Regarded as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, Pablo Picasso died at the age of 93 in 1973 but seven years before that he fell in love with this cultural capital of Switzerland – and this translated into seven of his great paintings displayed in the biggest art centre in the alpine country – the Kuntsmusuem Basel.
For centuries, Basel has been the perfect place to embark on a fascinating journey through the world of art. An exceptional density of museums, the world’s largest art fair and a lively, young art scene make Basel a vibrant city of culture with an appeal that reaches well beyond Europe.
But this is not the only reason that Picasso fell in love with this beautiful city. Today, if the city boasts of the single largest collections of seven Picasso originals outside Spain (Picasso’s homeland), it is due to the love and passion of the people for the art and crafts, particularly Picasso.
The city’s strong affinity with the visual arts began with the Kuntsmusuem -Switzerland’s largest collection today – which was one of the first public art collections in the world. Originally established as a private art collection in the 16th century by Basilius Amerbach, a lawyer and academic, it was acquired by the city administration and university in the 17th century, resulting in the creation of the Kuntsammlung in 1661.
Today apart from the seven Picassos, the Kuntsmuseum houses around 4,000 paintings, sculptures, installations and videos, as well as 300,000 drawings and prints. Over seven centuries of art history are represented here, with masterpieces from Germany’s Holbein family, Switzerland’s Arnold Bocklin, France’s Fernand Leger, and Russian-French artist Marc Chagall to American’s Mark Rothko and Jasper Johns.
Basel is proud of its Picassos. Two paintings in particular occupy a special place on the walls of the Kunstmuseum Basel. How they were purchased with public money, and prompted the artist to donate four more works, and a benefactor another, to the permanent collection in one year reads like an art-world fable.
In 1967, Basel was shocked to discover that two of its Picassos – ‘The Two Brothers’ (1906) and ‘Seated Harlequin’ (1923) – had only been on loan and were about to be sold. Rudolf Staechelin and his son, Peter G. Staechelin, the heirs of Basilius Amerbach, agreed to give the Kunstmuseum the first refusal but the city need to raise around 8.4 million Swiss francs ($9 million/approx Rs 70 crore).
Peter Staechelin was co-owner of Globe Airlines, a small domestic carrier. In April 1967, a Globe Airplane crashed while landing in Cyprus. Some 117 passengers and nine crew members were killed and the catastrophe plunged the airline into bankruptcy.
To ease the bulk of the high liability payments, Staechelin first sold a Vincent Van Gogh for 3.2 million Swiss francs. News then trickled through that the next to go would be the two Picassos.
“These paintings are of great value to art history,” Eva Reifert, curator of 19th-century and classical modernist art at the Kunstmuseum told this visiting IANS correspondent. “The Two Brothers, painted in 1905, and the Seated Harlequin from 1923, mark the beginning and end of Picasso’s Cubism phase (a movement the artist founded), Reifert added.
For Reifert, it was inconceivable that the Picassos could be removed from the museum’s collection. It was a real crisis but museum director Franz Meyer turned it into a golden opportunity – and became the hero of the tale.
It was decided to take a public vote. Opinion was divided but the fear that the paintings might end up in America helped to make up the people’s minds.
“Some people said the city administration should instead build nursing homes with the money raised,” Basel Tourism representative Ann Muller said.
“Some artists thought it should be spent on building a museum of contemporary art. Other artists said a vote to buy the Picassos was a vote in favour of art, so backed their purchase. Everyone was surprised when the referendum returned a ‘yes’ vote,” Muller added.
Around 6 million Swiss francs came from the city administration and the rest was raised through a day of fundraising, termed the ‘Bettlerfest’ (Beggar’s Feast).
When Picasso heard the news, he was visibly moved by the vote in confidence in his art. He initially offered two other works as a gift – ‘Man, Woman and Child’ (1906) and a sketch titled ‘Demoiselles d’Avignon’ (1907). He then gave two more – ‘Venus and Cupid’ (1905) and ‘The Couple’ (1967).
Thereafter, Maja Sacher-Stehlin, the widow of Emanuel Hoffmann, a son of Fritz Hoffmann-La Roche (the founder of the Basler pharmaceutical company) donated ‘The Poet’ (1911) to make the total seven.
Leonhard Burckhardt, a Social Democratic member of the Basel cantonal parliament and a professor of history at Basel University, was 14 at the time. “This event was a milestone for many of my generation,” he said.
“We experienced in a very immediate way how a referendum can function as a cornerstone of democracy,” he added.
Burckhardt has no clear answer as to whether something similar would be possible today. “That is pure speculation. But the fact is that even today a large part of the population of Basel can identify with the Kunstmuseum. And the people here still love art and for me this is sole reason that Picasso fell in love with this city.”