Switzerland is a cosmopolitan country whose four languages and regional diversity are a source of creativity in architecture, the arts, dance and literature.
Cultural creativity in Switzerland
Swiss designs such as the world-famous Swiss army knife, the 'Helvetica' font and the Swatch are known the world over for their quality, precision and timeless design. Fertile ground for architecture, Switzerland has produced some of the world's most famous architects such as Le Corbusier, Mario Botta and Herzog & de Meuron. Swiss painters and sculptors have shaped various artistic movements. Among the best known are Ferdinand Hodler, Paul Klee, Alberto Giacometti and Jean Tinguely.
Switzerland has a rich literary heritage in all four of its national languages. Major Swiss literary figures include Max Frisch, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Johanna Spyri. Swiss music has something to suit every taste – from folk to classical, jazz, 'Schlager', pop and rock, and a lively dialect music scene. There are some 300 professional classical and contemporary dance companies. Switzerland has an unusually high density of museums, and some 70% of Swiss residents go to the museum at least once a year.
The Swiss film industry is best known for award-winning documentaries. Among the Swiss films to have achieved international acclaim are the documentary 'More than Honey' and the feature film 'Journey of Hope'. Switzerland also boasts world-class theatres and a long theatrical tradition that engages with the French, German and Italian-speaking theatrical worlds.
Swiss design pairs functionality, precision, reliability and a minimalist aesthetic that have made timeless design icons out of everyday objects from chairs and clocks to computer fonts and vegetable peelers.
Swiss design classics include the 'Helvetica' typeface, which was invented in the mid-20th century. Helvetica it is still used on posters, menus and street signs all over the world because it is easy to read. Another classic is the Rex peeler. Made of only 20g aluminium, the Rex's ergonomic shape and super-sharp pivoting blade make quick work of peeling potatoes and vegetables. Since its invention in 1947, 2–3 million Rex peelers have been sold annually, 60% of which are exported to 22 countries around the world. Contemporary design icons include Freitag's sustainable shoulder bags made from truck tarpaulins and Nestlé's Nespresso capsules. You might be surprised to learn that Switzerland is also a top location for video game design.
Switzerland has three leading universities for art and design located, in Geneva, Zurich and Lausanne, and two design museums, mudac (the Museum of Contemporary Design and Applied Arts) in Lausanne and the Museum für Gestaltung in Zurich. The Federal Office of Culture presents the Swiss Grand Prix of Design and around twenty design awards to designers in Switzerland.
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With its rich and diverse architectural heritage and abundance of architecturally important buildings, tiny Switzerland is a Mecca for high-quality architectural design and has produced some of the world's most famous contemporary architects.
Le Corbusier, who was born Charles Edouard Jeanneret, became a pioneer of modern architecture in the 1920s at the time of the Bauhaus movement. His most famous works are the United Nations headquarters in New York, the Cité Radieuse in Marseille and much of the city of Chandigarh in India. Established as the capital of Indian Punjab in 1952, Chandigarh was completely rebuilt based on Le Corbusier's design and completed in part after his death. The Capitol Complex is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with 16 other works by Le Corbusier.
More recently, Swiss architects such as Mario Botta, Jacques Herzog, Pierre de Meuron, Peter Zumthor and Bernard Tschumi have been making their mark in architecture around the world. With his predilection for natural stone and brick, Mario Botta is considered the founder of the 'New Ticino Architecture' style.
Currently among the world's leading architects are the duo Herzog & de Meuron. They designed the Tate Modern in London, the Allianz Arena in Munich, the Roche building in Basel and the 'Bird's Nest' Olympic stadium in Beijing
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Painting and sculpture
Swiss painters and sculptors made their mark in the romantic, Bauhaus and surrealist art movements. The Swiss painters Ferdinand Hodler and Paul Klee and sculptors Alberto Giacometti and Jean Tinguely number among the most famous artists in the world.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, landscape painting and romanticism were the order of the day. The late 19th and early 20th centuries witnessed the transition to modernism. The most famous painters of this period are Ferdinand Hodler, Arnold Böcklin and Albert Anker. At the end of the First World War, the avant-garde Dada movement was founded, whose protagonists included the couple Hans Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp. Dadaism is considered to have paved the way for Bauhaus, which influenced the works by Paul Klee, an icon of modern European art.
