From Witz to Holbein to Picasso: The Basel Museum of Art

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Basel Art Museum, Basel Kunstmuseum, Basel, Switzerland

I had been looking forward to visiting Basel’s Art Museum ever since I first read about it in a guide book.  Apart from the fact that it has a formidable group of works by the city’s son, Holbein the Younger, the museum also supposedly has one of the largest and best collections in Switzerland, so I was all set for a fun few hours.

The origins of the museum are in a collection purchased by the city of Basel in 1661, making it the oldest municipal ‘museum’ in Switzerland.  It was the Amerbach Cabinet, named after the Amerbach family of printers who had originally created the collection of books, paintings, coins and natural and gold objects.  Interestingly, the collection was going to be sold off in Amsterdam, but Basel’s mayor, Johann Rudolf Wettstein, urged the city and university to jointly purchase the collection and keep it in the city.  In 1671 it was housed in the Haus zur Mücke just off Cathedral Square, at which stage it was basically a library for scholars with a couple of rooms with objects in them.  At the end of the 18th century, the collection could be viewed on Thursdays, between two and four – or with prior arrangement.

The current Kunstmuseum’s main building was designed by Paul Bonatz und Rudolf Christ and opened in 1936.  This is called the Hauptbau and it holds all of their ‘old’ pictures.  There is another building – an extension that can be reached underground via the Hauptbau – on the other side of the road which is called the Neubau, which mainly holds exhibitions.  Then, there is the Gegenwart – the contemporary art museum, which is down the road.

Around the Museum

Detail of At Urnersee, 1849, Alexandre Calame, Kunstmuseum, Basel, Switzerland

Having taken this picture, I was then told by a guard that my camera wasn’t allowed.  I looked at him – I said, ‘But we are allowed to take photographs’ and he said not with a ‘reflex’ camera, and that it was because of good quality pictures being sold on the internet or some such weirdness.  What?  Really?  I wanted to point to the girl a little way along from me who had a compact camera and was holding it really close to the painting.  I would have thought that was more of a problem than me standing way back and being as respectful to the other visitors and the painting as possible.

But what really annoyed me was the fact that there were no signs anywhere saying you couldn’t use my kind of camera.  I had seen that the museum encourages you to share through social media and so photos are clearly allowed.  I checked again at the museum.  Yes, fine.  But then when I had a look again at their website, under the Do’s and Don’ts for Visitors (and between stupidly obvious things like, ‘don’t touch the paintings’ and ‘you may all be evacuated from the building’) I subsequently discovered this:

Photography for personal use is permitted with mobile phones and compact cameras. Use of a flash, tripod, or selfie stick is prohibited. Exceptions are posted where applicable. Professional photography and video recording requires prior permission from the management.

So basically, anyone who has an SLR camera, even an entry-level one like mine, is unable to take pictures.  Like a £300 camera is the same as a £2000 one!  But I will say no more.

Luckily I had my iPhone.

But this was me going round the rest of the museum:

Portrait of a Man, 1470, South German Master, Kunstmuseum, Basel, Switzerland

Konrad Witz

The remarkable collection of paintings by Konrad Witz made for interesting viewing.  He was born in Germany (probably Rottweil) but worked in Basel, where he died in 1445/6.  He is particularly famous for his 1444 panel, The Miraculous Draft of Fishes (part of a lost altarpiece – now in the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Geneva) in which there is a view of a lake and mountains – very clearly Lake Geneva and the surrounding landscape of Saleve and the Alps.  He is therefore credited with creating the first faithful portrayal of a landscape in European art.   

But, no less importantly, he has a fine line in painting cute/ugly people, beautiful fabrics and interesting compositions, all in fabulous colours.

The Holbeins

Hans Holbein the Younger is an artist that the English become familiar with at an early age thanks to his connection with a popular period of primary school teaching.  His portraits of Henry VIII, Jane Seymour and Anne of Cleves are easily recognised (well, by those who actually liked learning about them) and England is lucky to have a number of Holbein’s paintings in the country still.

And his portraits are extraordinary and deserve to be reproduced ad infinitum and for any excuse.  I was very pleased to find that there were a few portraits at the Kunstmuseum – particularly cool because they show local Basel residents.

Hans Holbein was actually born in Augsburg in Germany, but moved to Basel when he was young.  His father, Hans Holbein the Elder, was a successful artist who went to Basel with his sons, Ambrosius and Hans.  The boys were apprenticed to Hans Herbster (portrait below) and they designed woodcuts and metalcuts for printers.  But, they also painted some fine portraits, as demonstrated by the selection below.

