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Swiss art

By Gail BryanSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 25, 1983


SWISS art! I have mentioned my interest to fellow artists and travel aficionados to the almost universal response that there is no such thing. But indeed there is - and seeing even bits and highlights has led me on a surprising and fascinating path.

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It is provocative that the men considered Switzerland's greatest artists left their homeland to live and work abroad: Le Corbusier (Charles-Edward Jeanneret-Gris), architect from La Chaux de Fonds; Alberto Giacometti, sculptor from Stampa in the Grisons; and Paul Klee, painter from Bern.

A corollary to note, however, is that emigration has always been an integral part of Swiss history. Switzerland is a small country with few natural resources and with a sense of being closed off from the rest of the world by the barrier of the Alps. From Paracelcus, the 16th-century physician who selflessly wandered Europe, to Chevrolet, who sought economic opportunity (and found it) in the United States, many Swiss citizens have emigrated - scientists, engineers, educators, sheer adventurers.

It is said of the Swiss that though they love their mountains, they would have built them a little lower. A few degrees of temperature divergence would bring the glaciers down to Zurich. Switzerland is a country in which men and women have had to work hard to wrest a survival from the soil, and that history does not lead to encouraging children in the leisure necessary for individual creativity.

Switzerland has been a bastion as well as a thoroughfare from the time of the Roman conquest - a fortress to produce soldiers. The Swiss mercenaries are legendary, and the military is as little likely as the subsistence farmer to produce art. (Although there is an outstanding exception in one of the early painters of the Renaissance, Urs Graf from the town of Solothurn, described in one history of Switzerland as a soldier, printmaker, painter, goldsmith, woodcarver, and ''unscrupulous rowdy familiar with prison and exile.'')

Switzerland is a thoroughfare that encourages merchants. But commerce does not usually encourage the development of artists. It has, however, led to a unique means for the Swiss as a nation to connect with art. They are collectors par excellencem. The scale of collecting is widespread, out of all proportion to the size of the country, and it is pursued with a drive found nowhere else in the world.

Collecting art is not the same as creating art, and one could hypothesize that the Swiss collectors buy feelings rather than express them. But one has only to walk through Oskar Reinhart's magnificent home, Am Romerholz, now a museum in Winterthur, to recognize the artistic acumen required of the true connoisseur. Reinhart was not simply a wealthy merchant who'bought art for prestige. The collection was put together painstakingly, with a highly sensitive and discerning eye. It is awe-inspiring to walk through room after room filled only with the very finest in European art. Perhaps, for Reinhart, at least, collecting was creating. (For other excellent private collections, see the ''practical details'' section at the end of this article.)

A whole other aspect of Reinhart's aesthetic personality is housed a mile away in the center of the city in the Oskar Reinhart Foundation, his collection of specifically Swiss, Austrian, and German art from the 18th to the 20th centuries. It is one of the most condensed and comprehensive views of Swiss art extant - over 600 works.

The tradition of collecting goes back at least to Johannes Amerbach in the 15 th century. His collection, purchased from heirs by the Town Council of Basel in 1662, is considered the most important in Switzerland. Known as the Amerbach Cabinet, it is part of the Kunstmuseum in Basel and contains work by some of the most important Swiss Renaissance artists - Graf, Niklaus Manuel, and Hans Leu, as well as by the Germans Hans Holbein the Younger (Swiss by immigration) and Albrecht Durer.