ARTISTS OF BASEL: DARK AND BOLD SIDES OF HUMANITY
Updated: Mar 16, 2018
“Yes”, – an attendant of the Kunstmuseum Basel spits out scornfully, when I ask him if that door on the right guards the collection of the Basel artists. Undoubtedly, his welcome is as warm as the pallet of Werner von Mutzenbecher‘s (1937) gloomy abstractions that I stumble on in the first gallery.
Within seconds my ears are met by the German narrator of Mutzenbecher‘s film "The Journey to Poland" (1988). I only capture a couple of words from these black and white moving pictures – Auschwitz and crematorium – and decide to opt for "The London Programme" (1971-2003) this time. What's the story of this mysterious hairy silhouette? He seems to be stuck in a rut of the fast-forwarded life. I arm myself with patience and still wait for the big bang of the subject's inner world... Grrr! What a bummer – this lingering hope didn't take me anywhere! Mere blurred surroundings. No wonder – it's been established that Mutzenbecher's experimental film images often focus on something that happens when apparently nothing happens. The perfect catalyst for the reflection on the fast-forwarded life of my own.
Werner von Mutzenbecher "The London Programme" (1971-2003)
Where is Mutzenbecher, a painter and a filmmaker, today? With a little help from Google I've come to the realisation that his presence is still everywhere, even in his 80's. He is arguably one of the most prominent contemporary artists of Basel and I may want to explore his work behind the walls of the Kunstmuseum. Maybe my next art trip will be to "Art Basel" on 14-17 of June 2018? Anyway, let's move on for now.
A few more paintings later, I find myself in the presence of several curious artworks by Swiss surrealist Walter Kurt Wiemken (1907-1940), the master of the dark side of humanity. His childlike brushstrokes are rather deceptive. I certainly don't expect to face moral or existential questions, when glancing at the vivid lines of the remote figures in the oil painting "White Elephants"(1931). I linger for a minute or two and it daunts on me that this red burning sun isn't rolling for good.
It's 1931, France is just hit by the Great Depression. I say France as those flying flags resemble the colouring of the French flag. Considering that white elephant is a symbol of a useless possession, that is expensive to maintain, I allow myself to think that maybe, maybe this surrealistic artwork is rather realistic and politically charged. What sort of white elephants trod the soil of France (it's got to be Collioure, where the artist was a frequent visitor) between the two World Wars? I'm not going to go down that economic or political road... Will leave this question hanging.
Walter Kurt Wiemken, "White Elephants"(1931)
Wiemken's "Cross Section of a House"(1931) made me see him as a wicked storyteller, who is not afraid to insinuate violently by constructing detailed images, that may seem to be a fusion of mockery and morals at times. His contraversial compositions bravely jump to my face and whirls me into the tales about the darkness of human nature. I'm not aiming to judge, but thematically Wiemken's surrealism is rather realistic (again!).
Such an heretic! The artist is brutally questioning religion by juxtaposing it with perversion. I wonder to myself, do we really have to be a herd of sheep in order to practice faith? Or... Do real good instead of serving greedy hypocrites. Amen!
Walter Kurt Wiemken, "Cross Section of a House"(1931)
Wiemken's expression of mortality reminds me of someone special... His personal health story resembles Frida Kahlo, the artist who had the shadow of death at her bedside most of her life. Wiemken became seriously ill with polio at the age of four months old, which led to a lifelong disability. He lived in his parents' home until his death. It's likely the illness influenced his life's views as well as the choice of the creative topics (death, mortality), although it didn't define him as the artist freed the spirit through the landscapes.
Life from the ants' perspective isn't always about silent ordinary days in the meadow. Poor tiny creatures have to cope with the circumstances created by such strong, often destructive forces as humanity. And yet they collect themselves and continue to live through the night.
Wiemken's "Night" (1940) is pure inspiration: the artist doesn't just replicate reality of the landscape, he tells the story from a different perspective. Painted just before his death, the artwork encourages me to reflect on the humans – where are we heading? What are we leaving behind ourselves?
