German movement Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) before teaching at the Bauhaus in Weimar. His most famous works, like Mask of Fear, Man on a Tightrope, Pastorale, and The Twittering Machine, combine abstract elements with recognizable images.
During World War I, Switzerland was the launching point for Dadaism, a nihilistic art movement based on deliberate irrationality and the rejection of laws of social organization and beauty. Its practitioners, a motley group of German and French exiles that included Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, Jean Arp, and Hans Richter, congregated at Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire in 1916 and spread the Dada gospel around the globe when the war ended.
The most distinguished sculptor to emerge from Switzerland was Alberto Giacometti (1901–66), part of a Graubünden family of artists that also included painter Giovanni and stained-glass window designer Augusto. His lean, elongated metal figures can be seen throughout the world; one of them, the evocative Pointing Man, became the most expensive sculpture in the world when it was sold for $126 million in 2015. More accessible are the kinetic, sometimes provocative “machine sculptures” of Jean Tinguely (1925-1991), displayed outdoors in Zurich, Basel and his hometown of Fribourg.
Today, Switzerland’s best-known contemporary artist might be Not Vital (b. 1948), whose sculptures and interactive installations can be seen throughout his native Engadine and far beyond. But despite the Engadine’s fast-rising status as an art hub, Basel still has the best museums and galleries, from the Kunsthalle to the Bayeler Foundation. Not to mention the world’s biggest art fair, Art Basel, which has attracted leading collectors, gallerists, and looky-loos since its 1970 founding. Also major are the art museums of Zurich, Bern, and Geneva, as well as the Avegg Foundation in Bern (Riggisberg) and the Foundation Martin Bodmer (Geneva-Cologny).
Having escaped the WWII strafing that laid waste to much of the rest of Europe, Switzerland boasts some of the most well-preserved architecture on the continent. In urban centers and countryside villages, you’ll find Roman ruins, medieval castles, Gothic churches, Renaissance courtyards, Art Nouveau hotels, and much more.
Much of the country’s earliest architecture was built by the Romans. The ruins at Avenches (Helvetia’s chief town), with its once-formidable 6.4km (4-mile) circuit of walls and 10,000-seat theater, date from the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D.
The Carolingian period produced monastic houses like the Augustinian abbey of St. Maurice in the Valais, built in the 6th century. The Benedictine abbey on the island of Reichenau was constructed around 725, and served as the country’s main cultural and educational center for over 300 years.
Two of Switzerland’s finest examples of Romanesque architecture are the Benedictine Abbey of All Saints, at Schaffhausen (1087–1150), and the Church of St. Pierre de Clages (11th–12th c.). That era was followed by the Romanesque-Gothic transitional style of the 12th and 13th centuries, as exemplified by the Cathedral of Chur or by the imposing, five-aisle Minster of Basel. Switzerland’s Gothic phase began in the 15th century and resulted in such buildings as Lausanne’s Cathedral of Notre-Dame and Geneva’s Cathedral of St. Pierre. In 1421, the Minster of Bern was constructed in the late Gothic style, with a three-aisled, pillared basilica.
The Renaissance heralded an increased emphasis on secular buildings, as best seen today in the town of Murten (Morat), with its circuit of walls, fountains, and towers. During the baroque era, no mammoth public buildings were erected. Instead, domestic homes were adorned with the ornate curves developed in Austria, Italy, and Germany. Many of the elegant town houses that give Bern its distinctive appearance hail from this era.
The 19th century saw the emergence of a prosperous merchant class, and with it a number of impressive mansions built in the neoclassical style. Later on, as wealthy tourists arrived from the rest of Europe, palatial Art Nouveau hotels and sanatoriums sprung up in the cities and mountain towns. Contrasting them were the wooden chalets and apartments constructed in traditional Heimatstil, the homey look still associated with the Alps today.
In the 20th century, Swiss architecture was dominated by one name: Le Corbusier (1887–1965), the modernist pioneer whose influence extended around the world. But the majority of the Swiss-French architect and urban planner’s significant works were erected abroad, in cities like Berlin, Paris, Bordeaux, and Marseille. An exception is the last building he ever designed: the Pavillon Le Corbusier on Lake Zurich, a glass and steel structure devoted to the life and works of Le Corbusier himself.
The best-known living Swiss architect is Mario Botta from Ticino, who has designed churches, museums, casinos, and even a hotel spa in his geometric, borderline brutalist signature style.
Some of Switzerland’s most creative, functional architecture can be found in its rural houses—long before the invention of heating or A/C, alpine villagers found unique ways to protect themselves against the elements. In rainy Appenzell, farm buildings were grouped into a single complex to shelter one another. In the Emmental district, a large roof reached down to the first floor on all sides of the building. And in the chilly Engadine, wide, arched doorways let cattle into farmhouses’ ground floors, to serve as an “organic” heating source for the families who lived above.
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