VIPs in Basel take a summer holiday

While art lovers have been flocking to Basel this year to view the treasures of van Gogh and Giacometti, another art show in the Swiss city has also been a magnet.

This content was published on September 2, 2009 minutes

The Schaulager, a mixture of public museum, art storage facility and research institute, has been playing host to more than 200 Very Important Paintings that had to make way for the van Gogh exhibition at the Kunstmuseum.

Part of the problem for the Kunstmuseum was the threat that the works in the Basel collection and the loans of major van Gogh works would increase the insurance value to an unacceptable level.

The Schaulager proposed that a temporary home be found for the items that needed to be put in storage, but on condition that they be put on public display.

Schaulager director Theodora Vischer knew exactly what she was looking for. "She used to be head of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Basel, so she is very familiar with the collection," Stephan Graus, head of communications, told

"She knew more or less what she wanted to show and she chose pictures that could be put together in a different way than they are normally... she also wanted to show pictures which hadn't been on display for a long time for various reasons."

Beautiful, attractive, mysterious

Vischer says each painting was chosen for its own sake: hand-selected and considered particularly beautiful, attractive or mysterious.

One of the most striking features of the exhibition, called Holbein to Tillmans, is a huge wall that seems full of paintings both old and new that come together in a different light.

Each painting stands out for its own qualities, but look up, down, to the left or to the right and you see partners or groups. It is a novel and entertaining way of seeing the works out of their normal context and with today's eyes.

"That wall surprised us as well because nobody thought it would have such an impact – not only for us but also for the visitors," Graus explained.

"They keep telling us that it's fantastic, a striking idea and overwhelming. Of course, it looks rather simple, but believe me there was much thought behind it – which pictures should be put together."

Essay of pictures

In the inside spaces of the museum, the larger part of the works has been installed in a coherent fashion, but you shouldn't look for the model of a classic museum hanging which follows historical ages or artists. It's more an essay in pictures.

Works from entirely different eras or contexts may appear inexplicably related. For example, this happens in the juxtaposition of Jeff Wall's "Citizen" with Edgar Degas's "Jockey blessé", or of a 17-century still life by Sebastian Stoskopff with a Cubist still life from 1908 by Picasso.

Graus has no doubts that the pictures in the show behave differently, just like people do when they are on a summer holiday.

"They are completely different. They are in a different atmosphere. They breathe differently. They communicate differently with you, so really it's a unique situation and yes, it's a kind of recreation for both the works and the visitor."


Asked whether the Schaulager exhibition was a poor relation of the van Gogh and Giacometti shows in the city, Graus smiled, shook his head and gave a clear "no".

"The other two exhibitions are about one artist or a family, whereas ours assembles pictures from five centuries and gives you an overview of art since the 16th century... we are self-confident enough to say that it's not a 'poor cousin' but we are on an equal level."

When the exhibition draws to a close at the beginning of October, the pictures will end their summer holiday and return home to the Kunstmuseum, to private collectors who loaned their works and to the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation, which is closely associated with the Kunstmuseum.

"I don't think there will ever again be a chance to see them assembled as they are now," Graus said. "Unfortunately by October 4 everything will be over."

Robert Brookes in Basel,

Key facts

The Schaulager exhibition, Holbein to Tillmans, shows about 250 works by 120 artists. They date from the 15th century to the present and focus on the 20th century.As the museum puts it: the concept is based on consciously choosing to look at selected paintings – no matter whether they are old or new – with today's eyes.
Some of the "guests" are displayed in a state of "unpolished raw material", merely roughly sorted.
"Spread out on a monumental wall, these paintings hang beside, beneath, and above one another – as an enticing treasure for the imagination."

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Allegory of Folly

The exhibition starts with a light box called Allegory of Folly by Canadian artist Rodney Graham. Sitting on a mechanical horse once used to train jockeys is a man, the artist himself, dressed in old fashioned clothing: a coat with fur trim.

He is engrossed in reading a thick book. The image recalls a portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger in the Basel collection that depicts Erasmus of Rotterdam as a half-length figure in profile.

The Schaulager organisers describe this as a "wonderful prelude" to a story and to the exhibition.

"The juxtaposition of a work from the 16th century and a large-format black-and-white photograph from 2005 can exemplify the fact that old does not necessarily mean past and that an old painting can suddenly again reveal its topicality when seen with contemporary eyes."

It makes you smile to realise that the artist is sitting backwards on the horse and reading not a clever treatise but the phone book of Vancouver, the city in which he lives.

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