In the mid-20th century, concrete art and the abstract, hyperrealist and surrealist movements emerged led by artists such as Max Bill, Franz Gertsch, Meret Oppenheim and the lithographer Hans Erni. Hans Erni received the UN Peace Medal and his works include the mural 'Ta Panta Rei' at the entrance to the Palais des Nations in Geneva. The 1980s were also a productive decade for Swiss sculpture, with Jean Tinguely developing his machine-like kinetic sculptures made of scrap metal, his wife Niki de Saint Phalle creating giant, voluptuous female figures, and Alberto Giacometti his elongated bronze human forms. Of these, the works of Alberto Giacometti are the most well-known and command the highest prices. Three of his figures have fetched the highest prices ever paid for sculptures at public auction worldwide. Two of his paintings also fetched the highest prices ever paid for a painting by a Swiss artist.
At the end of the 20th century, a new generation of artists emerged in Switzerland, among them John Armleder, Roman Signer, Pipilotti Rist, Thomas Hirschhorn and Ugo Rondinone, who work mainly with video, collage, object and installation art. In a school entirely of his own is Graubünden artist H.R. Giger. His gothic figures and extraterrestrial monsters featured in the film 'Alien' and won him an Oscar in 2014.
Many Swiss cities have a university of art and design. The biggest and most well-known are in Basel, Zurich, Lucerne, Geneva and Lausanne.
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Switzerland has not one but four literary traditions, as it is home to authors writing in German, French, Italian and Romansh. The undisputed giants of Swiss literature include Max Frisch, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Johanna Spyri.
The most famous German-language Swiss authors are Max Frisch, author of 'Homo Faber', and Friedrich Dürrenmatt, who wrote 'Besuch der Alten Dame' (The Visit). Dürrenmatt's works are still read and performed all over the world and have been made into films, Broadway musicals and even Chinese comic strips.
The children's book 'Heidi' is one of the most popular children's books of all time. Written by Johanna Spyri in 1880, it has been translated into over 50 languages, has sold millions of copies and made into several film adaptations. 'The Rainbow Fish' by Markus Pfister is still loved by children the world over. The picture book series has been translated into 50 languages, sold 30 million copies and been made into a film. Contemporary Swiss authors include Peter Bichsel, Martin Suter, Urs Widmer, Eveline Hasler and Franz Hohler. Among the new generation of German-language authors are Thomas Hürlimann, Melinda Nadj-Abondji, Peter Stamm and Lukas Bärfuss.
In the French-speaking community, the writer and philosopher of the Enlightenment Jean-Jacques Rousseau published a number of seminal works in the 18th century, including The Social Contract. In the early 19th century, Charles Ferdinand Ramuz documented the harshness of day-to-day life in rural French-speaking Switzerland in 'La grande peur dans la montagne' (Terror on the Mountain). 20th century French-language authors include Jacques Chessex, Maurice Borgeaud, Maurice Chappaz, S. Corinna Bille and Alice Rivaz. In more recent times, a number of young authors like Joël Dicker have chalked up major successes. Dicker's novel 'La Vérité sur l’Affaire Harry Quebert' (The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair) was the basis for a hit US miniseries in 2018.
The literature of Italian-speaking Switzerland is dominated by writers like Francesco Chiesa, Piero Bianconi, Ugo Canonica and Giorgio Orelli. Leading Romansh authors are Selina Chönz, Cla Biert, Gion Deplazes, Clo Duri Bezzola and writer and composer Linard Bardill.
