Museum offers rare display of nature drawings

Bat with outstretched wings by Holbein the Younger. Kupferstichkabinett Basel

A rare opportunity to view drawings and prints from Europe’s oldest public art collection is being offered by the Kunstmuseum in Basel.

This content was published on September 30, 2003 - 08:06

The drawings – all from before 1591 and grouped together under the title “After Nature” - were part of the permanent collection of the fine arts museum when it was founded in 1662.

They include works by Hans Holbein the Younger and Albrecht Dürer, showing how the study of nature and the investigation of reality played an essential role in the art of the 15th and 16th centuries north of the Alps.

“To take Dürer as an example,” curator Christian Müller told swissinfo, “the exhibition shows how he was later copied and how he influenced all artists who wanted to study nature. These nature studies also take a scientific approach to nature and to human beings.”

One of the best examples of this approach is Holbein’s depiction of a bat with outstretched wings.

“At first sight,” says Müller, “it looks like a nature study. But look closer and you find details which are not really possible in nature, so it shows how artists exercise a certain amount of artistic freedom.”

Dürer’s rhinoceros

Another good example is Dürer’s 1515 woodcut of a rhinoceros. The animal – whose appearance in Europe created a sensation – had been intended as a gift for the Pope. But it was stranded in Lisbon when the ship due to transport it to Rome sank.

Dürer went to the Portuguese capital and his subsequent woodcut shows the rhino in intricate detail.

The exhibition also includes landscapes and the representation of plants and people juxtaposed with pictures representing ideals and fantasies from the same period.

Most of the works on view were acquired by the city of Basel from the collection of a local lawyer, Basilius Amerbach, who died in 1591.

Amerbach had bought them directly from the artists themselves or their widows, and as Müller puts it: “The collection is enormous, and it has no equal in terms of quantity and historical background.”

“After Nature” is at the Kunstmuseum until November 23.

swissinfo, Richard Dawson in Basel

In brief

Kunstmuseum Basel is believed to be the world’s oldest art museum.

It was founded in 1662 after the city’s acquisition of a huge collection of prints and drawings belonging to local lawyer Basilius Amerbach.

None of the pictures in “After Nature” is later than 1591 – when Amerbach died – and most were purchased directly from the artists.

The Kunstmuseum’s neoclassical building is also home to a prestigious permanent collection of 19th and 20th century art.

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