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.'')
Switzerland is a thoroughfare that encourages merchants. But commerce does not usually encourage the development of artists. It has, however, led to a unique means for the Swiss as a nation to connect with art. They are collectors par excellencem. The scale of collecting is widespread, out of all proportion to the size of the country, and it is pursued with a drive found nowhere else in the world.
Collecting art is not the same as creating art, and one could hypothesize that the Swiss collectors buy feelings rather than express them. But one has only to walk through Oskar Reinhart's magnificent home, Am Romerholz, now a museum in Winterthur, to recognize the artistic acumen required of the true connoisseur. Reinhart was not simply a wealthy merchant who'bought art for prestige. The collection was put together painstakingly, with a highly sensitive and discerning eye. It is awe-inspiring to walk through room after room filled only with the very finest in European art. Perhaps, for Reinhart, at least, collecting was creating. (For other excellent private collections, see the ''practical details'' section at the end of this article.)
A whole other aspect of Reinhart's aesthetic personality is housed a mile away in the center of the city in the Oskar Reinhart Foundation, his collection of specifically Swiss, Austrian, and German art from the 18th to the 20th centuries. It is one of the most condensed and comprehensive views of Swiss art extant - over 600 works.
The tradition of collecting goes back at least to Johannes Amerbach in the 15 th century. His collection, purchased from heirs by the Town Council of Basel in 1662, is considered the most important in Switzerland. Known as the Amerbach Cabinet, it is part of the Kunstmuseum in Basel and contains work by some of the most important Swiss Renaissance artists - Graf, Niklaus Manuel, and Hans Leu, as well as by the Germans Hans Holbein the Younger (Swiss by immigration) and Albrecht Durer.
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.
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.
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.
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.