The Federal Office of Culture awards two 'Swiss Grand Prix Literature' and five to seven Swiss literary prizes each year. The annual Solothurn Literary Days in June provide a forum for Swiss writers to present their work to the public.
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Film and cinema
The Swiss film industry is known for its award-winning documentaries. The films 'More than Honey' and 'Journey of Hope' have been among the documentaries to achieve international acclaim in recent years. A number of feature films, including 'Heidi', 'Mein Name ist Eugen' and 'Sister' have also enjoyed considerable success. Among the most internationally successful filmmakers are the screenwriter and producer Arthur Cohn, who has won multiple Oscars and has a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, and director Marc Foster with his Bond film 'Quantum of Solace'.
Swiss cinematic output is characterised by its strong emphasis on a descriptive and often critical take on life in Switzerland. Twentieth century film-making in Switzerland can be split into four key periods: Swiss-German silent films (1915–1919), Swiss-French silent films (1919–1924), classic inter- and post-war films (1930–1964) and contemporary cinema (since 1964). The 1960s heralded a break with previous cinematic tradition by establishing a new and more reality-driven aesthetic. The leading exponents of this 'New Swiss Cinema' were the Swiss-French filmmakers Alain Tanner, Claude Goretta and Michel Soutter.
A number of Swiss feature films have achieved international acclaim, including 'Les petites fugues' (The Wild Oats) by Yves Yersin (1979), 'Die Schweizermacher' (The Swissmakers) by Rolf Lyssy (1978) and 'Höhenfeuer' (Alpine Heights) by Fredi M. Murer (1985). Xavier Koller's 'Reise der Hoffnung' (Journey of Hope) won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1991. In the documentary genre, 'War Photographer' (2002) by Christian Frei was nominated for an Oscar. Markus Imhoof's 'More Than Honey' (2012) became the most successful best Swiss documentary film of all time and was showered with awards at film festivals around the world.
For Swiss audiences, 'Die Schweizermacher' (The Swissmakers) is the ultimate home-grown cinema classic. In this satire on the Swiss immigration system, several characters hoping to obtain a Swiss passport have to act more Swiss than the Swiss to impress their immigration officers. Jean-Stéphane Bron also came to international attention with his films 'Mais im Bundeshuus' (Trouble in Parliament, 2003) and 'L'Experience Blocher' (The Blocher Experience, 2013), as did Ursula Meier with 'Home' (2008) and 'Sister' (2012) and Xavier Koller with 'Die schwarzen Brüder' (The Black Brothers, 2013). Alain Gsponser's new adaptation of the children's classic Heidi (2015) has become one of Switzerland's most successful feature films at home and abroad.
Swiss film receives public funding from the cantons and Confederation, the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG-SSR, foundations, companies and private individuals. Swiss Films is the agency in charge of promoting Swiss films and supporting their international distribution. Since 1998 the Swiss Film Awards are hosted annually by the Confederation. Switzerland also hosts a number of film festivals, including the Locarno International Film Festival and festivals in Nyon, Solothurn Neuchâtel and Zurich.
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The Swiss music scene is extremely diverse and creates music in the country's four national languages, English and Swiss dialects. While traditional music remains very popular in rural areas, contemporary musical genres are popular with audiences throughout Switzerland.
Folk music and 'schlager'
Traditional Swiss folk music includes yodelling and instruments such as the Alphorn, the 'Schwyzerörgeli', a special type of accordion, and the 'Hackbrett' (hammered dulcimer). Every region of Switzerland has countless ensembles, brass bands, choirs and traditional music groups which foster this tradition and regularly perform at traditional music festivals in Switzerland and in neighbouring countries. Every four years, 10,000 musicians from around the country flock to the Federal Festival of Traditional Music. A modern form of folk music are 'schlager', a genre which has made a come-back in the form of 'pop-schlager', pop hits featuring catchy instrumentals and light-hearted lyrics. Leonard, Francine Jordi and Beatrice Egli are among the 'schlagerstars' who have made it outside Switzerland.
