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October 21, 2017

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Fresh Basel

Switzerland's mecca for modern art proves there's more to the country than bankers and watches

Basel is always open for business. Tucked into the northwest corner of Switzerland, right at the point where that country meets France and Germany, it is an industrious spot even by Swiss standards. That’s due in no small part to the fact that pharmaceutical giants Hoffmann-La Roche and Novartis are headquartered here. Yet Basel’s exuberantly artsy side is just as pronounced. Indeed, the avant-garde undercurrent running through this city is as strong and deep as the Rhine that literally bisects it.

On both banks of the river — cosmopolitan Grossbasel (the older administrative core) and more bohemian Kleinbasel (Small Basel) — it's especially evident each June when 65,000 artists, dealers, deep-pocketed oligarchs and the international see-and-be-seen set flock in for Art Basel (artbasel.com): the planet’s premier modern and contemporary art fair. Launched in 1970, the so-called “Olympics of the Art World” and Liste (tel: 011-41-61-692-202; liste.ch), the concurrent offshoot for younger artists, are merely two examples of the local commitment to modern art: the quantity and quality of which is, perhaps, unprecedented in a city with fewer than 200,000 residents.

Something old, something new

Oddly enough, the best place to pick up the modern art trail is at the highly esteemed — and, at first glance, seemingly conservative — Kunstmuseum (tel: 011-41-61-206-6262; kunstmuseumbasel.ch). Back in 1661, when art was generally reserved for patrician eyes only, the pioneering burghers of Basel decided to use civic funds to buy a private collection that all classes could enjoy: in the process, creating Europe’s first public art museum. Before long, the Kunstmuseum had acquired an encyclopaedic array of 15th- to 17th-century works from the Upper Rhine and Flemish regions. Rubens, Rembrandt, Brueghel and the Holbeins are a few of the big guns represented.

But while many communities would have felt justifiably smug about that accomplishment, the people of Basel — unwilling to rest on Renaissance laurels — chose to dip into the public coffers once more three centuries later. In a 1967 referendum, citizens overwhelmingly agreed to put tax dollars toward the purchase of a coveted pair of Picassos.

Impressed by their priorities, the notoriously impulsive painter donated another four to the Kunstmuseum outright, and those today form the core of an outstanding assemblage of 19th- and 20th-century art. Twenty-six Picassos, 29 Giacomettis, more than a dozen Chagalls… it's an impressive paint-by-numbers.

If new masters are more your taste, the Kunstmuseum added recent cred by opening the affiliated Museum für Gegenwartskunst (aka the Museum of Contemporary Art) in 1980. Located about a 10 minute-walk away, it broke new ground as the world’s first museum dedicated solely to art from the 1960s onward.

Design deities

Bordering Germany’s Black Forest and the French Alsace, Basel blends the Old World charm of both. For proof, witness Spalentor (the crenellated city gate), the ornate Rathaus (city hall), the Gothic cathedral or any of its impossibly pretty half-timbered homes.

But some of the region's most memorable buildings are only a decade or two old. The most remarkable are concentrated at the Vitra campus (tel: 011-49-7621-702-3200; vitrahaus.com) in suburban Weil am Rhein, about seven kilometres from town in neighbouring Germany.

Established in 1950, the Vitra company worked closely with fabled American furniture designers Charles and Ray Eames, eventually gaining production rights to their estate. As other licensing deals followed, Vitra became the name in mid-century decor. Nevertheless, its corporate campus isn’t simply a place to take a seat.

Vitra has developed a veritable theme park for architecture fans, one showcasing a Who’s Who of Pritzker Prize winners. On twice-daily tours, you’ll see Tadao Ando’s soothing conference centrer, Zaha Hadid’s aggressively-angular fire station, factories by Álvaro Siza and SANAA, plus structures by Buckminster Fuller and Jean Prouvé.

Frank Gehry contributed, too. His curvaceous museum exhibits pieces from Vitra’s vast furniture holdings (think iconic pieces from Eames, the Dutch Gerritt Rietveld, American Robert Venturi, French designer Philippe Starck as well as Le Corbusier, the iconic modernist architect who was born nearby in 1887.

