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Experimental feature

Some art dealers are merely greedy, while others can damage artists’ careers by encouraging them to lapse into commercially successful yet arid formulae. Ernst and Hildy Beyeler, by contrast, can be ranked among the great dealers, who give at least as much as they receive. Ten years ago, their Foundation inaugurated a custom-built museum to house an exceptional collection of about 200 paintings and sculpture from the modern period. They were the works retained by the Beyelers during their 60-year business partnership in Basel.

Renzo Piano was commissioned to design the museum in a secluded suburb. He excelled himself, deploying a quietly seductive combination of glass and red porphyry.

Although a panoramic conservatory on the west side provides beguiling views of parkland beyond, nothing is allowed to distract from the exhibits. We can focus on a
parade of images, from Cézanne’s tense, haunted portrait of his wife, to Picasso’s startlingly aggressive 1907 “Woman”, to Rothko at his most warm and redemptive.

Now, for its 10th anniversary, the Fondation Beyeler has organised a special exhibition. Some of the most outstanding paintings and sculpture sold by the Beyelers from their premises in Basel’s Baumleingasse have been borrowed from museums and private collectors across the world.

Among the earliest is a poignant portrait of “The Artist’s Mother” by Gauguin. Although painted in about 1893, more than 25 years after her death, it shows the young woman he remembered from his childhood. His father had died soon after Gauguin’s birth, when the family embarked on a voyage to Peru. He looked back on his six years in South America with immense gratitude: they gave him the potent vision of paradise he would later pursue in Tahiti, and his half-Peruvian mother gazes out of this glowing canvas like a goddess from some tantalisingly irrecoverable realm.

No such precise geographical sources can be discovered for Kandinsky’s sublime “Painting with Three Spots”, lent by the Thyssen Museum in Madrid. By the time he executed this large canvas in 1914, Kandinsky had escaped from representation into a freewheeling alternative, inspired by the freedom of modern music and his own mystical convictions. As its uncompromising title suggests, he is now hovering on the very edge of abstraction. Even so, a strong feeling of intergalactic energy permeates the painting, along with Kandinsky’s prophetic awareness that the world was about to be engulfed by war.

Two years later, Fernand Léger managed to sum up the trauma of conflict in “Soldier with a Pipe”. Based on studies of a wounded man with a bandaged head at the Verdun front, this tough painting is largely confined to a combination of white, sepia and umber. The austerity is alleviated, just above the centre, by a slash of scarlet. But it inflames the soldier’s cheek, suggesting that blood is seeping through his bandage. His piston-like arms show how rigid he has become in his attempt to endure the appalling dangers of front-line duty.

It is a relief, after such a relentless vision, to come across Paul Klee’s “Rose Garden”. Painted in 1920, when the artist secured his influential teaching post at the Bauhaus, this sensuous picture shares Kandinsky’s fascination with musical rhythms. Although roses dominate the image, their surroundings cannot be pinned down. But we do know that more than 600 pictures by Klee passed through the Galerie Beyeler, many of them ending up at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf – the city from which Klee was forced to escape when the Nazis denounced him in 1933 as a “degenerate artist”.

At first glance, Pierre Bonnard’s two paintings of a young nude woman in a bathroom may seem far more straightforward than Klee’s work. But then we realise that they focus on Marthe, whom Bonnard had married 30 years before. Sequestered in their south of France hideaway, she never ages in her husband’s enraptured work. Bonnard was determined to make his art defy the passing of time; stretched out in the bathwater, her shimmering, elusive figure begins to look as if she is melting into the light. How, I wonder, could the Beyelers bear to sell these irresistible paintings, and do they regret their decision today?

Giacometti’s bronze women are far more openly vulnerable. Whether standing on a pedestal or clustered together like trees in a forest, they appear emaciated and suffering. Yet somehow, these stricken figures are bent on survival. They remain upright, vigilant and stubborn, even though the surface of their bodies seems so pummelled and broken.

Matisse, by exuberant contrast, ended his long career by celebrating nature, light and vitality in colossal paper cut-outs. Too ill to make them himself, he knew precisely how to guide his assistants, who, with scissors, brushes and gouache, assembled these magisterial late distillations of everything he had learnt. I first felt astounded by “The Parakeet and the Siren” when it was displayed at the Tate many years ago. Although the gallery was hoping to buy it, this titanic cut-out ended up in the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. My disappointment at the time was intense. And seeing it now, I become captivated all over again. Here, in 1952, the octogenarian artist catches both parrot and siren in a whirlwind of brilliantly coloured leaves. Their dynamism extends far beyond the picture’s confines, and continues to pulse through us long after we leave this superlative, life-enhancing show.

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