Swiss artists’ styles range from the playful to the grotesque. Learn more about “Alien” designer HR Giger, and icons like Giacometti, Klee and others here.
Editorial note: this content was current as of June 2017 and is no longer being updated.
There are many galleries featuring the work of contemporary Swiss artists, and Basel’s annual art fair, known as Art Basel, has emerged as a renowned platform for Swiss and international artists’ work.
Emigrants and immigrants
Although Switzerland has a strong traditional in medieval religious art, the Reformation had an inhibiting effect on Swiss painting and sculpture in general.
Hans Holbein the Younger, a German artist who did much of his work in Switzerland, left his home in Basel for London. Later Swiss artists who moved to London to work included the Neoclassical painter Angelica Kauffmann, who was born in Chur.
Well-known artists at the turn of the 20th century included Albert Anker, Arnold Böcklin and Ferdinand Hodler, whom many art historians see as a seminal figure in Swiss painting. His works are popular and fetch high prices at auction.
Hodler’s paintings mainly relate to Swiss themes or places, and in his time he was widely regarded as Switzerland’s national painter. Abroad he has never been awarded the same acclaim as, say, Jean Tinguely or Alberto Giacometti (see Modern art).
In both world wars, Zurich became a haven for all manner of artists. It was there during the First World War that the Dadaist movement started. One of its members, Hans (Jean) Arp, and his wife, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, later became well-known figures.
An undisputed icon of modern European art is Paul Klee. He grew up in Switzerland, spent many years in Germany, also lecturing at the famous Bauhaus, and was driven back to Switzerland by the antagonism of the Nazi regime in 1930s Germany.
His minimalist painting was designed to “open peoples’ eyes”. Bern, with which Klee was mostly associated, is now the location of the Paul Klee centre. Designed by star architect Renzo Piano, the centre opened in 2005.
Perhaps the most famous modern Swiss artist is Alberto Giacometti (PDF)(1901-1966). He was born in Borgonovo, now part of the municipality of Stampa, an Italian-speaking valley in Graubünden. His father, Giovanni Giacometti, was a well-known painter; Giovanni’s cousin Augusto Giacometti was also a painter and artist working in stained glass.
In 1922 Alberto Giacometti moved to Paris and stayed there for the rest of his life. His sculptures reveal a strange and tormented view of reality – he usually carved them until they were characteristically thin and elongated. His paintings underwent a similar procedure. The figures appear isolated and are the result of constant reworking.
Another well-known modern Swiss artist was Jean Tinguely (1925-1991) who created sculptures and complex installations out of scrap metal. There is a Tinguely museum and a permanent open-air installation in Basel.
But more people have probably seen the work of the late Chur-born surrealist Hans Rudolf “HR” Giger (1940-2014) without even realising it. The artist’s monochromes, that often dive into the erotic, bizarre, fantastic realism of humans bound to machines, were his inspiration for the creatures in the hit Alien horror films. Giger won an Oscar for his design work on that movie. His works are housed in a museum located in a chateau in Gruyère.
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