Whether you like your art ancient or modern, classical or contemporary, applied or outsider, there is an eye-popping array of world-class Swiss art galleries and museums. From the Paul Klee and Vitra Design museums to prestigious events like Art Basel, the Swiss art scene is vibrant. With both a collecting culture that stretches back centuries and the planet’s most important annual contemporary fair, Basel city has traditionally been the Swiss scene’s Chanel-clad grand dame, snapping up Warhols and Bacons for her Rhine-side apartment. But worldly Zürich has hit a bold new stride in the last decade, with the immaculate regeneration of the city’s former industrial zone serving up a bevy of cool white cubes where cutting-edge contemporary art from every end of the Earth is making itself right at home. Nor are Geneva and Bern art slouches. Their venerable palaces of painting and plastic arts have long earned their global reputations, and each city also has its own flourishing crop of temples to the contemporary, both civic and indie. And the national art appetite keeps on growing. While Renzo Piano hasn’t been called upon just yet to turn the spectacular Fondation Beyeler he built in Basel and Bern’s Zentrum Paul Klee into a megamuseum hat-trick, major institutions are adding new extensions and taking over bigger buildings, while art spaces are breathing vital new life into urban industrial edifices.
A tad cheeky, perhaps, to claim the fabulous Vitra Design Museum for Basel as it lies just over the border in the German town of Weil am Rhein. But no art lover visits the city without making the peasy 30-minute city bus pilgrimage, and with good reason. Established by the eponymous Swiss furniture design company in 1989, the museum shares a sprawling campus with striking buildings by Zaha Hadid – her very first – and the Japanese boxer-turned architect Tadao Ando. The main building, a gleaming white deconstructivist tangle of curves and angular boxes, was Frank Gehry’s first European commission. And along with the Vitra House, a cantilevered stack of glass-ended longhouses by the Basel-based Tate Modern alchemists Herzog & de Meuron, it’s home to one of the world’s largest collections of modern furniture and lighting designs. This hinges mainly on bequests from the likes of Charles and Ray Eames, Alvar Aalto and Dieter Rams, and is beautifully presented across the two main spaces. Informative architectural and collection tours and a rolling programme of temporary exhibitions place the showcased designs and buildings in ever-evolving broader contexts.
It’s testament to the strength of Zentrum Paul Klee’s collection of works by Bern’s favourite artistic son (near enough anyway – the prolific 20th-century painter, teacher, musician and poet was technically from Münchenbuchsee, 9km up the road), that it’s not totally upstaged by Renzo Piano’s inspired building-landform hybrid. Comprising three vast, sinuous waves of glass and steel that echo the hills in the distance, the combined museum and arts space opened in 2005 to house 4,000 Klee paintings, watercolours and drawings – 40 percent of his entire oeuvre, and the most works in one place by a single internationally-renowned artist anywhere in the world. Some 120-150 are on display at any one time, curated by theme, so the stunning space bears repeated visits, revealing different facets of the synthesis of expressionism, cubism and surrealism this visionary painter moulded into something new and unmistakable. The centre has also won well-deserved praise for its exemplary, hands-on studio for kids, where aspiring artists from four up can create masterpieces of their own.
The planet’s largest collection of paintings by the Holbein family is the centrepiece of Basel’s most venerable art archive, and works from 1400-1600 and the 19th-21st centuries its broader main attractions. Upper-Rhine and Flemish artists dominate the former, with Renaissance men Konrad Witz and Cranach the Elder the big stars. Van Gogh, Gaugin and Cézanne usher in the 1900s, while the museum’s 20th-century haul hinges on cubism, German expressionism and post-1950 American art, with pieces by Picasso, Oscar Kokoschka and Warhol among the principal treasures. A monumental extension to the Kunstmuseum that will host special exhibitions is currently under construction, designed by local starchitects Christ & Gantenbein and due to open in 2016.
Recently the subject of some controversy over whether or not it would accept a bequest of some 1,000 artworks from the German collector Cornelius Gurlitt that include many stolen by the Nazis from Jewish families, Bern’s Kunstmuseum houses Switzerland’s oldest permanent collection. Its mission is twofold – both to represent art’s global evolution and to champion local responses to that journey over the years. Works spanning eight centuries can be seen here, most rewardingly from the medieval Italian masters like Fra Angelico and Botticelli onwards up to modern painters including Manet, Picasso, Kandinsky and Jackson Pollock. Swiss art meanwhile can be traced from 15th-century painters such as Niklaus Manuel Deutsch and Ferdinand Hodler to Paul Klee, whose modest selection here is preferred by many to the vast portfolio at the shiny showstopper Zentrum Paul Klee up the road. Impressionism, cubism, expressionism, blaue reiter and surrealism all make their marks among the museum’s 3,000 paintings and sculptures, and temporary exhibitions regularly add deftly judged contemporary angles to the mix.
