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Switzerland is a major repository of the world's art. Her museums overflow with treasures, a result of the municipal priority accorded to collecting. The Kunstmuseum at Basel has a major collection of Swiss art. Bern's Kunstmuseum has an outstanding collection of the works of Paul Klee, and also houses the Rupf Collection of Cubist painting. The Ethnographic Museum in Basel is one of the finest in Europe. There is also the Zurich Kunsthaus, the Reitberg Museum in Zurich, and the small eccentric museum in Lucerne containing eight Picassos - presented by a Swiss friend of Picasso's in 1978 on the anniversary of the founding of the city, one for each 100 years.Skip to next paragraph
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The mercantile aspect of the Swiss character, has, however, contributed to Swiss success in one form of creating art, and that is graphics. It is no accident that magnificently designed art books are produced in Switzerland, or that graphic art is at an apogee here. It is an art form that requires an acute technical as well as aesthetic sense. It is related to the precision in engineering, the daring in engineering, that the Swiss are known for.
It is perhaps not surprising that, when I asked the head of an association of Swiss towns - the Stadte nach Schweizer Art - a man well conversant with art, for his opinion on Switzerland's greatest contribution to the field, he replied, ''The tunnel and the bridge.''
Another side of Swiss art is also related to engineering: the creation of beautiful machines that are not mechanistic, but are instead suffused with feeling and a great sensitivity for the intrinsic properties of the metal. I am speaking of 15th-century iron clocks. The wall clocks created by the generations of the Liechti family, to be in the Konrad Kellenberger collection of clocks in Winterthur, are surely art - moving sculpture. They are not, of course, but they might be taken for the forerunners of Calder's mobiles.
The firm place of the clocks in Swiss art is suggested by the work of contemporary sculptor Jean Tinguely. His free, joyous machines are the direct heirs of Liechti. They are large sculptures that move playfully in response to some action of the viewer. One of his works stands just inside the entrance of the Kunstmuseum in Solothurn, and goes through wonderful clocklike whirring and turning of mechanical parts upon receiving a coin in its outstretched hand. Tinguely's machines are totally 20th century in spirit, witty parodies of modern technology; but as serious statements, they are related intimately to the earlier mechanical sculpture that just as seriously reflected the spirit of its own era.
Switzerland's eminent emigres are often not thought of in connection with the country at all. But nonetheless, their roots are reflected in their work. Le Corbusier's training was in the precise trade of watchmaking, and he saw the ideal house as a ''machine for living.'' He originated the formal concept of completely functional habitats - how reminiscent of the Swiss house, utterly functional centuries ago. Also Swiss is this expatriate's emphasis on clarity and simplicity.
Again and again Le Corbusier designed the form of the mountains into his buildings - in the chapel of Notre Dame-du-Haut at Ronchamp, France, in the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels Worlds Fair, and in the plans for the unfinished church of St. Pierre, Firminy Vert, also in France. And he acknowledged the connection between his emblem-sculpture of the open hand and the snow on the Jura mountains close to his home.
That pared-down simplification is related to the range of traditional reasons given for Switzerland's having ''no art.'' There was never a central court, no one point of power and patronage. In the federal system, each canton and community had its jealously guarded power and traditions. There were no families with the aristocratic lineage to patronize the arts. The Zahringen dukes of Kyburg near Solothurn came perhaps the closest, but theirs was a wealth too raw and new before it died out.
Switzerland was left, therefore, to imitate the grand styles of Europe, and the results have been seen as awkward copying. But there was sometimes great vitality in the primitive quality that resulted - especially in architecture.