Walter Kurt Wiemken, "Night" (1940)
Who are we? Giants to some. Ants to others. The significance of the human species is rather relative – determined by the perspective of the whole Universe. We may leave footprints as we go, whereas our silhouettes will vanish behind the horizon for good. Is it thick darkness or is it glorious El Dorado that awaits us there, in the unknown?
Detail of Walter Kurt Wiemken, "Night" (1940)
When it comes to the winter celebrations, Basel arguably rocks it. The Carnival of Basel (Fasnacht) is the biggest carnival in Switzerland, which is listed as Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO. I was so prepared to be stunned by the spectacular masks this freezing February afternoon! Unfortunately, the only spectacle I witnessed was glitter on the pavement, hinting about yesterday's blend of anarchic chaos and well organised large-scale parade.
Oh well, I circle 11-13 of March 2019 in my calendar and have to "settle" for the Fasnacht-themed paintings this time. It's no surprise that such bold, deep-rooted festivities get observed by the creative members of the society, especially, if those members feel connected to the ordinary people of the street, like Max Kämpf (1912-1982) and Charles Hindenlang (1894-1960) did.
Max Kämpf "Study for procession of Masks" (1938)
Charles Hindenlang "Morgestraich [Beginning of the Basler Fasnacht in the Morning at 4am] (1929)
Kämpf maintains the typical dark-toned colour palette even in the depiction of the colour-bursting masquerade and thus evokes rather grim emotions. To me the mood resembles a wartime, which was one of the artist's favourite topics. The participants are marching with confidence and a rush as if they are rising for a fight. Does Kämpf really capture the excitement of the Carnival? I'd say yes – through the fusion of abstract and figurative image the festive mood shows its nose.
Hindenlang hyperbolises the facials expressions to convey the emotions of the participants and the curious spectators. It's reached not only through the colours but also through the form – look at those snub-nosed spectators! Almost comic situation, revealing the level of interest in the Carnival.
While some artists look for inspiration in the society, others turn to intimacy. Hermann Scherer (1893-1927), Swiss Expressionist painter and sculptor, uses wood to express the latter and sculpts up "Penthesilea" (1925). He chooses Greek mythology as the source of inspiration for the exploration of sexual phrenzy.
Where is the love? Dominated by women! In this instance, by the Amazonian queen Penthesilea, a member of the legendary race of warrior women, who were loyal to Troy. According to the myth, Penthesilea was killed by Achilles in the Trojan War, even though she was wise and brave and fought as valiantly and successfully as the men.
The piece constitutes female power. Her sexual dominance is revealed through her body language – the arm, firmly holding his shoulder, and the knee, set against his palm. The awkwardly lying man is clearly submissive to the power of this mighty queen, even tensed up by the fear of being under control. Is he about to lose his life?
Hermann Scherer "Penthesilea" (1925)
Albert Müller "Woman and Girl" (1924)
Hermann Scherer "Villa Loverciana with Blossoming Trees" (1926)
The two paintings – Müller's "Woman and Girl" (1924) and Scherer "Villa Loverciana with Blossoming Trees" (1926) – suggest artists' passion for red and blue. Not accidentally – Both the artists were co-founders of the art group "Rot-Blau", that was established in response to difficult working conditions for young painters and sculptors in Basel. A socio-critical approach and a new stylistic bias against the prevailing dark-toned art of Basel made themselves noticeable in the high-contrast colour palette. Such stylistic and and thematic expression was thought to be rather scandalous and some of the works were considered offensive. In spite of the initial reaction, The "Rot-Blau" group significantly influenced painting in Switzerland and helped to establish Expressionism and artistic modernity.
Wasn't it an inspiring afternoon? Some artworks grabbed my attention for the expressive colours, others – for the compelling, surreal stories. Go see it for yourself! I promise, you'll be inspired. Inspired to look at the multifaceted sides of humanity from more than one perspective of yours.
St. Alban-Graben 16, 4051 Basel, Switzerland