By Phillip Worth (FPS President)

London, Paris, St. Petersburg, New York….these are just some of the major centres which host, in their prestigious galleries and museums, both outstanding permanent collections of art and important temporary exhibitions, while the media and in-house publications (e.g. Royal Academy Magazine) maximise their public profile. In this context the city of Basle in Switzerland seems to have slipped through the publicity net, which is surprising as it is home to one of the world’s most impressive private collections – the Beyeler Collection. Ernst Beyeler, born 1921 and still active at age 87, was, throughout his working life, an art dealer with an unerring and prescient eye for quality art. His shrewd buying and selling enabled him to become a multi-millionaire but also, more importantly from the public’s point of view, his love of art for its own sake led to a collection of modern masterpieces which, from the 1980s onwards, was shown in Madrid, Berlin and other leading venues. The Beyeler Foundation was soon formed and in 1994 the construction of the Gallery Beyeler in Basle was begun and triumphantly opened in 1997. The gallery was an immediate success, attracting visitors in far greater numbers than even the most optimistic forecast might have anticipated. Three elements in this success story can be identified:

1. The building. This was designed by Renzo Piano, the architect responsible for the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Piano knew and admired the collection, and his resolve was to create a gallery which displayed it to the best advantage. One feels that so often galleries both old and new have been designed to be the prime exhibit of any collections they house, and to show off their architects as the leading artists. With Piano his structure would be there to serve and enhance the Beyeler collection, and not vice versa. Typical of the architect’s vision is the allocation of an entire room to one work – Monet’s huge tryptich Le Bassin aux Nympheas which occupies a whole wall, while through the vast window space adjacent to the Tryptich one sees an ornamental fountain designed to harmonize with the Monet.

2. The collection itself, including works by the following masters: Cezanne, Degas,Van Gogh, Monet, Seurat, Braque, Picasso, Rousseau, Rodin, Calder, Leger, Miro, Giacometti, Brancusi, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Ernst, Klee, Derain, Matisse, Francis, Kelly, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, Stella, Warhol, Bacon, Rothko, Newman, Pollock, Tobey, Dubuffet, Baselitz, Chillida, Kiefer, Tapies, and, in addition, items of African, Oceanian and Alaskan art placed to show their influence on Western modernism.

3. The hanging, by curator Marcus Bruderlin in close consultation with Beyeler himself. Space is the main feature of the gallery both between the exhibits and in respect of floorspace in all the rooms. One can breathe artistically – and even physically which is not always the case with the dear old RA during important exhibitions! The hanging is not strictly chronological but has an internal logic which presents a coherent view of the way in which modern art has developed to the present day.

The city of Basle is in itself an attraction. Steeped in history it is a fascinating mix of winding side streets lined with ancient buildings, beautifully restored for the most part, spacious squares and boulevards, and a bustling life yet, somehow, with the space to enjoy it. Cars are scarce in the city centre where transport is dominated by fast moving trams of endless length ( a number 6 will speed you to Reihen Dorf where the Beyeler Collection is located). Basle has more museums and galleries per head of population than most other cities of comparable size and, on top of all this, a rich musical life – but certainly a ‘must’ for art lovers!


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