June 19, 2011

Having a Ball in Basel

For a relatively small city, Basel boasts a world class compliment of cultural institutions including over 40 museums, the Basel Theater staging plays, opera and the ballet, 25 smaller theaters, countless musical stages, 40 cinemas plus the internationally renowned art event of the season - Art Basel. This year Art Basel 42 opened to the public on June 15 and organizers were expecting over 60,000 visitors to pass through the Messe in this annual Modern and Contemporary art extravaganza.

Some of these visitors come only to see the art fair, but many, including myself, stay in town for a few days to enjoy the rest of what the city has to offer. As usual the local museums pulled out all the stops and we were treated to a plethora of wonderful exhibitions and I'd like to share some of my favorites with you.

Let's start at the Kunstmuseum, the world's first public municipal museum and home to an amazing permanent collection of works by Hans Holbein as well as masters of 19th and 20th Century art. This year they have drawn heavily on their own holdings to present "Konrad Witz" a 15th Century graphic artist, muralist and glass painter who was considered one of the most radical innovators of his time. From 1434 until he died in 1447, Witz lived and worked in Basel and it was here that he created some of his most famous altarpieces and panels. Drawing heavily on the techniques of his Netherlandish contemporaries, Witz pursued his own studies of light, shadow and reflections that gave his pieces a unique, almost other-worldly appearance. His portraits stare with mystical, almost surreal, expressions on their faces - a bold and cutting edge approach at the time. But what struck me the most about his paintings was the velvet. You could almost feel the soft pile of the luxurious velvet robes worn by the Madonnas, the angels and the Saints he depicted, beautiful to behold and a technological marvel at the time.

Moving downstairs to the museum's Prints and Drawings Department I popped in to a special exhibition entitled "From Daumier to Degas: French Nineteenth Century Prints". Of course, this is a favorite area of mine and I loved the examples of etchings by Degas, Manet and Pissarro, lithographs by Redon, Vuillard and Toulouse-Lautrec.

Now it's time to hop on the Number 6 tram for a short ride out to Riehen and the fabulous Fondation Beyeler - a must-see on any art tour of Basel. This summer's special exhibition explores the Ĺ“uvres of two 20th Century sculptors, Romanian born Constantine Brancusi (1876-1957) and American Richard Serra (b. 1939). Now, I know and like the work of both of these artists, but they work in extremely different, and in my opinion not exactly complementary, styles. Brancusi's sensuous and elegant "Birds in Flight", "The Kiss" and "Sleeping Muse" are a sharp contrast to the massive and brutal "Strike", "House of Cards" and "The Consequence of Consequence". The curators' desire to demonstrate similarities and differences might have been better served with two separate exhibitions but they are to be commended on assembling so many superb examples of each of these important artists' works.

Finally we are going to head back into the city and visit the Museum Tinguely, a private foundation dedicated to the "Metamechanical" or "Kinetic" works of Swiss artist Jean Tinguely. Situated on the banks of the Rhine and opened in 1996, this stunning museum is filled with Tinguely's fantastical moving sculptures, built entirely of found objects, that whirr and ding and squirt and spin in a mad, magical and mesmerizing dance.

Jean Tinguely (1925-1991) was also an auto racing fanatic and it is this side of him to which the museum pays homage in its special exhibition "Car Fetish: I drive, therefore I am". Comprising 160 artworks including videos, paintings, photography and installation pieces, the show explores the enormous influence the automobile has had on 20th Century art. Set up as a driving circuit, the exhibition features works by many diverse artists including Giacomo Balla, Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, Mel Ramos and Richard Prince.

Far from just a means of transportation, our cars often reflect our cultures, our personalities and our desires as they become our moving living rooms through life. This look at the "art history of automotive inspiration" is a very revealing study of just how much we, as a society, invest our identities in what we drive.

A very fun touch to this exhibition is the drive-in cinema installed on the museum lawn. About 30 old cars are set up in a semi-circle around a large screen and one can call to reserve a car for the evening's movie. I only wish I'd had time to enjoy the Swiss version of an American institution!

It has been a great few days in Basel but now it's time to go home to New York. I hope you'll check back as I explore this summer's offerings and share them on my blog. See you soon!

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