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Although the north is the money basket, it is the mountains that are the heart of Switzerland. They possess an art form that is little known and recognized - primitive ceremonial masks. The masks are visually powerful; they decorate houses and barns, a ''prevention'' against the severity of winter. They date from far into the past, and yet they are still made.The quality of the primitive is a visible constant in the work of Paul Klee. Klee is, of course, highly sophisticated. His painting is not the result of an unclear understanding of the art of the day, but a transcendence of any standard to the creation of his own world. The precision of his work and his work habits (he meticulously numbered all 9,000 of his works) are certainly Swiss.Skip to next paragraph
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Giacometti, too, pared his figures down to bare emaciated essentials. He wrestled for years in Paris with the problem of expressing what he felt to be the essence of human ''being'' - only gradually coming to his strikingly original style. Is it coincidental that his solution, too, is thoroughgoing simplification?
But then, there is the great bulk of Swiss painting. It is undeniable that the one quality that is essential to art - the communication of profound feeling , the drawing out of the artist's innermost being onto the canvas - is not present in the work of the ''artists'' who stayed in Switzerland. There is a pallid feel, a slick well-executed feel to formal Swiss art. There are some dramatic exceptions: Ferdinand Hodler especially, Albert Anker, and the pure color of Cuno Amiet. Hodler's contribution to art, however, as dynamic as his work is, is put in perspective by the fact that he was born in the same year as Van Gogh. The reason, of course, is the isolation. The isolation that produced the primitive also cut off local artists from the yeasty exchange of ideas that is vital food to the creative spirit. Paris and the Bauhaus nourished Le Corbusier, Giacometti, and Klee as the isolated Swiss valleys could not.
Foreign residence nourished other Swiss artists as well. Among them, not so towering but nonetheless important to art history, are: Johann Fussli, lionized in London; Jacques-Laurent Agasse, who produced one of the outstanding paintings by a Swiss artist, ''Landing at Westminster Bridge''; and Frank Buchser, who painted especially sensitive portraits of blacks in the American South.
Is there Swiss art? Certainly.
But the Swiss seem oddly unable to focus on some of their greatest national treasures. The two great museums of ethnographic art at Basel and Neuchatel are concerned primarily with African and Oceanic art, and there is only a small collection of indigenous Swiss masks at Basel. A collection of Le Corbusier's paintings in the Musee des Beaux Arts at La Chaux de Fonds is stored in a locked room stacked against a wall, while the exhibition area is filled with third-rate foreign painting. The Centre Le Corbusier in Zurich, the last building he built, and a major work, a new departure for him, is closed ''for lack of funds,'' while all manner of lesser attractions in Zurich are open and on the tourist circuit.
Of course, one can not with unerring validity generalize about ''the Swiss.'' But there does seem to be a tendency to turn away from the representation of strong emotion that hits too close to home.
Perhaps that's one reason that Swiss art has been ignored. Practical details:
Write the Swiss Tourist Office, 608 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10020 for information on the following: package plans offered by the Stadte nach Schweizer Art; the Schweizerische Kunstfuhrer, an excellent series of small inexpensive guides to specific collections, churches, old houses, and historic buildings that is available in German and French; and the catalogs published by each museum mentioned in the article.
Some of the excellent private collections open to the public are: the famous Thyssen Bornemisza gallery in the Villa Favorita at Lugano; The Abegg Foundation at Riggisberg near Bern, which has a broad collection of ancient and medieval textiles; the Baur Collections, displayed in a Geneva townhouse (one of the best collections of Chinese porcelains and Japanese jades in Europe); the Buhrle Collection in Zurich, one of the outstanding Swiss collections, containing primarily Impressionists, as well as 20 canvases by post-Impressionist Cezanne; and the Hahnloser Collection in Bern and Winterthur, which centers around works by artists who were friends of the Hahnlosers - Bonnard, Maillol, and Vuillard among them.