Swiss Modern

In a tiny suburb of Basel, acclaimed architect Renzo Piano and collector Ernst Beyeler create a masterpiece.

Basel dealer Ernst Beyeler only gradually came to think of himself as an art collector. At first, in the early fifties, he and his wife, Hildy, were simply seeking decoration for their home. Later, more ambitiously, amid the eddies of buying and selling that keep galleries afloat, Beyeler would hold fast to works that moved him.

The first major painting that he recalls keeping for himself was a Klee. He estimates that more than 500 of the artist's works have passed through his gallery; his collection today includes 19 of them. At the beginning it was early Klee that captivated him, but his tastes evolved. "Soon I put the emphasis on late Klee," he says. "That was more exciting. The very pretty Klees were easier to sell." The tougher, more challenging ones he kept.

From humble roots, this son of a Swiss railroad employee became one of the great art dealers of the 20th century. At 81, a slender man with bright-blue eyes and hair gone gray, Beyeler is still tracking down and selling modernist masterpieces. "I am a hunter," he says. "Hunting a painting has always been fun." In his heyday, in addition to tracking collectors and landing estates, he prowled the studios of his artist friends—Picasso, Dubuffet, and Bacon among them. Although the classic modern art he loves most is no longer being produced, Beyeler keeps busy.

In 1989, he accepted an invitation from the Reina Sofia, the modern-art museum in Madrid, to display his collection. By then, he owned about 150 works, too many to display at once in Basel. In Madrid he had the chance to see his acquisitions as an ensemble for the first time. "The press said they looked quite good together," he says. "I realized myself that it really looks quite something." From that point on, he decided, he would buy art that underscored the strengths of his collection. "I saw in Spain that I had groups and not so much single paintings," he says. "Instead of trying to make it as complete as possible in artist names, I thought I would strengthen the groups."

Already in possession of some fine late-Impressionist works, notably a ravishing Monet water lilies triptych, Beyeler complemented them with two Cézannes, two late Degas pastels, and a couple of late Van Goghs, including an iconic wheat field. Late Impressionism set the stage for what is his collection's true subject: the triumph of modernism. His holdings were especially rich in the work of Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian, Klee, Giacometti, Dubuffet, and Bacon. He began seeking out major pieces that would illustrate the development of these core artists, and resisting the temptation to wander. "We would love to have [Max] Beckmann, but one would not be enough," he says. "We'd need two or three."

While he was refining his collection, Beyeler pondered its ultimate destination. The obvious choice would have been Basel's world-class Kunstmuseum, which, along with Holbeins and Cranachs, has a first-rate lineup of modern masters (including Beckmann). When he began buying paintings, Beyeler imagined that one day he would donate them to the Kunstmuseum. "I could have lived with it, even to be integrated in the permanent collection," he says. Two misgivings stopped him from making the gift: "Because I have similar names to the museum's, it would have meant forty to fifty percent would remain in the cellar, which I wouldn't have liked. Also, there are twenty major African and Oceanic pieces. I want to show that good African can be with Picasso, Oceanic with Matisse. They would have been separated, sooner or later." He entertained attractiveoffers from museums in Germany and New York, among others, but here he confronted another problem: the distance. "I would have seen the collection two or three times a year," he explains. "I would have lost it."

So in 1990 Beyeler decided to build his own museum. In his hunting mode, he set about finding the optimal site and the best architect. Rather than build in town, within shouting distance of the Kunstmuseum, he secured a handsome tract of land with a villa (now the museum's restaurant) in Riehen, a suburb just 15 minutes away by tram, nearthe Swiss borders with Germany and France. "It's like going from a townhouse to a country house, and people appreciate it that way," he says. (I certainly did. Standing outside the museum, I heard what sounded like wind chimes; when I looked around I saw a group of cattle grazing in an adjoining pasture, each with a cowbell around its neck.) To design the building he chose Renzo Piano, admiring in his work what he calls "the two extremes": the flamboyant Centre Pompidou, which Piano created with Richard Rogers, and the restrained Menil Collection in Houston.

