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Swiss art

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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.

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.'')

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