In an august 18th-century villa rising from immaculately tended gardens overlooking Lake Geneva, 100,000-plus original photographs make up the extraordinary collection of the Musée de l’Elysée. One of the first museums in Europe purely dedicated to the photographer’s art, it first made a name for itself with exhibitions of 20th-century masters such as Cartier-Bresson, Irving Penn and Ella Maillart as well as earlier work that showed the art form’s first steps. Social history, through the eyes of those including Sebastião Salgado, Christine Spengler and Mario Giacomelli, has also always been a strong suit. But as the museum has grown in stature, it has broadened its focus, now confidently curating exhibitions of challenging contemporary work, sometimes juxtaposed with other artistic disciplines. The collection and its four annual shows reveal a strong interest in Swiss photographers, but the Elysée also has work by Richard Avedon, Andy Warhol, Annie Liebowitz and Martin Parr, as well as 10,000 photographs documenting the entire career of Charlie Chaplin – who spent 25 years living down the road in Vevey – donated in 2011 by his daughter Josephine.
Founded in 1985, the Kunsthalle only became a significant institution in Zurich's art scene after it moved into the Löwenbräu-Areal development together with the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst and a handful of influential privately owned art galleries in the mid-90s. It has since hosted exhibitions of internationally renowned contemporary artists, amongst them John Armleder, Terence Koh and Wolfgang Tillmans.
At the last Venice Art Biennale in 2013, one of the star attractions was at the palazzo of the Fondazione Prada, which recreated Harald Szeemann's seminal group show ‘Live In Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form’, whose challenging, site-specific works by artists including Eva Hesse, Lawrence Weiner, Carl Andre and Walter De Maria scandalised the good burghers of Bern when it opened in 1969 at the Kunsthalle. ‘Overnight, Bern has become a city of art’, was the verdict of the social-democrat newspaper Berner Tagwacht when the gallery opened 51 years before that, and the dour, bunker-like building has maintained an uncompromising focus on the new and confrontational ever since, with shows by Jasper Johns, Henry Moore and Bruce Nauman helping secure its place on the world art map. Six or seven exhibitions, whether solo or group, are staged every year, weaving input from regional, national and worldwide artists into a tradition whose commitment to shared exploration of the aesthetic and social concerns of the day runs to a busy programme of lectures, tours and debates.
Switzerland’s largest and youngest museum of contemporary art, the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain, to give Mamco its full name, has not only set a benchmark in showing current work, it has catalysed a whole new cultural district in the now gallery-peppered Quartier des Bains. Founded in 1994 and occupying 4,000m2 of a former 1950s factory building, Mamco dedicates most of its beautifully repurposed space to temporary shows, while sharing highlights from a collection of more than 3,000 works. Signature permanent pieces include Gianni Motti’s 1999 ‘Big Crunch Clock’, a solar-powered digital timer counting down the five billion years until the sun explodes (solar-powered, for extra Italian irony), and Maurizio Nannucci’s joyous neon work ‘Art, Text, Light, Sign’, conceived for the gallery’s 1994 opening and shown on the staircase’s four mezzanines. Another showpiece is a fascinating, faithful recreation of the Paris apartment of minimalist and conceptual art collector Ghislain Mollet-Viéville which displays pieces by Dan Flavin, Donald Judd and Bernd and Hilla Becher. Great guided tours are available, including kid-friendly versions, and on the first Sundays and Wednesdays of the month, they’re free.
Although it numbers fewer than 250 works, the permanent collection at the superb Fondation Beyeler feels like an essential edit of modern art’s masterpieces, in a setting that’s both serene and gloriously eccentric – in a suitably understated Swiss way, naturally. The Renzo Piano-designed museum sits reflected in a lily pond in the bucolic Berower Park at the city’s edge, among sculptures by the likes of Ellsworth Kelly and Alexander Calder. Meanwhile inside, world-famous works by Monet, Picasso and Bacon share space with rare tribal sculptures from Oceania and Africa. Paintings by Matisse, Van Goch, Lichtenstein and Baselitz are also full-time fixtures, but the impeccably curated temporary exhibitions are what really make a fleeting visit to the Beyeler an impossibility. The low-rise building’s intimate ambience belies hangaresque dimensions which have in recent years hosted once-in-a-lifetime shows by Jean-Michel Basquiat, the Viennese Secessionists and Max Ernst.
The Paul Amlehn statues above the entrance of Marc Camoletti’s palatial neo-classical pile of 1910 depicting painting, drawing, sculpture and architecture are barely half the story. In Geneva’s largest art museum, you’ll find everything from Mesopotamian artefacts to modernist masterpieces by way of ancient suits of armour, ornamental musical instruments, Coptic wall hangings and a colossal statue of Pharaoh Ramses II. A collection of more than half a million exhibits spans four floors and 15,000 years of history, inviting visitors to explore archaeology, applied arts and fine arts. Signposting could be better, especially for non-French-speakers, although limited audioguides and suggestions for themed tours are available on the way in. These are a handy way to ensure you catch the vast collection’s real highlights, representing everyone from Picasso to Monet to Rubens to homegrown master Giacometti, and the museum’s acknowledged centrepiece, Konrad Witz’ 1444 altar painting ‘The Miraculous Draught of Fishes’ which masterfully balances Italian and Flemish influences. Unusually for Geneva, entrance, apart from for temporary shows, is free.