United by art, split by the Rhine
Basel treats everyone alike to a feast of museums, galleries, and public art
BASEL — Perched atop a corner pedestal of the Middle Bridge and looking down on the Rhine, she may be the most recognizable woman in this city. Photographed at dusk or in full sunlight, she turns up on postcards at Basel kiosks as often as this northwestern city’s 11th-century Münster cathedral. She has even landed on a commemorative postage stamp.
Baslers know her as “Helvetia auf der Reise,’’ German for “Helvetia on the Journey.’’
She is the bronze, barefoot creation of sculptor Bettina Eichin, who was among five local artists asked by a government arts program to propose an idea for the bridge in the late 1970s. Eichin chose to portray the allegorical female figure that graces Switzerland’s two-franc coin as if she were resting at the end of a cross-country voyage, deep in thought, eyes gazing upstream, past the city’s French and German borders.
Yet in spite of Helvetia’s postcard popularity, Eichin, 68, recalls with a touch of defiance a cool reception upon the statue’s inauguration 30 years ago. “There is always a style in art, and at that time in sculpture, it was more abstract,’’ she said from her basement studio looking out on the Rhine. “To do a sculpture that is realistic, the critics don’t accept this. They said, ‘That’s 19th century. The men find it pretty, but it’s not art.’ ’’
If that were the case, it would be hard to say where the boundaries for art begin and end in Switzerland’s third-largest city, a border town split by the river. While Basel can’t claim a cutting-edge arts scene on par with Paris or Berlin, few cities can rival the range and amount of art available to its 190,000 inhabitants. Beyond its nearly 30 museums — spanning ancient art to cartoon work — and twice as many galleries, Basel brims with visual treats on both sides of the Rhine.
Intricate frescoes decorate the walls and inner courtyard of the imposing red Rathaus, or City Hall, at Marktplatz, built shortly after Basel joined the Swiss Confederation in 1501. Modern sculptures fill dozens of public spaces. Menacing, green-carved basilisks are a common motif for many of the city’s ornate fountains. Art, in some form, seemingly pops out at you at every turn. Some of it is quirky — like Jean Tinguely’s mechanical sculptures that playfully spray water from a large pool not far from the Church of St. Elisabeth. The pharmaceutical giant
If you look up at the busy corner of Eisengasse and Schifflände just across from the Middle Bridge, don’t be surprised to catch the mounted, gold-crowned head of the “Lälle König,’’ the “Tongue King,’’ periodically sticking out his tongue and rolling his eyes. It’s a replica of the copper 17th-century original, which also had an internal clock-like mechanism and now rests in the city’s Historical Museum.
Yet Baslers take most pride in their Kunstmuseum, which claims the world’s oldest public art collection, dating to 1661, and the Fondation Beyeler, which features pieces collected over five decades by the late Ernst and Hildy Beyeler.
While the latter typifies the philanthropic side of Basel’s wealthy, a trip to see Picassos at the Kunstmuseum tells more about the everyman. In 1967, Basel citizens voted overwhelmingly to use tax money to purchase two works by Picasso. The artist was so touched that he gave the museum four more.
“It’s interesting when a city chooses to buy Picasso artwork over repairing trams or growing programs for kindergartens,’’ said Isabel Balzer, a German-born art historian who runs an art-consulting company in Basel. “I don’t think you’d find that in the US. People here are very eager and open to supporting art.’’
They seem equally open to visitors, and not just the tens of thousands of connoisseurs who flock each June to Art Basel, considered one of the most important modern and contemporary art fairs in the world.
Most people speak English quite well — and if not, French. Even those who converse only in the Basel dialect of Swiss-German usually make some effort to communicate. Perhaps the openness is a result of the daily influx of German and French neighbors who work in the city, which has prospered for centuries.
Around 44 BC, Romans built the colony of Augusta Raurica six miles from today’s Basel, high on a plateau just south of the river. While it’s odd to see modern houses across the street from the expansive, open-air archeological museum — including a Roman theater and other ruins — villagers don costumes the final weekend in August for a Roman festival, demonstrating crafts and trades that helped the area thrive through its first three centuries.
Not far from St. Alban-Tor, one of Basel’s three remaining city gates, you can stroll along canals that 11th-century monks dug for a water mill, which 500 years later became the basis for a paper-making and publishing industry. Switzerland’s oldest university, which dates from 1460, was a magnet for creative minds like Erasmus, whose Greek New Testament was published here in 1516.
While smokestacks along the Rhine are the signs of Basel’s chemical and pharmaceutical industries, those businesses evolved from the need for dyes in the 18th century. That’s when textiles from nearby Alsace and Basel’s silk ribbon production thrived, thanks to the ability to transport along the river.
Yet for all its financial success, the city is refreshingly laid-back by Swiss standards. In the summer, it’s not uncommon to see people wading into the Rhine for an after-work swim. Kiosks sell orange, fish-shaped bags that seal and roll up to form a kind of flotation device, so that at the end of your swim, you can climb onto the bank, pull out a towel, and enjoy a cold beverage from a nearby beer stand.
While Basel is hardly one of the cheaper places to eat — think $25 for a basic main course — there’s no shortage of inexpensive activity. For about $1.50 you can cross the Rhine by one of four ferries powered by the current and a strong cable anchored on either side of the river.
Climb the 200 steps of the Münster cathedral for a spectacular city view, or enjoy the 10-minute brass ensemble that performs from either the church tower or cloister each Saturday afternoon around 5. Just up the hill from Barfüsserplatz, organists from around the world come to play on the 1718 Silbermann at the late-Gothic St. Leonard’s Church, which has free concerts each Friday evening. It’s next door to an old prison, which houses one of the town’s better French restaurants at Hotel Brasserie au violon.
Many hotels offer free tram passes, but you can capture more flavor by traveling on foot. My favorite way to enter the old town starts at the double towers of the majestic Spalentor city gate. Follow the road down to the left onto Spalenberg, where you can spend hours peeking at lithographs and old maps in the window of Stichkabinett or peruse the year-round Christmas decorations for sale at Johann Wanner. If the pungent smell of unpasteurized cheese whets your appetite, stop at Glausi’s cheese shop. Otherwise, head on to the chocolate and confection shops near Marktplatz where you can sample Basel’s traditional, flat, chewy biscuits called “läckerli.’’
While Baslers love their two-week fall festival and Christmas market, they’re fanatical about their 500-year tradition of Fasnacht — a three-day annual carnival that starts at 4 a.m. the Monday after Ash Wednesday. With loud drums and piccolos, costumed groups parade behind 6-foot-tall painted lanterns, singing songs and passing out poems poking fun at current events.
If you don’t speak Swiss-German, you probably won’t get the humor. But until May 16, you can at least admire “The Art of Fasnacht’’ exhibit at the Tinguely Museum, featuring lanterns of the past century designed by some of Basel’s most famous artists. And if you can’t understand the Swiss-German descriptions, don’t worry. A Basler won’t mind translating.
Susie Woodhams, a freelance writer based near Basel, can be reached at susiewoodhams@ gmail.com.