Kunstmuseum: Modern Art Fix in Basel

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On a recent visit to the Kunstmuseum in Basel, I was overwhelmed by the size and breadth of the museum’s modern art collection.

A friendly guard explained it succinctly. “Yes, Switzerland and America have the largest collections of modern art because they could collect and protect ‘degenerate art’ while Hitler was marching through Europe.” I’d never thought of it before. Of course it is much more complicated than that, but I had never made the connection. These sorts of interactions and epiphanies are why we travel, and part of the magic that brings museums alive and fills their contents with meaning.

So let me introduce you to one of my new favorite art museums in Europe.

The Basel Kunstmuseum has a collection that reaches back into the 15th century and pushed the envelope into contemporary. Its biggest collections are of 15th and 16th century paintings from the Upper Rhine region and its modern art collection. As someone much more familiar with the Renaissance art of Italy and southern Europe, touring the galleries of German and Swiss painters was a bit of a revelation. I enjoyed touring the museum’s collection of 17th and 18th century Dutch masters as well, and, of course, the 19th century Impressionists. The collection is formidable.

This art museum is airy and inviting, with soaring architecture, natural lighting by skylights, and comfortable seating placed generously throughout galleries that span centuries of art. On the day we visited it was not crowded. Guards were helpful and knowledgeable. For me it was a place to discover new Swiss artists and visit of old friends like Paul Klee, one of Switzerland’s native sons and one of my personal favorites. I love the Klee Foundation in Bern, but the painter is well represented in Basel as well. 

The Kunstmuseum opened in 1661 as one of the first public museums of its kind in Europe. Its collection has grown dramatically since its early days. The main building dates back to the 1930s, but the museum added a huge modern wing that opened in spring of 2016. It includes much of its modern collection and larger experimental works that cross contemporary styles. The galleries feature the works of Swiss and global artists and are surely a draw for the international Art Basel crowd. Indeed, the new building was a hit at last year’s Art Basel.

The new wing is connected through an underground passageway that makes the journey from old to new worlds seamless, and convenient if you are visiting on a rainy day like we did. (Let Jeff Wall’s iconic back-lit photographs light your way.) Also handy is the museum’s cafe, offering a bright and tranquil setting to relax and refuel between wings. On the day we visited it appeared there were many people meeting there just to dine, not to visit the museum. The food here is a real draw.

Don’t forget to enjoy the sculpture in the museum’s courtyard and to marvel at its gleaming architecture, with white stone that glows even on a rainy, dull day. And the exterior of the annex has a recessed LED system that tastefully streams information about exhibits. And if you are not thoroughly exhausted by the two buildings, head to nearby Gegenwart, the museum’s remote annex, built in 1980 to house contemporary art, one of the first dedicated contemporary art museums in the world. It hosts some compelling exhibitions.

The main museum is centrally located in town and can be visited on an easy day trip from Untours in Alsace or the Swiss Oberland. You can use your Swiss Travel Pass from Thun to get to Basel in a little over an hour, and the Kunstmuseum is one of 500 museums affiliated with the Swiss Travel System, offering you free admission with your Swiss Pass!

Indeed it is one of a dozen museums in Basel that is free to Swiss Travel Pass holders! The Kunstmuseum is my favorite of many sites in beautiful Basel, a city that deserves more than a day trip!

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