Dealers gamble all their lives on the immortality of their performers; few leave their own monuments. An exception is Ernst Beyeler, the son of the Swiss railway worker who started his gallery in Basel in the 1940s, made a fortune trading blue-chip names, befriended Picasso and Giacometti, and built the Fondation Beyeler in 1997 to house the works to house which he for himself.
If there’s a more feel-good museum experience than the Beyeler, I’ve yet to come across it. An outstanding collection and unmissable exhibitions (Edward Hopper in 2020 and Goya in 2021 were beacons during the pandemic) are housed in Renzo Piano’s long, luminous building of glass and stone in the beautiful park of the baroque Villa Berower, where a visit is to finish with kaffee und kuchen.
For this fall’s 25th anniversary show, it begins with a cup of stale black tea, the surface a jagged moldy membrane, greatly enlarged and photographed from the air to suggest the fractured crust of the Earth’s surface. The foyer hangs Wolfgang Tillmans’ 1997 Chaos Cup – it’s the same age as the museum – and wittily introduces a parade of the anniversary’s greatest hits. Turn left and you meet Rousseau’s faux-jungle “The hungry lion throws himself on the antelope” and Brancusi’s streamlined marble abstraction “Bird”. Turn right for Matisse’s sensual arabesque cutout “Blue Nude” and Miró’s hallucinatory ladder to heaven “Landscape with Rooster”. Each, like Tillmans, reconsiders how reality can be represented and distorted into a new expression of truth.
When it opened I enjoyed the Beyeler as the pinnacle of bourgeois Swiss fun. But over the years, paradise in the park has come to embody something more, as Beyeler’s insistence on “proven works”, almost all European and American, is at odds with the major modern art museums aimed at the global 21st century. century and concerns with post-colonialism and gender. Launched just three years before Tate Modern, the Beyeler belongs to a different world, affirming the specific historical place of modern art as opposed to the pluralistic, hierarchy-free mishmash of 21st century culture. How valid is this approach and can it hold up?
Ernst Beyeler’s vision of painting and sculpture in harmony with nature and architecture is uplifting, calming and supremely confident. The voluptuous saturated tones of Rothko’s square and elongated fades in “Untitled Red, Orange” echo the building’s rich porphyry columns. The wide view of wheatfields and low hills from the daylight-lit rooms is repeated in Van Gogh’s airy ‘Wheatfield with Cornflowers’. In the fading light, Ellsworth Kelly’s huge folded aluminum sail “White Curves” has a ghostly presence among the trees.
Monet’s captivating “Nymphéas” triptych overlooks the Beyeler’s actual lily pond – presided over by Thomas Schütte’s chunk of appealing, water-spouting “Hare” (2013). With human hands and one ear that flips forward, the four-foot-tall bronze animal, its whimsical form reflected in the water amid scattered leaves and trailing reeds, is as beloved a part of the collection as the Monets, which is important: Beyeler died in 2010 , but his collection is not standing still. He chose his ancestors and it is fascinating to see how their DNA is reflected in the works the Fondation has since acquired: a plea for contemporary art as a continuum with modernism.
Rachel Whiteread’s collapsing barn, “Poltergeist” (2020), an eerie shelter shelter in found wood and metal, painted pale white, is a belated iteration of the fragile/solid constructed/deconstructed aesthetic of post-war sculpture. The building has been torn apart by disaster, but it stands upright, the light bouncing off the spiky fragments: it survived. There is an affinity with Giacometti’s stripped-down figures, who dangerously retain the human presence. Beyeler called “Walking Man” “the true trademark of the Fondation Beyeler”.
In the collection catalog, art historian Gottfried Boehm says that the foundation “pays homage to the experience of a generation . . . centered on great, heroic, classical modern art” and Beyeler’s belief in “the singularity and enduring appeal of the individual work”. There are no quotas or padding, although female artists have dominated recent acquisitions. There are rooms in the anniversary show dedicated to the oozing, awkward figures by Marlene Dumas, and to Tacita Dean’s chalk-on-blackpanorama “Cumulus” (2016), which in black and white picks up a conversation with Monet’s reflected clouds: play of light and shadow, unfolding time, the ephemeral and the eternal.Beyeler’s spirit still guides: he “mistrusted programmes, manifestos and theories”, and rejected minimalism and “works with an extended artistic concept in the sense of, say, Joseph Beuys or more recent installation art”.
Of course the taste paid off. Beyeler was invited to take his pick from Picasso’s studio in 1966 and collected key works that became the core of the Fondation’s permanent Picasso retrospective in miniature. It ranges from “Woman” (1907), a large oil study for “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”, to “Lying naked playing with a cat” (1964), a parody of Manet’s “Olympia” and featuring an exuberant Jacqueline Picasso in the main role.
In the 1950s, Beyeler scraped and borrowed to find $4,500 for Kandinsky’s “Improvisation 10,” a major 1910 milestone on the journey to abstraction—mountain path, houses, fortress on a rock, rainbow are still distinguishable within an armory of hasty shapes. He waited decades for the perfect follow-up: In 1990, he bought “Fugue” (1914), an explosive composition all about chords of color, for $20.9 million, and then a Kandinsky record. The salesman? Guggenheim in New York, which closed the painting to raise money to increase its minimalism holdings.
Beyeler’s decisions give the modernity unfolded here its own flavor: historical grandeur, concentration on masterpieces. Although Boehm claims that “the Beyeler collection itself confirms the gap that arises between the modern art of the past, whose side it takes, and the modern art of the present, which it excludes”, this does not mean that the contemporary is rejected. The Beyeler is poised to spot today’s major works within key careers such as “Poltergeist,” Whiteread’s turning point from casting in favor of construction and assembly.
Director Sam Keller says he wants to “open up new perspectives and start a dialogue” with Beyeler’s legacy. Louise Bourgeois and Gerhard Richter, “Unexpected Intermediaries. . . invoking the modernist tradition”, was added to the collection in 2012. Keller is also a genius at innovatively remaking history. In the jubilee show, Duane Hanson’s life-size hyper-realistic multimedia sculptures keep comic company with famous residents. “Woman with Child in Pram” walks to Giacometti’s “Walking Man”. “Old lady in folding chair” sits next to “Madame Cézanne in yellow armchair”, each woman resigned but strong. “Window Washer” is about to clean a large floor-to-ceiling window opening onto the garden.
On the cover of the collection’s catalog is written Monet’s modest hope when he began to paint Rouen Cathedral: “It might turn out well, if the sun holds on.” The sun is still shining at the Beyeler after 25 years.
Until January 8 foundationbeyeler.ch