German and Flemish Art

There’s a nice selection of art from the Low Countries and Germany, including a Memling and two beautiful, jewel-like little Davids.

Late 19th/early 20th century European

Fans of this period of art will doubtless enjoy the work on display.  For me it was of limited interest, but a few pictures appealed to me.

Pablo Picasso

The Kunstmuseum has a very strong link with Picasso – something they are very proud of.  Basically the museum had two Picassos on display which were on loan.  The owner, Peter G. Staechelin, was the main shareholder of Globe Air, one of whose planes crashed while trying to land in Cyprus.  The company became bankrupt, and Staechelin had to sell his family treasures: he had to sell the paintings which were on display in the Kunstmuseum of his home town.

A van Gogh was sold.  Two Picassos were next: ‘Two brothers’ from 1905, and ‘Sitting Harlequin’ from 1923.  The Kunstmuseum’s board panicked.  They met with the Staechlin Foundation and the cantonal government with the result that the paintings were offered to the city for the price of CHF 8.4 million.  The government was happy to pay CHF 6 million (it was approved by the cantonal parliament, with only four votes against), but the remaining sum had to come from private donors.

A campaign began to raise the missing amount – and luckily locals were caught up in the spirit of the event.  Well, all except for one Alfred Lauper, who had lost a lot of money through the bankruptcy of Globe Air.  He initiated a petition again the parliament’s decision, and was able to force the outcome being decided in a referendum.

Opinions were divided.  The local newspaper was filled with letters from locals which advocated equally for and against.  Slogans such as “I like Pablo” and “All you need is Pablo” were emblazoned across the city, and even Basel’s neighbours got caught up in the frenzy and offered donations.  Then local pharmaceutical industries and wealthy Basel citizens also made large donations, and in the end they raised enough money: CHF 100,000 more than they needed, in fact.

But until the referendum, nothing was definite.  On 17th December 1967, Basel’s citizens  approved the parliament’s decision.  The turn-out was only 39%; 32,118 for yes, and 27,190 for no.

Basel had its Picassos.

In the meantime Picasso was not unaware of what was happening.  He was moved by the movement that had swept the city and invited the director of the Kunstmuseum, Franz Meyer, to choose a painting as a present to the city.  Meyer went to Picasso’s home in Mougins, where the director proceeded to deliberate between two paintings: two paintings that somehow belonged together…. hmm, what to do?  What to do?  Picasso’s wife Jacqueline waded in and agreed that they belonged together, so that is how both ‘The Couple’ and ‘Venus and Cupid’ arrived in Basel.

Wait, there was more!  Picasso also donated ‘Man, Woman and Child’, and a sketch for ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’.

Honestly, it’s not surprising that the Kunstmuseum is still basking in the glory of this exceptional set of events.  When I visited, there was a rather dry exhibition on about the subject, and all the Picassos were put together in a set of rooms, along with some other, more recent works.

It is a truly amazing story – I’m surprised there has been no film about it (or maybe there has).  The triumph of culture and the preservation of art for the future, against a backdrop of logical calls for the money to go towards more ‘sensible’ municipal spending, is one that should be remembered and celebrated.

So In Summary

There are some very interesting paintings in the Kunstmuseum, and it’s nice to have local boys, Witz and the Holbeins, predominantly on show.  The museum itself is cold and has the haughty feel of an institution that is very well aware of its own importance.  I think this has something to do with the 1930s design, but I also think it probably reflects the curators’ self-perception.  For art lovers, the museum is a must – but I think it’s rather expensive to enter for those with just an idle interest.

Further Information

There is a fee to enter the Kunstmuseum, and you can choose to get entry into all three museums (the Hauptbau, the Neubau and the Gegenwart) or only the one you’re interested in.

The museum has a website, available in English:  It’s predictably slick, but unusually detailed and gives easy-to-find access to a database of their collections.

Just a warning, the coffee in the little cafe at the side of the museum was extremely over-priced and the service was unfriendly.  However, it’s obvious that it’s a cool hang out spot, so you get what you pay for, I guess.  I didn’t, but I’m not keen on spending the equivalent of about £5 for a not so great cappuccino.

How To Get There

Basel is quite a walkable city, but they also have great public transport – you can find out about how to get to the museum via this site (in English):



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