Though he didn't yet know what he wanted the museum to look like, Beyeler knew what he didn't want: a cold steel-and-glass box. He charged Piano with the task of living up to Baudelaire's famous phrase, "luxe, calme et volupté." "We went through three models," Beyeler says. "He spoke of a temple on the hill. That wasn't what I was thinking. When I saw the first sketches, it went down in steps," beginning at the top of the hill and descending several levels. "I said, 'No, I want it all on one level.' He said, 'All right, we will lower it into the side of the hill.'"

Piano proposed covering the long, serene pavilion in red sandstone, much like the skin of Basel's most venerable building, the Romanesque-Gothic Münster, or cathedral. Beyeler felt the flat, monochrome stone would be boring. Unable to convince Piano on aesthetic grounds, he pretended to oppose it because it was too expensive—an argument the architect could not refute. As an alternative, they found a Patagonian porphyry in which each rough-finished pinkish-red block is essentially a different abstract pattern. Inside the building, Beyeler adamantly opposed columns or pillars that would interrupt the exhibition space. At the same time, he did want separate rooms, so that a visitor could contemplate a few works of art in detachment from the rest of the collection.

Piano was as keen as Beyeler on natural light for the galleries, but, as with the stone, he wanted it to have a high degree of uniformity. Beyeler objected: "It was too neutral." The solution was an elaborate system of louvers, screens, and shades that sits above the flat glass roof, modulating the overhead sunlight; additional light streams in through large windows. The natural light can be severely dimmed (at times when I have been there it has been too dim for my taste) or fully unleashed. At any level, though, it is ever-changing and everywhere—a stronger presence than in any other museum I know. At a Mark Rothko exhibition there last summer, as overhead clouds veiled, then revealed the sun, it was as if the paintings had come to life.

Another critical consideration was the museum's size. In fact, just two years after the Fondation Beyeler's opening, in 1997, Beyeler felt the building needed to be bigger, and he called Piano back to expand it by more than 11,000 square feet, or 27 percent. Today, Beyeler says that he wouldn't want the pavilion any larger. "Now it is the perfect size," he says. "People don't get exhausted. They come out refreshed."

They also come out with a succinct, high-caliber introduction to the modernist art of the 20th century. Beyeler's holdings are richer in some artists than others. His assemblage of Picassos is remarkable. He has nothing from the artist's early rose or blue periods (the sort of "pretty" work that Beyeler says he avoided in Klee), but after that there are exceptional examples from virtually every style. (A collage and a readymade sculpture would be nice additions.) Matisse is more thinly represented, although there is a generous sampling from the end of his career, with a very late painting and some dazzling cutouts. A group of seven Mondrians begins with works from before World War I, when the Dutch painter was still depicting nature but also heavily influenced by the Analytical Cubism of Picasso and Georges Braque; in the last paintings, his earlier open squares and rectangles filled with smudges of blue and gray have been refined into sublime grids in primary colors. Eight sculptures by Giacometti, attenuated bronze figures presiding and striding in an airy room with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on the park, are complemented by several of his superb oil portraits. It was oddly affecting to see the work of this artist, who toiled painstakingly in a cramped Paris studio in pursuit of artistic truth, exhibited here in a breezy, almost plein-air environment.

Rewarding as it is to see the evolution of individual artists' styles, the Fondation Beyeler's greatest virtue is the chance it affords to compare artists. This experience is enriched by the display, as Beyeler wished, of primitive art alongside modern masters. Although that choice is not unprecedented (The Barnes Foundation, outside Philadelphia, also combines the two), the African and Oceanic art in Basel is often of breathtaking quality. "I let go all but the very best," Beyeler says of his once-considerable primitive collection. "With more you get into ethnography, and I did not want that." He kept just 20 pieces.

In one gallery, a fine wooden Fang reliquary female figure from Gabon stands near a 1907 Picasso sketch relating to Les Demoiselles d'Avignon; elsewhere, a painted-woodoval war shield, made by the Asmat peopleof New Guinea, is shown near Matisse's comparably geometric Oceania, the Sky, a screenprint on unbleached linen. Such juxtapositions, while satisfying, are not eye-opening; the influences involved are no secret.

