By Denise Mattia
I hadn’t come to Basel to experience Fasnacht, but when I arrived in front of the Grand Hotel Les Trois Roi, one of the oldest and most elegant hotels in Europe, the first thing I noticed, was that despite its staid appearance, the second floor of the facade displayed three gigantic caricatures of kings, which lit the wide avenue.
Fasnacht, the only Protestant carnival in the world, is as important as Basel’s yearly Art Fair.and cafesCarnival (Fasnacht) starts on the Monday after Ash Wednesday and culminates in a weekend of lively parades and reenactments of medieval rituals and satirical displays of events that occurred during the year.
Masked and face-painted minstrels dress in colorful medieval or modern-day creations and serenade revelers in the streets, restaurants and cafes.
Delighted with my lucky arrival, I purchased a carnival badge from a street vendor and pinned it on my overcoat. Locals prominently display the pin, and visitors enjoy being in the know by wearing them as well. One group of revelers in the café where I dined reminded me of a Franz Hals painting. Out front, another costumed resident got on a soap box and spoke his mind. Not knowing the language, I didn’t understand. Still, he looked satisfied with himself once he’d finished. I wandered back to my hotel to plan a revised itinerary for the next couple of days.
It’s not surprising that the people of Basel are linked to artistic sensibilities. The urban community began collecting private and public art works in the mid 17th century, and by the mid 18th century, a museum commission was established to facilitate collecting art and approving architectural designs. In the corporate sector, the insurance, banking and pharmaceutical industries provided employment, and supported the arts — as they do today. In the last century, contemporary styles in architecture that eliminate ornament for functionality have been embraced. The Basel Art Fair, which started in 1970, draws gallery enthusiasts, art dealers and critics to the district from all over the world.
I immediately immersed myself in art, first by visiting the Tinguely Museum, home to the permanent exhibition of the works of Swiss painter and sculptor Jean Tinguely. The contemporary building was designed by Mario Botta, an architect who follows the minimalist tradition.
Outside the museum, Nana Gwendolyn a wonderful Niki de Saint Phalle sculpture greeted me. Her rotund figurative works are entertaining yet provocative. (I’d seen another of her sculptures hanging from the rafters in the Zurich station.)
A delightfully quirky fountain sculpture by Tinguely, titled Fasnachtsbrunnen(Carnival Fountain), whirred, churned and sprouted water in the icy pool in front of the west side of the museum. Inside, fanciful carnival masks were displayed alongside his complex eccentric motor-powered machines and room-size sculptures made from recycling urban and industrial gears, wheels and found objects.
Tinguely’s sculptures invite the viewer to touch and even climb the art. Moving inside one piece, I felt like I was getting into a gigantic costume.
Using industrial characteristics in its simplest form, artist Donald Judd’s gleaming emerald-glass panels appear riveted to the façade of the building, which was designed by Peter Merian. It had begun to rain, and the building took on a grayish shade. How it must glow with the sun on it.
Walking on, I marveled at the multi-angular monolith Basel SBB central station, designed by architects Herzog & de Meuron. The building “winks” at the viewer from copper plates, which change color according to the light, time of day and position of the viewer. Walking around it reminded me of being in a fun house: was I standing at an odd angle or was the building twisted? I couldn’t help thinking that there’s a correlation between Tinguely’s sculpture and this building.
A parade had formed outside as I rode to the Foundation Beyeler. Architectural critics consider the Foundation to be the most civilized and elegant art gallery in the world, and upon arriving there, I understood why. Gracious but never stand-offish the design created by architect Renzo Piano fits cleverly into the bucolic setting.
Inside the museum, indirect and natural lighting show late 19th century masters such as Monet’s Water Lilies or Giovanni Segantini’s landscapes to their best advantage. The works live in this museum. They’re as much a part of the museum as the building is to the works.
The following day I found old masters, a Jan Brueghel, a Rembrandt and a Hans Holbein in addition to contemporary favorites – Picasso, Jasper Johns and Dan Flavin – among others at the Kunstmuseum Basel Fine Arts Museum.
Plans are underway to design an extension that will be used for the growing collection and for new exhibitions as well. The wing and spacious link between the old and new building has been created by Christ & Gantenbein Architects.
I watched carnival participants disembark at the main bus station with instruments and bags of confetti in hand, while I waited for the bus to cross into Germany to view the renowned Vitra Design Museum. Designed by American architect Frank Gehry in 1989, the building is one of the world’s most highly recognized cultural institutions, where architecture meets design meets furniture meets house wares.
I reached the Kunsthalle Exhibition Center, located in the regentrified industrial section of the city, but rather than view the marriage of the building with the art, the building had been divided into gigantic gallery spaces. I expected other design disciplines to be exhibited there and found instead contemporary paintings and video installations.
Fasnacht as Art
My last day was spent in a café, watching a jumble of costumed locals go by. Fasnacht hadn’t been so different from the art forms I’d experienced. The parades can be serious or whimsical, colorful, or drab. I couldn’t help thinking that next year’s design idea might come out of one of these street performances. It seemed to me that carnival and art are intertwined. On the other hand, it’s possible the performers were just kicking back and having fun. I’ll never know for sure.
About Denise Mattia
A writer and photographer, Denise Mattia’s works are published nationally and internationally and include all aspects of leisure travel: art , culture, resorts, spas, food and wine and sports’ activities. She's the founder of the soon to be launched Yum-Yum-Traveler, a site devoted to reviewing restaurants in addition to her travel articles from around the world. She lives and works in Manhattan, where she was born.