Swiss Art: Identity and Nationhood

published in Geneva Times 2009

It is very difficult to speak about Swiss art before 1848, when the Swiss constitution, modeled on that of the United States, was written, unifying all the cantons under a federalist model, and thus creating the notion of Swiss nationhood. Of course, even before 1848 there was a nucleus of cantons – the Confederation of Schwyz, Uri, and Unterwalden, which was formed in 1291- allied by mutual political and economic interests – that continued to expand geographically over time to include more and more cantons. Their strong economic standing gave way to important artistic and cultural developments regionally, but due to their persistent interest in cantonal autonomy, the idea of a common Swiss art and culture was not considered until a more defined Swiss identity was established with the 1848 constitution.

Once the concept of Swiss nationhood took hold in the mid 19th century, the country was free to focus internally. While jealously protecting its political neutrality in relation to the rest of the world, Switzerland’s rapid and fierce industrialization made it the second most industrialized country in Europe, which led it to great economic wealth, and established it as an attractive center, specifically Zurich and Geneva, for artistic and intellectual exchange. Due to its central position, its political neutrality, and its shared languages with Germany, France, and Italy, the countries that contributed the most to cultural development during the 19th century, Switzerland attracted many artists and intellectuals who wanted to take refuge from the turmoil of their native lands. Afterall, the late 19th century was a period of important political fermentation, with revolutions taking place in most European countries. Therefore, besides artists, also many Russian and other political exiles took refuge in Zurich and Geneva, using the neutrality of the country to gain support for their causes, and thus playing a role in shaping and launching the revolutions of the 20th century.


The exile community grew in the early part of the 20th century, and it created important work, artistic and theoretical, that later impacted European history as a whole. But Swiss artists of the 19th and 20th centuries, like Arnold Boecklin, Albert Von Keller, Eugene Grasset, Felix Vallotton, Alberto Giacommetti, and others, preferred to move abroad, to Germany and France, considering Switzerland too isolated. And the exchange that resulted from local artists leaving and foreign artists and thinkers coming in, became the foundation for the rich and diverse art scene of today.

Arnold Boecklin, an important Symbolist painter born in Basel in 1827, traveled throughout Europe, and lived in several cities in Germany and Italy. His interaction with important artistic movements in Europe, like the Pre-Raphaelites, and Romanticism, established Boecklin’s unique Symbolist pictorial language that later influenced famous Surrealists like Salvador Dali and Max Ernst, as well as Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, who all cited Boecklin as their inspiration.

Arnold Boecklin
Arnold Boeklin
Isle of the Dead
oil on Canvas
Museum of Visual Art, Leipzig

A contemporary of Boecklin’s was the internationally renowned Albert Von Keller, who in 1892 co-founded the important artistic movement, the Munich Secession, widely considered to have paved the way for Modernism. Von Keller treated classical subjects, like nudes and interiors, in a modern way, but also focused on completely contemporary issues, specifically his own fascination with séances, and the occult. An important and comprehensive exhibition of his work is currently on view until October 4, 2009 at the Kunsthaus Zurich.

Albert Von Keller
Burning of the Witch

An artist that bridged the 19th and 20th centuries, and became one of the most important printmakers of that period due to his revival of the print-medium as art, is Felix Vallotton. Born in Lausanne, Vallotton moved to Paris early on, and after finishing his education, he joined the avant-garde with his interest in the woodcut, which at that time was used only for commercial lithography. He later became a member of Les Nabis group, which in the 1890s was considered to be at the cutting edge of contemporary art, having pushed Post-Impressionism further still, and making great leaps toward what would later become Expressionism.

Felix Vallotton
La raison probante
Fondation Felix Vallotton

Moving out of the late 19th century and into the Modernist period of the early 20th century, we can discuss Paul Klee, Le Corbusier, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Alberto Giacommetti, and Meret Oppenheim, as the most well-known and significant Swiss artists, who influenced future generations through their originality and progressive artistic visions, and thus also secured their positions in the canon.

Paul Klee was born in Bern, and moved to Germany in the early part of the 20th century, before the war. There, his particular style, combining painting with drawing elements, to create overall musical compositions, developed. After being denounced as a Degenerate artist by the Nazis, Klee and his family moved back to Switzerland where he died in Tessin in 1940. A large collection of his work can be found at the Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern, where an exhibition, Paul Klee. Carpet of Memory, is on view until August 16, 2009. The center also displays other contemporary art, unrelated to Klee.

Paul Klee
A disguised woman
chalk on paper on cardboard
Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern

Paul Klee2
Paul Klee
coloured paste on paper on burlap; original frame
Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern

One of the most famous and influential modern architects, Le Corbusier, nee Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, was born in the Neuchatel region. He moved to Paris and became a pioneer of modern architecture, also called the International Style. His early utopian vision inspired his avant-gardist urban planning principles of increased comfort for the lower classes, and with much emphasis placed on the car as the essential vehicle of transportation, although starting in the 30s, he associated himself with ultra-nationalist governments for which he worked, and even solicited commissions.

