From medieval masters to ‘metamatics’, Basel’s art museums cater to all tastes.
Tucked into the ‘three countries triangle’, where France, Germany and Switzerland interlock, Basel is known throughout the art world for hosting Art Basel, the leading global event connecting galleries, collectors and artists which also lends its name to fairs in Miami, Hong Kong and Paris. It’s part of a thriving cultural scene in a city which boasts the greatest density of museums in Switzerland, about 40 in all.
Architecturally, a blend of old and new ranges from the richly decorated, red sandstone town hall and the late Romanesque-Gothic cathedral to the most buildings in Switzerland by modern “starchitects” such as Frank Gehry, Renzo Piano and local heroes Herzog & de Meuron.
The city’s art museums appeal to a wide range of tastes and include works by medieval to modern masters held in the oldest public art collection in the world (and the largest and most important in Switzerland) to a world famous private collection shown in its sleek, custom-designed museum (and Switzerland’s most visited).
The Kunstmuseum Basel (Kunst is German for art) has the largest and most important collection in Switzerland (and the oldest public art collection in the world), with around 4,000 paintings, sculptures, installations and video works as well as 300,000 drawings and prints spanning 800 years from the late Middle Ages to the present day – a journey through the history of art.
The collection is spread over three buildings: the modernist, 1930s Hauptbau (Main Building), the 2016 Neubau (New Building) across the street and dedicated to special exhibitions – the two are connected by an underground gallery – and the Kunstmuseum der Gegenwart (Contemporary Art Museum) in the picturesque St Alban quarter.
Visitors to the Main Building are greeted by Rodin’s ‘The Burghers of Calais’ in the courtyard, which is illuminated at night by Dan Flavin’s installation ‘Untitled. In Memory of Urs Graf’, dedicated to the Swiss Renaissance artist. In the foyer three stained glass windows depicting painting, sculpture and the University and the Museum bathe the space in pastel light.
The museum’s two ‘patron saints’ are particularly well represented. The largest group of works by the Holbein family includes Hans the Younger’s ‘The Last Supper and The Dead Christ in the Tomb’, a horizontal, life-size – and life-like – side view of the crucified Jesus. Both can be found in a large Middle Ages and Renaissance section.
The Kunstmuseum also has the world’s most important collection of work – over 90 paintings and sculptures – by Basel-born Arnold Böcklin, one of the key exponents of Symbolism and an influence on Surrealists like Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst and Salvador Dali.
Otherwise the many highlights include a beautiful Dutch/Flemish collection (Teniers, Rubens, Rembrandt, Brouwer et al), a roomful of Ferdinand Hodlers, a wonderful series of panoramic Alpine landscapes, Lucas Cranach’s ‘The Judgement of Paris’, Pieter Bruegel the Younger’s ‘The Triumph of Death’ (with his father’s eye for gruesome detail) and leading lights of the 19th and 20th centuries such as (deep breath) Degas, Corot, Cezanne, Picasso, Braque, Delacroix, Matisse, Rousseau, Dufy, Gris, Kokoschka, Miro, Ernst, Calder, Dali, Renoir, Mondrian, Klee, van Gogh, Gauguin and Chagall.
The Museum for Contemporary Art has a pretty riverside location in the picturesque St Alban quarter amid timber-framed houses on the site of a medieval paper mill, with the mill stream still rushing by. Opened in 1980 as the first public museum in Europe exclusively dedicated to contemporary art from the 1960s to the present, its collection includes works by Joseph Beuys, Bruce Nauman and Jeff Wall. There is an ongoing series of special exhibitions.
Reached by tram in the quiet suburb of Riehen, Fondation Beyeler is Switzerland’s most visited art museum. Designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano (Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the Shard in London, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, etc.), it seems embedded in the landscaped Berower Park, its floor to ceiling windows bringing the outside in.
The museum houses the private collection of the late Swiss art dealer and collector Ernst Beyeler (an originator of Art Basel in 1970) and his wife Hilda, which spans the Impressionist, classic modern and contemporary eras. Rooms are devoted to artists such as Miro, Matisse, Rothko, Picasso (some two dozen works), Monet, Cezanne, Giacometti, Warhol, Bourgeois, Van Gogh, Lichtenstein, Bacon and Tillmans.
There are also some 25 objects of tribal art from Africa, Oceania and Alaska and several rooms dedicated to special exhibitions (Mondrian, Wayne Thiebaud, Jean-Michel Basquiat, etc.) to complement the permanent collection. A nice touch: You can relax with an art magazine in a long, sun-filled lounge area with views of the surrounding fields, vineyards and hills.
Standing on the banks of the River Rhine, the Tinguely Museum is dedicated to the work of the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely, best known for his kinetic sculptural machines (known officially as metamatics) which satirised the industrialised and mechanised world (“We live in a wheel civilisation”, said Tinguely) and the overproduction of material goods.
Reached from the city centre along a pleasant riverside path, the museum has a sleek design by the Swiss architect Mario Botta (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul, etc.), with curved, glass-walled corridors offering sweeping views over the river to the Old Town.
The collection is based on a donation of 52 sculptures by the French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle (one of her curvaceous, multi-coloured, resin sculptures stands in the grounds), from early filigree works to monumental machine sculptures of the 1980s, making it the world’s largest collection of Tinguely’s works. (De St Phalle and Tinguely collaborated on the Stravinsky Fountain in front of the Pompidou Centre in Paris.)
Visitors are encouraged to interact with the works by using foot switches to set them in motion. A ‘traffic light’ system indicates whether a work is on pause (to reduce the running time and mechanical stress) or is ready to be activated. The larger contraptions are playfully festooned with found objects and toys such as a carousel horse, a drumming garden gnome and a wooden Pinocchio.
The works initially met mostly with incomprehension and were variously described by critics as ‘motorised heaps of rubbish’, ‘bicycle graveyards’ and ‘scrap sculptures’, but by the time of his death in 1991 at only 66, Tinguely’s ‘art fonctionnel’ had made him one of the most popular Swiss artists of the 20th century.
Some of his sculptural machines can also be seen in the Tinguely Fountain, where the old city theatre once stood. Here ten iron figures appear to be playing in the water. In constant motion, they are like the mime artists, actors and dancers who once performed there.
Next to the Tinguely Fountain in the city centre, the Kunsthalle was founded in 1872, making it Switzerland’s oldest and still most active institution dedicated to contemporary art. Particularly recognised for its support of emerging artists, it stages up to ten exhibitions a year. The ground floor of the building, formerly an artist’s clubhouse, is now the Kunsthalle Basel Restaurant, its walls adorned with classical murals.
Just off the city centre, the Skulpturhalle has one of the largest collections of plaster casts of ancient sculpture, including the complete and one of a kind reconstruction of the sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens. Bonus: Free entry.