The jaw dropper, though, is a 2010 showroom by Basel-based Herzog & de Meuron where visitors are encouraged to sit, lounge, lie and buy. Unlike the convoluted “Bird's Nest” stadium they erected for the Beijing Olympics, this one is all about clean lines. Riffing off the steep-roofed homes so common here, the duo constructed 12 glass-front ones; then stacked them willy-nilly so that they cantilever out as much as 15 metres.

Double features

If you’re hankering to see modern art and architecture in a single stop, Basel delivers thanks to the Jean Tinguely Museum (tel: 011- 41-61-681-9320; tinguely.ch), a Rhine-front venue designed by Switzerland’s own Mario Botta, and the Fondation Beyeler (tel: 011-61-41-645-9700; www.fondationbeyeler.ch), a glassy pavilion by Renzo Piano.

The former was funded by Hoffmann-La Roche in 1996 to mark the centennial of the company’s founding and the fifth anniversary of Tinguely’s death. But despite the corporate sponsorship there is nothing staid about this spot. Inside are 70-odd examples of Tinguely’s sometimes magical, sometimes macabre mechanical sculptures.

These are essentially animated amalgamations of iron, irony and just plain junk. The disturbing Mengele-Totentanz, for one, combines animal skulls with home appliances and burnt-out farm equipment. Pit Stop, conversely, resembles a Formula 1 racer which, having exploded in slow motion, has its bits and pieces suspended in mid-air.

Dealer par excellence Ernst Beyeler was clearly obsessive as well given that he managed to transform a small antiquarian print shop here into the go-to gallery for innovative art. Beyeler could be called the Forrest Gump of his field since he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time — and he made the most of fortuitous circumstances, snapping up bargain-priced works before the artists who created them became household names. Over the course of 50 years Beyeler amassed a private collection of 200-some pieces; and, in another case of Swiss civic mindedness, not only deeded this to the public. He opened a museum to accommodate it in 1997.

Situated in Riehen, 25 minutes from Basel via public transit, Fondation Beyeler traces his take on the evolution of art from Cézanne to Francis Bacon. Considering what is included (catalogued under “M” alone are paintings by Monet, Mondrian, Matisse and Miró), the cumulative effect is dazzling. Moreover, Renzo Piano’s airy, open structure shows them at full advantage by maximizing the natural light and introducing harmonious views of the park beyond. Take Monet’s Le Bassin aux Nymphéas: the massive Water Lilies triptych is visually reinforced by an actual pond seen behind it through a glass wall.

When food is art

In Basel, vacationers can virtually eat, drink and sleep art. For starters, the Tinguely Museum and Fondation Beyeler each boast charming eateries. At the former, Chez Jeannot is a bright bistro decorated with Tinguely’s colour-charged paintings. And at the latter, Restaurant Berower Park serves Mediterranean fare in an 18th-century villa adjacent to the museum or on a terrace overlooking sculptures by Alexander Calder and Ellsworth Kelly. The Kunstmuseum operates its own suitably stylish dining room, complete with sigh-worthy courtyard seating.

The Kunsthalle art gallery (tel: 011-61-41-206-9900; www.kunsthallebasel.ch) offers two arty alternatives: Restaurant Kunsthalle (tel: 011-41-61-272-4233; restaurant-kunsthalle.ch), notable for formal continental cuisine, and Fondue Stübli (tel: 011-41-61-272-4233; fondue-stube.ch), where you can dine al fresco on Swiss favourites. Both are worth a try — especially since the building will likely already be on your itinerary: it has hosted ground-breaking exhibits since 1872. Both Paul Klee and Picasso had solo shows there early in their careers. The art gallery also shares premises with the Swiss Architecture Museum (tel: 011-41-61-261-1413; sam-basel.org).

For a big night out, book ahead — way ahead if you’re coming during Art Basel — at Chez Donati (tel: 011-41-61-322-0919; www.lestroisrois.com). Traditional Italian dishes, Rhine views, and a gallery-esque decor make it the top pick for art world luminaries.

Afterward, you can follow their lead by bedding down at Hotel Teufelhof (tel: 011-41-61-261-1010; teufelhof.com; doubles from €175), a self-described “cultural guest house” occupying two heritage homes in Grossbasel. Its nine rooms are individually-designed by established artists and the remaining 24 double as temporary gallery space, usually for up-and-coming locals — a fitting place to end a tour of the arty Swiss city.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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