Swiss art gains international recognition

Works by Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler are expected to reach high prices Keystone

As exhibitions multiply and auction houses up the bids, Swiss art is gaining momentum on the international scene. But there are still bargains to be had, experts say.

This content was published on November 26, 2011 - 18:38
Michèle Laird,

The next two weeks will see a string of auctions of Swiss art by major auction houses in Zurich: Sotheby’s (November 28), Christie's (December 5) and Koller (December 9) are offering 500 works for tender.

Auction sales of Swiss art have been taking place since the seventies, but for the past few years they have started to edge out of the confines of a conservative local art market.

Paintings by Swiss Neo-Impressionists, Cuneo Amiet and Giovanni Giacometti (father of Albert) and Symbolist, Ferdinand Hodler, are reaching prices that no one would have dared predict five years ago.

A small Cuno Amiet (60x55cm) is priced by Christie's at between €650,000-€970,000 (SFr800,000-SFr1.2 million).

“Even in these brackets, the paintings are not commanding anywhere near the price that works of comparable quality by mainstream Modernists would obtain,” said Hans-Peter Keller, Christie’s head of Swiss Art.

He said that there are still “exquisite pieces at reasonable prices”. All three online catalogues (see links) propose works starting at less than SFr2,000.

The Bern Kunstmuseum recently presented in Munich, Germany, an exhibition entirely dedicated to Swiss art. According to director Matthias Frehner, it was a resounding success.

Trickle-down effect

He attributes the nascent international interest in Swiss art to two surprising factors. He says a younger generation of art historians has inspired the rediscovery of local art history.

He also believes that the spectacular success of contemporary Swiss artists, like Pipilotti Rist and Fischli and Weiss, has had a trickle-down effect on the entire art scene.

Frehner points out that one of the major art collections of Modernist Swiss art (from the beginning of last century) is in Dallas, Texas, the result of collecting by an American couple, Nona and Richard Barrett.

“We tend to overlook the fact that Swiss artists rarely stayed at home and were often active proponents in the major art currents of their times,” Frehner said. He gives as examples both Amiet and Giacometti who were involved with German Expressionists, Hodler, who was a Symbolist, and Meret Oppenheim, who contributed significantly to Surrealism.

Frehner also gives credit to the many Swiss families of art collectors who recognised the worth of their homegrown artists, and he is convinced that annual fairs, like Art Basel, contribute to spreading the word, especially beyond Swiss frontiers.

“We discovered in Munich that the public enjoyed the discovery and fresh outlook that Swiss art offers,” he explained.

Greater visibility

This is a good time to enter the market for Swiss art, Keller advises, since there has been little movement until now, as works tended to stay in collections. But the context is changing quickly as Swiss art becomes more visible and is more exhibited.

The fact that many of the art works were originally bought directly from the artists in their studios - another feature of the Swiss scene – helps determine the provenance, according to Stephanie Schleining Deschanel, deputy head of Sotheby’s Swiss art department.

“When you purchase from our auction houses, you have the guarantee of the authenticity of the work.” A tremendous amount of research goes into preparing each sale, she said.

The online catalogues of the upcoming sales are a good entry point for newcomers who know nothing about Swiss art. Keller has discovered that thematic presentations are appealing to sellers, who become more inclined to part with pieces from their collections. They are also an agreeable way of walking through 250 years of art history.

The power of the web in spreading the news to the outside world that Swiss art is desirable is obvious, Matthias Frehner acknowledges. According to Schleining, it has also made the role of auction houses more transparent.

Keller points out that this winter’s Christie’s sale is unusual, because a large number of the works on sale do not have a reserve price (in red in the catalogue). This means that the highest bidder wins, even if the bid is only a fraction of the estimated value.

“This is a great place to start a collection,” he affirmed.

Swiss sales

Cuno Amiet and cousins Augusto and Giovanni Giacometti (Alberto Giacometti’s father) eschewed traditional alpine scenes to offer the Swiss a taste for Modernism, using glowing colours and diffused images. They dominate the sales, along with Ferdinand Hodler and Albert Anker.

Swiss Expressionists Hermann Schere and Albert Müller are represented by fierce and fiery works from the twenties. 

“Concrete art”, initiated in Zurich by Max Bill, represents a rare example of a movement that originated in Switzerland and had a profound impact elsewhere.

Discoveries in the upcoming auction sales also include early works by Hans Erni, when he still went by the name of François Grèque, and where similarities with Picasso’s figurative period are striking.

Christies has a substantial number of pieces on sale from the Beyeler estate, a provision  made by Ernst Beyeler to finance his Foundation in Basel.

An original Alberto Giacometti drawing is priced under SFr10,000 and has been authenticated by the eponymous foundation.

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An Amiet exhibition, “Joy of my Life”, runs at Kunstmuseum Bern until January 15, 2012.

A landmark exhibition that draws parallels between Hodler and Amiet is on at Kunstmuseum Solothurn until January 2, 2012.

Ernest Bièler (1863-1948), considered the “Anker of French-speaking Switzerland”, will be the subject of a large retrospective at the Fondation Pierre Gianadda (December 1-February 26, 2012), also recently presented in Bern.

Pipilotti Rist “Eyeball Massage” is on at the Hayward Gallery in London until January 8, 2012.

The works of Peter Fischli and David Weiss are currently on view at Tate Liverpool, the Minneapolis Walker Art Center, Paris Pompidou Centre and the Berlin Hamburger Bahnhof-Museum.

Félix Vallotton, a Swiss painter who was in close contact with the French Nabis, will be the subject of a major retrospective at Musée d’Orsay in Paris in 2013.

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