Classical music and opera
Most Swiss cities have a classical orchestra. The leading orchestras in Switzerland today are the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich and the Orchestre de la Suisse romande in Geneva. Under the guidance of its founder, conductor and composer Ernest Ansermet, the latter helped popularise modern classical music throughout Switzerland. Other internationally renowned composers and conductors include Othmar Schoeck, Frank Martin and Arthur Honegger, whose portrait used to feature on the 20-franc note. Many Swiss cities have their own opera houses, of which those of Zurich and Geneva enjoy a reputation far beyond the country's borders. Every year a number of classical music festivals take place around the country.
Rock, pop, jazz, electro and hip-hop
Many Swiss performers have helped shape their genre, such as the Zurich duo Yello, who were at the avant-garde of the electronic music scene in the 1980s, the versatile jazz musician George Gruntz (1932–2013) and pioneers of French-language hip hop Sens Unik. Among the most popular Swiss musicians and groups of the last decade include the world music artist and Grammy winner Andreas Vollenweider, the hard rock bands Krokus and Gotthard, chansonniers Stephan Eicher and Michael von der Heide, Eurodance star DJ Bobo, DJ Antoine, the rapper Stress and the jazz musician Erik Truffaz. The current crop of internationally-successful Swiss musicians includes Sophie Hunger, Bastian Baker, Anna Rossinelli, Stefanie Heinzmann, Luca Hänni and Ilira. The band Eluveitie, which plays folk metal with historical instruments and sings in Celtic has an international fan base but is less well known in Switzerland.
Global hits from Switzerland that are still played today include 'The Captain of Her Heart' by Double and 'On My Way in L.A.' by Phil Carmen, and of course the smash hit 'Dance little Bird', whose melody was written by Swiss composer Werner Thomas.
Every year in March, Switzerland honours its most successful musical talents at the Swiss Music Awards.
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Switzerland has a vibrant classical and contemporary dance scene.
Dance as an art form initially became established in Switzerland with classical ballet, when a large number of dancers and choreographers from abroad settled in Switzerland during the First and Second World Wars. At around this time, expressive dance, which had emerged at the beginning of the 20th century on Monte Verità near Ascona in Italian-speaking Switzerland, began to spread throughout the world. Today, the Swiss dance scene incorporates influences from all over the world.
There are currently around 300 professional dance troupes in Switzerland, six of which are permanent companies based in major theatres. The four classical ballet companies are located in Basel, Zurich, Geneva and Lausanne. Zurich Ballet, the Béjart Ballet in Lausanne, the Philippe Saire company, the choreographers Heinz Spoerli and Gilles Jobin, and the dancer, choreographer and visual artist Maria Ribot are renowned worldwide for their work.
Switzerland also hosts a number of dance festivals, such as the biannual ‘Steps’ festival which stages performances of Swiss and international dancers throughout the country and Swiss Dance Days, which always take place in a different Swiss city. The Berner Tanztage, Oltener Tanztage, the multidisciplinary festival La Bâtie in Geneva, the Zürcher Theaterspektakel and Basel Theatre Festival take place once a year. A special highlight on the dance calendar is Das Tanzfest, which takes place simultaneously in 30 locations around the country. A mixture of courses, public performances and dance parties provide professionals with a chance to network and give the general public the opportunity to interact with the diverse world of dance.
The annual Prix de Lausanne, which was created in 1973, recognises up-and-coming young dancers from around the world. Previous winners of the award, which includes scholarships to train at prestigious ballet schools, have gone on to have hugely successful careers. Since 2021, the Federal Office of Culture has presented the Swiss Dance Awards annually at a joint event dedicated to performing arts. Every year, around 60 apprentices complete a four-year basic vocational training programme as dancers, receiving a federal diploma of vocational education and training in classical dance, contemporary dance or musical performance.