Le Corbusier2
Le Corbusier
Marseilles, France

His architectural philosophy initially brought much needed attention to the horrible living conditions in many lower-class neighborhoods of Paris, and contributed to periodic improvements in construction. However, more recently, he has been criticized, and his values questioned, for being wasteful and further alienating the poor by creating secluded and distant high-rises.

The last building designed by Le Corbusier is that commissioned by Heidi Weber in Zurich. The Centre Le Corbusier – Heidi Weber Museum, is a large collection of Le Corbusier’s work, and also features rotating exhibitions of various themes.

Le Corbusier
Le Corbusier Zentrum – Heidi Weber Museum
Zurich, Switzerland

Alberto Giacometti, one of the most famous modernist sculptors, came from a large and famous family of artists, including his father Giovanni, his brothers Diego and Bruno, and his father’s cousin, Augusto, whose stained glass windows seem to exist in all major Swiss cathedrals, from Zurich to Romandie.

Alberto was born in Stampa, a Swiss municipality near Italy. He studied in Paris early on, and soon became an important figure in the surrealist movement, along with Miro, Max Ernst, Picasso and Balthus. His distinctive elongated figures have been considered by many critics to reflect the typically modernist feelings of alienation and meaninglessness. A very interesting and thorough exhibition, Giacometti the Egyptian, juxtaposing Giacometti’s work with Egyptian statuary, by which he was much influenced, was on exhibit until recently at the Kunsthaus Zurich. Another exhibition of his work, along with some Surrealist colleagues, was on exhibit in Geneva until early July. “Giacometti, Balthus, Skira: The Labyrinthe Years” focused on the period when the journal published in Geneva by Albert Skira during the war years, Labyrinthe, offered French and Romande thinkers the opportunity and freedom to develop their ideas and philosophical perspectives.

Alberto Giacometti
Tall Figure
Painted bronze
Museum of Modern Art, NY

Sophie Taeuber-Arp, one of the few female artists to have made a name for herself during the macho modernist period, was born in Davos, but educated in Germany. Along with Meret Oppenheim, born in Berlin of Swiss parents and brought up in Switzerland, Sophie was a member of the Dada group that was making waves starting in 1916 in Zurich at the famous Cabaret Voltaire. Sophie married Jean Arp, a founding member of the Dada movement, and the two became the most consistent participants in the Cabaret Voltaire’s activities, creating the costumes and the décor for the outré performances.

Sophie Teuber
Sophie Taeuber-Arp
Tête Dada
Wood Painted

Meret Oppenheim is famous for her work, Objet (Le Dejeuner en Fourrure), a tea-cup, saucer, and spoon covered in fur, and her independent and emancipated life-style so ahead of her time.

Meret Oppenheim
Objet (Le Dejeuner en Fourrure)
Museum of Modern Art, NY

The Cabaret Voltaire very quickly became the most important center of the avant-garde, as Dada redefined art and subverted the status quo, especially the values of bourgeois capitalist society that they blamed for the wars and misery in Europe. The group’s motto was to oppose everything accepted by the establishment, thus their position of anti-art became their “cri de guerre”.

The location of the Cabaret, in the old part of Zurich, came to represent Switzerland’s importance to the development of contemporary art. A place for exchange for the most progressive and talented of Europe’s artists, and a refuge from the political instability and persecutions they had to suffer while in their own countries, the Cabaret was at the forefront of artistic creation and intellectual debate. Its influence is felt throughout the 20th century, with Pop Art, Conceptual Art, Minimalism, the advent of performance as a visual art, and other movements all acknowledging their provenance from Dada.

In 2002, the conceptual artist Mark Divo occupied the location where the Cabaret Voltaire had historically existed, and started a new programme of underground artistic activity. As with most underground projects, and ironically contrary to the Dada spirit, the location has been taken over by the city, and transformed into a museum dedicated to Dada, functioning as a legitimate part of the establishment.


3 thoughts on “Swiss Art: Identity and Nationhood

  1. Bombina,

    As usual, most informative and well written.
    A couple of typos:

    – in the paragraph under the Vallotton picture Paul Klee is “combining” instead of “combing”
    – in the caption to the picture with the thing by Sophie Taeuber-Arp her name is written “Teuber” instead of “Taeuber”

    And something should be done about the repetitious “exhibit” and “exhibition”:

    – the Center exhibits other exhibitions
    – Giacometti thorough exhibition was on exhibit (twice in the same paragraph!!!)


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