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"Away with the Alps, Open Up the View to the Mediterranean"

The motto of the artist Pipilotti Rist tellingly characterizes contemporary art in a Switzerland which is closely meshed with the rest of the world, economically and otherwise: she positions herself in an international context rather than a Swiss perspective. Andre Rogger takes a look at the Swiss artists in the Deutsche Bank Collection.

At the 1992 World Expo in Seville, the Waadtland artist Ben Vautier exhibited a painting in the Swiss Pavilion with a title denying Switzerland's existence – "La Suisse n'existe pas". This self-refutation made many expo visitors shake their head in puzzlement. Even the painter's homeland was rife with speculation as to the possible meaning of "Ben's" provocation, and what this pavilion in Andalusia was actually supposed to represent, if not Switzerland. Since then books of patriotic essays have appeared claiming that Switzerland's innate being is actually confirmed by its increasing cultural diversity, its four official languages and its historic policy of decentralism, yet Ben Vautier's question as to the content and character of "Swissness" is all too justified. The Swiss federal state, founded in 1848, never regarded the promotion of culture as a national responsibility. Switzerland, with its federalist structure, never had a "Ministry of Culture" that provide state stimulus and is open to political influences, something that is a fixture in the state systems of France and Germany and smaller countries such as Austria. The fostering of culture is seen primarily as the affair of the separate regions, cantons, and, last but not least, private individuals.



Max Bill: Ohne Titel, aus "Künstler gegen die Folter", 1993,
Deutsche Bank Collection, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2003

That does not alter the fact, however, that there is plenty of art to be found in Switzerland: no fewer than eleven cantonal academies of fine arts and design ensure that the creativity of the country's seven million inhabitants continues to flourish. But the political principle of subsidiarity in the cultural sphere – that is, the delegation of responsibility from the top down, from the federal state to the cantons and thence to communities and private individuals – explains why artists see their primarily affiliation with a certain region or a global art network rather than regarding themselves as "Swiss" artists. This heterogeneity is reflected by the extensive collection of Swiss art displayed by the Deutsche Bank at its headquarters in Geneva, Lugano and Zurich as well as in the main headquarters in Frankfurt. Rather than pursuing a phantom of national uniqueness, the focus is on establishing individual positions and seeking interconnections.


Max Bill: Kontinuität, 1986,
Deutsche Bank Collection, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2003

One of the very few leading figures of "Swiss art" who conveyed national identity both at home and abroad was Max Bill (1908 Winterthur - 1994 Berlin) – an artist who also takes a key position in the collection of the Deutsche Bank. The sculptor and graphic artist – active mainly in Zurich, though he also served as the rector of the Ulm Academy of Design from 1951-56 – was assigned perhaps the most prominent place in the Deutsche Bank's entire collection. Situated on the public plaza in front of the twin towers of the Frankfurter headquarters, Max Bill's granite monolith Kontinuität (Continuity, 1982-86) greets Deutsche Bank employees and visitors alike. The sculpture, 4.5 m high, is one of the last works by the "Grand Old Man" of Swiss art, perfecting a motif Bill had explored since the early thirties: artistic variations on the Möbius strip, named after the German mathematician August Möbius (1790-1868). This Möbius strip, given one twist and joined seamlessly to produce the baffling phenomenon of one continuous surface, had preoccupied Bill ever since his apprenticeship at the Bauhaus in Dessau. In Frankfurt it attains its ultimate concretion with a conceptually challenging double twist to the infinite strip. As such the sculpture is the complex summation of a mathematically inspired motif which Bill explored almost obsessively, thus influencing a whole generation of Swiss artists.


Gottfried Honegger: Ohne Titel, 1969,
Deutsche Bank Collection, © Gottfried Honegger

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