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July 2016

Vol. 158 / No. 1360

Kunstmuseum Basel, New Building


EXTENSIONS FOR PUBLIC or private art collections have become vehicles for architectural innovation in recent years. Yet in this crowded field the Kunstmuseum Basel, as it is now named, has created a new building which is of outstanding interest (Fig.I). Solid and angular, it seems from a distance to shimmer, owing to its subtle gradations of grey in its layers of water-washed bricks that alternately project and retract (Fig.III). These bricks are also shaped in a way that make it possible to conceal LED lighting, which can be computer programmed so as to create, out of light and shade, a message that floats across the façade. The current one reads ‘sculpture on the move’ – the title of the new extension’s opening exhibition – and it folds round the building in a repetitive band, exactly at the level where a classical frieze might be. Also noticeable is how the striations in the brickwork echo those in the main building across the road. And because both buildings are of much the same height they now present themselves as a pair. Lest one is left in any doubt about their relationship, the entrance of the new building is deliberately angled so that it looks towards the parent organisation. Thus, even before the visitor goes inside and discovers the underground passageway, lit by natural daylight at one end and broad enough to act both as gallery and connecting link, a sense of conversation and dependency is established. The new building is contemporary, yet blends in; it asserts a powerful physical presence while also demonstrating awareness of history.



Basel not only differentiates itself from the more mercantile Zürich with reference to its strong cultural and humanist tradition, but also possesses what is said to be the oldest civic art collection in Europe, the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung. This began in 1662, when the Bonifacius Amerbach Kabinett was in danger of being moved to Amsterdam. The municipality and university together stepped in and acquired it, and nine years later put it on public view. In 1849, the collection, which by then had increased significantly in size, received its own designated building, and from the late nineteenth century the Kunstmuseum enjoyed a close working relationship with the university’s art history department where Jacob Burckhardt held the first chair.


Today, largely because of the annual Art Basel, the city is reputed to be the world’s premier stage for modern and contemporary art. The first stirrings of this began in the inter-War years after the appointment of Otto Fischer as director of the Kunstmuseum in 1927. Having inherited a museum chiefly famous for its fifteenth- and sixteenth-century pictures from the Upper Rhine region, he acquired works by Munch, Nolde, Ensor, Klee and Ernst; and he added to the riches in the museum’s Kupferstich kabinett a major collection of Cézanne’s drawings which are thought to have filled the better part of five sketchbooks. Georg Schmidt, who took over from Fischer in 1939, further developed the modern holdings. He persuaded the municipality to allocate funds so that he could acquire at auction art being deaccessioned by German museums as ‘degenerate’. In this way the museum gained twenty works, including pictures by Marc, Kokoschka, Kirchner and Chagall. The far-sightedness of Schmidt and of his successor, Franz Meyer (director 1962–80), made up for the museum’s modest financial means, while generous private collectors, including Raoul La Roche, who owned a major Cubist collection, donated or loaned works of modern French art. By the 1960s, the Kunstmuseum could boast of having fine works by Konrad Witz, Holbein and Böcklin but also a comprehensive collection of modern and contemporary art.


A room was first dedicated to contemporary art when the Kunstmuseum’s main building on St Alban-Graben opened in 1936. Designed by Christ & Bonatz, in a classicist style, with a front arcade and two internal courtyards, the Museum’s most striking internal feature is its grand central staircase. Its polished marble surround is offset by rough-scraped plaster walls. Because the competition for its new adjunct building was won by Emanuel Christ and Christoph Gantenbein, it is not surprising that a number of features in the 1936 Kunstmuseum are echoed in the new, Emanuel being Rudolf Christ’s great-nephew and having grown up intensely aware of his great-uncle’s famous building. Thus the galleries in the new building have industrial parquet flooring which is a repetition on a larger scale of that used in the auditorium of the main building; and the sand-blasted concrete ribs in the top-floor ceilings of the new building recall the long wooden beams in Christ & Bonatz’s imitation Renaissance galleries. But the most powerful connection is made through the staircase (Fig.II). It is again a major architectural statement at the centre of the new building, dividing the galleries on each floor into two separate exhibition routes. Unlike its four-square predecessor, the surround to this staircase curves as it turns a corner, with sculptural effect, and is illuminated from above by a circular skylight. Its veined Bardiglio marble from Carrara is darker in tone than that used by Christ & Bonatz, but, as before, its polished surface is offset by rough-scraped plaster walls, here painted grey. The colour grey is made additionally dominant by the large sheets of galvinised steel which cover the walls of the foyer and those outside the lifts. Throughout there is a deliberate honesty in the use of materials. Conscious that ‘we live in a world that in so many other respects is drifting away from physical reality’, Christ & Bonatz were determined ‘to articulate a museum as a real place’.


Tall windows in the galleries offer views of the main building on one side and on the other look onto a row of traditional buildings on St Alban-Vorstadt, where a similar shape of window is also in use (Fig.V). The deference Christ & Gantenbein have shown towards the surroundings is most evident in the St Alban-Vorstadt façade, which is bent inwards at one point, so that its height and weight do not impinge too severely on the buildings opposite. A similar attentiveness has determined the articulation of every threshold leading into a new gallery, also the balance of proportions, which, in each room, create an almost classical sense of restraint. These are certainly spaces in which art is allowed to take centre stage; and nowhere is this more immediately felt than in galleries displaying post-War American art. With help from the Swiss National Insurance Company, the Kunstmuseum, along with Basel’s Kunsthalle, became two of the earliest European institutions to collect Abstract Expressionism, and the choice examples of American art currently on show are made additionally powerful by being shown in such a robust setting (Fig.IV).


Basel has strong backing for its commitment to modern and contemporary art from leading collectors and long-established benefactors. Of particular importance to the Kunstmuseum has been the Emmanuel Hoffmann Foundation, founded in 1933 by Maja Hoffman-Stehlin (later Sacher-Stehlin) who, in 1980, helped establish the Museum für Gegenwartskunst as the first museum in Europe dedicated solely to contemporary art. This is run by the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel, was comprehensively overhauled in 2005 and will continue, under its new name – Kunstmuseum Basel | Gegenwart – to act as a further outlet for the Kunstmuseum’s holdings in contemporary art. Equally significant was the decision of Maja Sacher-Stehlin’s granddaughter Maja Oeri to give the city the former Swiss National Bank building, on whose site the new building has risen. As President of the Laurenz Foundation, she has also ensured that half its construction costs have been borne privately.


This substantial building programme also involved the closure of the main building for two years. To celebrate its completion, the Kunstmuseum has mounted Sculpture on the move, 1946–2016 (to 18th September). This major exhibition, divided between the new building, the Kunstmuseum Basel | Gegenwart and the Kunsthalle, brings together landmark works in the history of sculpture over the last seventy years, as it shed conventional forms, descended from the plinth and moved into the ‘expanded field’, as identified by Rosalind Krauss. Beginning with Constantin Brancusi and ending with Oscar Tuazon, there are many familiar items en route, such as Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, and Gilbert & George’s The Singing Sculpture, as well as the humorous antics of Bruce Nauman and Roman Signer, and because of this the exhibition has the atmosphere of a genial but slightly tired family reunion. The striking idiosyncrasies of each artist’s work make for a largely atomistic experience, and left this viewer wishing, at times, for a stronger curatorial lead. Yet, overall, this is an exhilarating exhibition, demonstrating the far-reaching versatility of sculpture over this period and its astonishing fertility in its pursuit of ideas.