Birthplace of Dadaism, wartime artists’ refuge and home to over 50 museums and 100 galleries, Zurich in recent years has seen a major extension of its principal art museum, the transformation of a former brewery into a huge complex of contemporary galleries and an annual art fair which attracts some of the world’s most prestigious exhibitors. With its patchwork of roofs and spires and the Alps for a backdrop, this ‘little big city’ is a picture book setting.
Housing the national collection of Switzerland, the Kunsthaus (‘Kunst’ is German for art) is Zurich’s main art attraction. Virtually every major art movement is represented, from the Old Masters (Canaletto, Panini, Breughel) and Impressionism (Monet, Gauguin, Cezanne) to Surrealism (Ernst, Miro, Dali, Magritte), post-war art (Pollock, Rothko, Newman) and present century (Cy Twombly, Jeff Wall).
Of course, Swiss art is well represented with an important collection of 19th and 20th century artists (Fuseli, Hodler, Böcklin, Vallotton) and works by the great Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti. Over a hundred pieces are added to the collection each year, mostly modern and contemporary works. A modern extension by “starchitect” David Chipperfield has enabled the museum to display the entire E.G. Bührle Collection, which combined with the museum’s existing works has formed the largest assembly of Impressionist art in Europe outside Paris. The Zurich industrialist Emil Bührle (1890-1956) created one of the most important 19th and 20th century private collections of European art, which also includes works by the French avant-garde after 1900 as well as from earlier periods, in particular 16th to 18th century Dutch and italian painting. www.kunsthaus.ch
In the up and coming Zurich West district, where factories and warehouses are giving way to apartments, hotels and tech companies, a former brewery has been converted into the Lowenbraukunst Contemporary Art Centre. Built in 1897, the red brick building’s cavernous rooms and stark walls are ideal for displaying art. Among its tenants is the city-run Kunsthalle, which presents changing exhibitions of international contemporary art. This is also the focus at the Migros Museum, funded by the giant Swiss retailer of the same name. Notable among the independent galleries is Hauser & Wirth, which was founded in Zurich and also has branches in London and New York. www.lowenbraukunst.ch
Beautifully situated in 17,000 acres of wooded parkland near the western shore of Lake Zurich, the Museum Rietberg is the legacy of the avid collector Baron Edward van der Heydt (1882-1964), whose particular interest in art and artefacts from Asia, Africa, America, Oceania and the Orient resulted in a world renowned collection.
The museum is entered by a cubelike structure in patterned, turquoise glass which stands in contrast to the magnificent 19th century villa fronted by a large, ornamental pond. Much of van der Heydt’s non- European collection, which he gifted to the city of Zurich, is displayed in brightly lit, subterranean chambers and includes Chinese bronze casting, Buddha figures, Japanese Noh theatre masks, Persian lacquerware, African carved sculpture and pre-Columbian figures. www.rietberg.ch
Operated by Zurich University of the Arts, the Museum für Gestaltung (Museum of Design) hosts changing exhibitions in design, photography, architecture, posters and graphics. It has four extensive collections. The Poster Collection is among the most comprehensive and important archives of its kind in the world, comprising 330,000 posters documenting the international history of the poster from its mid- 19th century origins to the present day. The Design Collection includes 10,000 products and 20,000 examples of packaging for mass-produced products. The Graphics Collection documents the transformation of graphics in everyday life from Gutenberg to the present and is continually augmented by works by innovative graphic designers, advertising agencies and corporate designers. The Applied Art Collection completes the inventory. www.museum-gestaltung.ch
In a corner of the Chinese Garden near Lake Zurich are two fascinating and wildly contrasting museums. The Centre Le Corbusier was the last building designed by the famous Swiss architect and artist. It is also known as the Heidi Weber Museum after the art collector who commissioned it. With its steel and glass frame, a flyaway roof and multicoloured enamel plate cladding it looks as futuristic today as it must have in the late 1960s. (Le Corbusier died in 1965, two years before it was completed.) If ever a building could be considered a work of art, this is it. Visitors should note that the centre is open only on weekend afternoons between July and September. With no insulation, it is impossible to heat in colder months. www.centerlecorbusier.com
Next door is the Atelier Hermann Haller, where the Swiss sculptor worked from 1933 until his death in 1950. The quaint wooden cottage is filled with his work, almost exclusively depictions of the human figure, from small figurines (which he used to work out his ideas instead of doing preparatory sketches) to a ceiling-high nude. The studio is open from June to September, when an annual exhibition shows Haller’s alongside work by a guest artist. www.stadt-zuerich.ch/ atelierhermannhaller
Picturesquely situated in the Old Town on the sparkling River Limmat, the city-run Helmhaus hosts solo, group and themed exhibitions of contemporary art, mainly by Swiss artists or artists resident in Switzerland. www.helmhaus.org
Located in a former electricity substation and icon of Zurich’s industrial architecture, the Haus Konstruktiv is unique in Switzerland (and one of a few such institutions in Europe) in its dedication to concrete, constructive and conceptual art. Exhibitions are spread over five floors of industrial-size rooms. www.hauskonstruktiv.ch
This article appears in Artmag’s digital edition, 24th July.