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Biding My Time At Fondation Beyeler

November 24, 2008

I never understood the fascination that special/traveling exhibitions exert upon museum goers. What's the fun of lining up with hundreds of people (and, in the case of many art institutions, paying a premium) to spend a few hours in a packed, overheated gallery straining to see a bunch of paintings over people's heads when you can enjoy the museum's permanent collection in relative quiet and spacious ease?

The pleasure I get from permanent collections isn't just to do with the fact that I don't like crowds. A traveling exhibition might be full priceless masterpieces or provide art lovers with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the entire gamut of works by a famous painter or group of artists. But it's the permanent collection that reveals the true character of a museum. So I don't often bother with special shows. More often than not, I'll make a beeline for those dimly-lit, whispering enclaves where fewer people go and an old, uniformed guard sits snoring quietly in a corner.

It doesn't take long to find this hallowed spot in the Beyeler Fondation. I visited this cozy, Swiss museum located on the outskirts of Basel a couple of weeks ago. It was a rainy Tuesday and the place was packed. But happily for me, few people were interested in the permanent collection. They were all there for the museum's special exhibit of Venetian landscapes, Venice: From Canaletto and Turner to Monet. I shouldered past the thundering hoards and soon found peace among the museum's airy exhibition halls.

Gallery owners Hildy and Ernst Beyeler built up their world-class collection of works by 20th century masters over a period of 50 years. The collection, which currently comprises around 200 works, was first publicly exhibited in its entirety at the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid in 1989. The opening of the Renzo Piano-designed Fondation Beyeler in October 1997 provided the Beyeler Collection with a public museum. The museum includes works by modern masters such as Cézanne, Picasso, Rousseau, Mondrian, Klee, Ernst, Matisse, Newman, Bacon, Dubuffet and Baselitz as well as a few objects from Africa, Alaska and Oceania.

What's breathtaking about the museum is the relationship between some of the art works on display and the space itself. An entire room devoted to Monet lily pad paintings is offset by sight of real lily pads in the pond just outside the wall-length windows. Even on the dull, wintry day that I visited the museum, the link between art and nature seemed beguilingly porous. A huge square room with high ceilings made for the perfect setting for four enormous Anselm Kiefer canvases including the dizzying 1997 cityscape, "Lilith". I felt cowed by their imposing dimensions and barren atmosphere.

My very favorite part of the Beyeler Fondation's collection is the weirdest-looking Rodin sculpture I've ever seen. With her earthy limbs akimbo, Rodin's bronze "Iris, Messenger of the Gods" looks like she might explode off the pedestal. The work is one of the most kinetic sculptures I've ever seen. My heart beat faster ever time I came close to the bronze statue. I visited her four times that afternoon and each time I got the same result.

I felt so invigorated by the time I had breezed my way through the Beyeler's permanent collection that I found myself with energy to spare. So I decided to tackle the Venice exhibition anyway. I did my best to enjoy the carefully curated selection of paintings, but I didn't stay for long. There was always someone breathing down my neck trying to get closer to the canvases. I couldn't concentrate on anything for more than a few seconds before feeling pressured to move on. If only I could break in one evening and prowl around the exhibit in the moonlight on my own time.

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