Art exhibitions are amongst the most important agents of cultural foreign policy and the promotion of Switzerland’s image abroad. Today as in the past, the numerous initiatives of Pro Helvetia bear witness to the ambiguous relationship between culture and nation.
In art history, the issue of national specificity of artistic creation is often debated in Switzerland as well as abroad. Although national stereotypes have lost much significance in the analysis of creativity, questions about the originality or nativeness of artistic works from the same country have not completely disappeared. What is Swiss art? Does the term refer to works by Swiss artists, or, from a geographical point of view, to work produced in Switzerland? Does Swiss art exist?
In Switzerland, the association of art with the quest for national identity began in the late 19th century. The Confederation discovered cultural policy and started to promote pictures, monuments, and historical productions, apt to consolidate the founding myths and celebrate alpine Switzerland. In the 1920s, Ferdinand Hodler’s style was considered the authentic aesthetic expression of the national character. His paintings became the main reference for Swiss art. In the course of the efforts of the Spiritual defence on the eve of World War II, artistic creation was regarded as the main pillar of national identity and promoted as such by Pro Helvetia.
As a promotional starting point, this emphasis on the nation has turned out to be decisive for Swiss cultural policy abroad. Post-war artistic events, organised by Pro Helvetia and the Federal Commission of Fine Arts were mainly aimed at the consolidation and promotion of the most important elements of the national identity, such as federalism and the idea of diversity in unity.
The symbiosis between art and the nation began to dissolve, however, in the 1950s when artists ceased to attach much significance to national borders or a specific “Swiss reality” and felt closer to international movements and to artists working along the same lines. In 1962, the media theorist Marshall McLuhan created the most iconic image of this evolution: the “global village.”
In spite of the growing distance between artists and their country of origin, between art and the nation, even in the beginning of the 21st century actors in the field of cultural foreign policy have not completely abandoned the national interpretation of artistic creation.Globalisation, challenging regionality, also turns out to promote the rediscovery of local identities.