The Fondation Beyeler
July 23, 2012 4 Comments
By Rob Packer
I was in Switzerland for work earlier this month. After a few days in Lugano and Zürich—and a few hours on a train between the two, wishing the train would stop and I could kick off the dress shoes, change the suit for something more comfortable and run off up a mountain—I spent a couple of days at the end of the trip staying with some very good friends in Basel.
I’d barely been to Switzerland before and Basel has always seemed the most enigmatic of the country’s larger cities next to Zürich with its banks and Geneva with its international organizations. Those two even have archetypal Swiss locations perched at their lakeheads, while Basel europeanly straddles the Rhine, which no Germanist can cross without feeling a historical shudder or literary frisson—mine was Heinrich Heine’s satirical conversation with Father Rhine, where Old Man River complains of having been “politically compromised” by Nikolaus Becker’s “Rheinlied”, later infamously put to music as “Die Wacht am Rhein”. But that is in Cologne where the Rhine is more bombastic, while hardly anyone ever talks about Basel: in fact, I’ve probably only ever had a conversation about the place with five or six people—one an architect, two who live there and the rest from the art world.
The art connection is important: the city hosts Art Basel, the world’s most important art fair and is chock-full of museums and galleries. One of the best is the Fondation Beyeler, lying in the village of Riehen, overlooking cornfields, apple trees and the first hills of the Black Forest across the border in Germany. The beautiful straight lines and glass of the Renzo Piano building are currently showing an exhibition of Jeff Koons (there’s some good stuff, but he’s not one of my favourite artists…) and an incredible video installation downstairs by French artist, Philippe Parreno, who gives a whole new meaning to ghost-writing in the breathtakingly creepy Marilyn.
But the greatest pleasure came in the Classical Modernism of the permanent collection and, especially, its nine-meter-long triptych of Monet’s “Water Lily Pond”. It was almost meditative to sit there alone opposite the blues and greens and flash of pink, while the midday sun came streaming in through the window, where the floor planed from wood to the water of the pond outside. A pond with water lilies. Just as engrossing was the blue-bound coffee-table book left on the white leather settee—quite common in Swiss museums and a practice for others to follow. It was a book the Monets’ correspondence during their 1908 trip to Venice. I dipped into the first few pages of letters sent from Giverny about their travel preparations with Monet’s matter-of-fact business-like correspondence and Mme Monet’s more revealing letters that talk about a Monet obsessed with his water lilies: at one moment looking forward to the trip, at others regretting having to leave Giverny. As I leant back and immersed myself again in the canvas, I couldn’t help wondering if Monet had a point: and then I remembered what he painted in Venice…
Jeff Koon’s flower-covered Split-Rocker: