Comprehensive exhibition at Basel's Kunstmuseum features world's best Picassos

A major show explores the city’s rich history of collecting works by the Modern master


It may come as a surprise, but Basel is home to more major works by Picasso than almost anywhere in the world. “In terms of quality and quantity, the Picassos in Basel are probably on a par with those in Paris, and are only exceeded by those in New York,” says Nina Zimmer, a curator at the Kunstmuseum Basel.

Most of the city’s major Picassos are now on show at the Kunstmuseum. “The Picassos are Here! A Retrospective from Basel Collections” (until 21 July), featuring highlights of the city’s public and private collections, is billed as a retrospective, since it presents a full chronological survey of the artist’s oeuvre. How was it that this relatively small city (with one-fiftieth of the population of New York) attracted so many important works?

Partly it is because a handful of major early collectors of Picasso’s work were based in this part of Switzerland. The German-speaking Swiss have long had a taste for Modern art: Ernst Beyeler, Basel’s leading art dealer for half a century, later developed close ties with the artist and sold 400 of his works during his lifetime, although only a small proportion remained in the city.

Just over a third of the works in the exhibition come from the Kunstmuseum (most from its permanent collection, with some on long-term loan). Quite a few of the pictures were originally in Basel’s early private collections.

The local entrepreneur Rudolf Staechelin (1881-1946) bought his first work by Picasso, The Two Brothers, in 1917. Much of his collection was later left to a family trust and deposited on long-term loan at the Kunstmuseum. In 1997, the pictures were withdrawn in protest against Switzerland’s signature of the Unidroit agreement (an agreement on cultural property that made it easier for source countries to reclaim looted antiquities) and sent to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. The row was later resolved, with the foundation returning the paintings to the Kunstmuseum in 2002.

The banker Raoul La Roche (1889-1965), an early collector in the 1920s, was encouraged by the architect and artist Le Corbusier. La Roche commissioned Le Corbusier to design his villa, asking him to “make a frame for my collection”. On completion, the patron lightheartedly complained that it is “almost a shame to hang pictures in it”. But he did so, and his collection with four Picassos was later donated to the Kunstmuseum.

The shipowner Karl Im Obersteg (1883-1969) was another great Basel collector, whose works by Picasso have been on permanent loan to the museum since 2004. The Zürich textile merchant Georges Bloch (1902-84) set out to assemble all of Picasso’s prints—an ambitious undertaking, since there are more than 2,000. He did not quite make it, but when he dispersed his prints to Swiss museums via a foundation, 70 came on permanent loan to the Kunstmuseum.

The museum also acquired its own works by Picasso, with the first arriving in 1926. The most celebrated acquisitions were made in 1967, when a referendum was held to decide whether the city council should buy two major paintings from the Staechelin collection: The Two Brothers, 1906, and Seated Harlequin, 1923. After voters gave their approval, the artist donated four additional works, and these were greeted at the Kunstmuseum with a large banner reading “The Picassos are Here!”

A third of the current retrospective comes from the personal collection of Ernst Beyeler (1921-2010). His foundation now runs a magnificent museum in Riehen, just outside Basel, and the entire collection of Picassos (18 paintings, four sculptures, eight drawings and two prints) has been lent to the exhibition.

The remainder of the show—just under a third—comes from private collectors in Basel. Anita Haldemann, who has co-organised the show with Nina Zimmer, points out that many of these works were bought after the Second World War, often from Beyeler, the Rosengart gallery in Lucerne or, for works on paper, Galerie Kornfeld in Bern. All the private collectors are exhibiting anonymously, a sign of just how discreet Swiss collectors tend to be. Most have loaned single works of art, but two important lenders should be noted.

Although she has not been named, the major private lenders include Esther Grether, who inherited a stake in her husband Hans’s cosmetics and healthcare company (now Doetsch Grether, it owns numerous brands, including Grether’s throat pastilles; she is also a major shareholder in Swatch). Her collection includes works by artists ranging from Cézanne to Bacon, and it is said to include more than 600 pieces. Esther and Hans were regular visitors to Beyeler’s gallery on Saturday afternoons in the 1960s and 1970s, when they looked through stacks of newly acquired paintings, including numerous Picassos. “Often we went home with a selection under our arms,” she recalled.

The other major anonymous lender has focused on Picasso’s “Artist and Model” drawings of December 1953 and January 1954. Made when Picasso was 72, they are playful depictions of the relationship between painter and muse. The set of 180 drawings was dispersed long ago, but the Basel collector has already reassembled 26 and may well still be on the lookout for more.

There is one final work that is not in the Kunstmuseum’s galleries, but outdoors. Man with Spread Arms, a greatly enlarged steel version of a tiny 1961 sculpture, was installed in the Picassoplatz 21 years ago. Welcoming visitors to the Kunstmuseum, it symbolises Basel’s deep admiration for the artist.

Picasso’s stay at Les Trois Rois (after Klee stood him up)

Picasso spent only one night in Basel, on 7 September 1932. He later reminisced: “I stood there on the balcony all night long. The hotel was called Les Trois Rois, right on the Rhine. The view is very beautiful. I had never seen such a black river before. Ink black. And you could hear the tram going by, and a couple of cars here and there, and finally a door closing somewhere, and then the whole city was still.” As today, Basel and Zürich were vying to be the art capital of German-speaking Switzerland, and both cities wanted to organise a Picasso show in 1932. The director of the Kunsthalle Basel had been negotiating for an exhibition, but was thwarted when the Kunsthaus Zürich made an arrangement with the artist’s Parisian dealers. When he stayed at Les Trois Rois, Picasso was en route to Zürich for the opening of the Kunsthaus show. He had arranged to meet Paul Klee that night, but the Swiss artist failed to turn up, so Picasso rested on his balcony. Les Trois Rois, which dates back to 1681, is still Basel’s top hotel today.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper Art Basel Daily as 'Where to see the world’s best Picassos? Basel, believe it or not'