Other comparisons, however, are much more intriguing. A 1932 charcoal drawing by Picasso of his sculpture of the head of Marie-Thérèse Walter, in which the protuberances and hollows of the face resemble male and female sex organs, resonates with a Matisse bronze, Jeanette IV, from 1911, which also has a phallic nose and hair. What lifts the resemblance between the works of these European titans to a higher dimension is the presence of two wooden Melanesian figures with breasts and large phalluses. They make the modern artists' approach seem not just formally innovative but almost mythic.

I had a similar feeling as I looked at a Picasso grisaille oil from the sixties—the horrific Rape of the Sabines, in which a small figure on a monstrous horse bears down on a fleeing woman—that is positioned near a Francis Bacon canvas, Lying Figure (1969), of a naked man writhing on a striped mattress. Picasso's impact on the younger artist, of course, is hardly news; you can't look at one of Bacon's blurred, omnidirectional faces without thinking of Cubist Picasso. Close by, however, stood a brutally powerful life-size wooden head with a mysterious smile, from Papua New Guinea, that immediately altered my point of view. I could see clearly how modernism, in its recoil from realism, had simply returned art to its historic role, and I could marvel at the ways in which human features have been simplified and exaggerated by artists immemorial to achieve a formal beauty and a terrifying psychological intensity.

On visits to the Fondation Beyeler I'm always struck by how violent and disturbing much of the art is. That theme is apparent from the first gallery in an unusually bloody Henri Rousseau, The Hungry Lion Attacking an Antelope, in which the action is intently observed by a sharp-clawed leopard in a tree and by two birds of prey with carrion dangling from their beaks. With the exception of the dreamy Sauvetage, the Beyeler's best Picassos—like The Rape of the Sabines, a Weeping Woman from the Guernica period, and several portraits of Dora Maar—are animated by anger and cruelty. Even a seemingly tranquil domestic scene, a late oil of a nude figure playing with a cat, seems menacing: The feather with which the woman is tickling her pet could be a stand-in for a feline-mangled bird (was the Rousseau still on my mind?). One mustn't exaggerate—the collection includes fine works by Cézanne, Monet, and Matisse, all artists who register low on the aggression scale. However, the Picassos, Klees, Bacons, and Dubuffets, as well as the recent pictures by German painter Georg Baselitz (one of Beyeler's few ventures into contemporary art), demonstrate the dealer's affinity for emotionally charged, "difficult" work. That this suave and reserved building, which one critic described as a "whisper of understatement," should be filled with art that is vehement and outspoken seems appropriate. A civilized and welcoming exterior, a passionate and relentless core—what better monument could there be for a celebrated art dealer?


The Art of Basel

Basel is rich in museums and galleries. Here are some of the best.

FONDATION BEYELER 101 Baselstrasse, Riehen; 41-61-645-9700; www.beyeler.com.

GALERIE BEYELER 9 Bäumleingasse, Basel; 41-61-206-9700.

KUNSTMUSEUM This world-class institution has two overriding strengths: an extraordinary collection of medieval and early Renaissance art, in particular an unrivaled selection of masterpieces by the Holbein family, and first-rate Impressionist and modernist works by Gauguin, Picasso, Giacometti, Léger, Klee, and others. 16 St. Alban Graben; 41-61-206-6262; www.kunstmuseumbasel.ch.

KUNSTHALLE Contemporary-art shows in an elegant old sandstone building. 7 Steinenberg; 41-61-206-9900; www.kunsthallebasel.ch.

VITRA Just across the German border, this unique design compound is a collection of buildings by leading architects. The Vitra Design Museum, Frank Gehry's cascading variation on Le Corbusier's iconic Ronchamp chapel, is open to the public; to see the whole campus, reserve a space on one of the afternoon tours. A vertiginous firehouse by Zaha Hadid is by itself worth the tour. 1 Charles Eames Strasse, Weil am Rhein; 49-7-621-702-3200; www.design-museum.de.

SCHAULAGER Scheduled to open next spring, this hulking concrete "viewing warehouse" in Münchenstein has been designed by Herzog& de Meuron for the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation's collection—more than 400 works by 150 modern and contemporary artists.