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Switzerland has one of the highest densities of museums in the world, with over 1,000 museums of various kinds, a third of which are regional or local. Around 70% of people in Switzerland visit a museum at least once a year, which is more than go to the cinema. Art museums have the highest number of admissions, followed by the history museums.
All Switzerland's major towns and cities have important art collections. The largest concentration of art museums is in Basel, which boasts impressive collections of both contemporary art in the Kunsthalle and classical art in the Kunstmuseum. Basel is also home to major private collections, such as the Fondation Beyeler and the Tinguely Museum. The Kunsthaus Zürich, the Musée d'art et d'histoire in Geneva and the Kunstmuseum Bern also exhibit masterpieces dating from the 16th to the 21st century in their collections. Bern is home to the Zentrum Paul Klee, whose futuristic building was designed by architect Renzo Piano.
Switzerland's most popular and most visited museums include the Swiss Transport Museum in Lucerne, the Maison Cailler chocolate museum in Broc and the Chillon Castle in Montreux. In recent decades, more and more chocolate factories have opened their own museum with tasting facilities and courses in chocolate making. The biggest is the Lindt Home of Chocolate in Kilchberg, with its nine-metre-high chocolate fountain.
Unique to Switzerland is the Ballenberg Open-Air Museum in the village of Brienz, which features traditional farmhouses and rural dwellings moved there from all parts of the country. Visitors can explore the buildings and take part in handicraft demonstrations to get a taste of what life was like for people in times gone by.
The world's largest watchmaking museum, the Musée international d'horlogerie in La Chaux-de-Fonds, explains the history of timekeeping from the sundial to the atomic clock and exhibits famous brands from different eras.
The Swiss National Museum is made up of 3 museums: the National Museum in Zurich, the Castle of Prangins (Canton Vaud) and the Forum of Swiss History in Schwyz. These institutions conserve objects of the past from all eras and regions of the country.
Each of Switzerland's linguistic regions has a unique and vibrant dramatic arts tradition influenced by the neighbouring country with which it shares a language. Switzerland is home to several major world-class theatres. Their renown is due in no small part to the work of dramatists Friedrich Dürrenmatt and Max Frisch. In addition to the established municipal theatres, there is a large independent scene and many folk and amateur theatres, which all contribute to Switzerland's highly diverse dramatic arts scene.
The main theatres in German-speaking Switzerland are the Schauspielhaus Zürich, Zurich Opera House, Theater Basel, Stadttheater Bern, Luzerner Theater, Theater St Gallen and Theater Winterthur. French-speaking Switzerland is home to the Grand Théâtre, La Comédie and the Théâtre de Carouge (Geneva area) and the Théatre de Vidy (Lausanne). In Ticino, the clown Dimitri runs his own theatre and drama school in Verscio. There is also an array of summer theatre festivals, including the Theaterspektakel in Zurich, Belluard Bollwerk International in Fribourg and La Bâtie in Geneva. The Schweizer Theatertreffen/Rencontre du Théâtre Suisse takes place annually. It comprises seven productions in different locations and a supporting programme which serves as a meeting opportunity for Switzerland's performing arts community.
Mummenschanz achieved international fame with their unique mime and dance show, which ran on Broadway for three years.
Christoph Marthaler, winner of the prestigious international Ibsen Prize and the Hans Reinhart Ring 2011, is currently one of the most influential theatre directors worldwide. Others include Robert Bouvier, Barbara Frey, Omar Porras, Milo Rau, Jossi Wieler and Daniele Finzi Pasca.
Since 2021, the Federal Office of Culture has presented the Swiss Theatre Awards annually at a joint event dedicated to the performing arts.
Every year, the towns of Altdorf and Interlaken stage certain 19th century works, such as the 'Tellspiele' (William Tell plays). Einsiedeln hosts performances of the 'Great World Theatre' by Spanish dramatist Calderón de la Barca every five years. The Théâtre du Jorat in Mézières (canton of Vaud) has been performing its popular theatre repertoire since 1908.