Temples of Basel

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 55, Summer 2018

Page 33

Away from the feverish deal-making of the annual art fair, Georgina Adam finds a city that brims with culture

For anyone who works in the art trade, Art Basel – the modern and contemporary art fair that is held every June in Switzerland's
third biggest city – is the high point of the year. With almost 300 top-flight galleries exhibiting everything from million-dollar Picassos to work by younger, less-stellar names, this is the place to take the pulse of the art market, to see everyone – but everyone – who counts, from collectors to curators, auctioneers, dealers and advisers.

The event opens with a two-day private viewing that's by invitation only – but even then there is a hierarchy: the higher up the VIP list you are, the earlier you can get in. So each year – well in advance of the opening – well-heeled, designer-clad visitors line up in front of the massive exhibition centre, the Messe. From there, they might even run to their favoured stands to confirm the purchase of a work of art that they had already seen as a JPEG.

Greeting friends and air-kissing their way around the fair, visitors usually pause in the central atrium to grab a bratwurst and a beer, before throwing themselves back into the mêlée. And, as the sun sets, the evening continues with smart dinners bringing together dealers and their favoured clients.

Successfully navigating Art Basel is in itself an art form: I confess I sometimes pretend not to see someone, just because I would otherwise never get around the fair. This is because the main fair is just the start of the story: the gigantic Hall 2 boasts equally oversized works, a Herzog & de Meuron extension houses a design fair, while around the city smaller satellites, such as Liste, have set up shop.

The antidote to fair overload is to spend some time in Basel itself. I try to visit at least some of the city's extraordinary art collections and museums as well. First stop is the old town on the west bank of the Rhine. Here there is the Marktplatz, with its impressive red sandstone town hall, which dates from 1504. There is a market most days, with fresh produce, cheese and sausages – I never fail to take something home.

Close by is the Romanesque and Gothic Minster, on which work began in the 11th century and was not finished until 1500. Again, it was built in red sandstone, and it is distinguished by its twin spires. Climb them for spectacular views across the river and into Germany.

From there it is a short walk to the Kunstmuseum. This is a stellar collection, with a host of Holbeins as well as modern works by Modigliani and Picasso. The rich holdings of Old Masters, with their depictions of mundane torture and Hell, are as shocking as anything that contemporary art can offer.

The Museum Tinguely should not be overlooked: it displays dozens of the Swiss artist's kinetic sculptures, joyfully subversive expressions of human creativity – not least his 1988 sculpture of Engels, made in part from lavatory flush chains.

The Schaulager, a museum which combines open storage and exhibitions in a vast, blocky building – again designed by the ubiquitous Herzog & de Meuron – is a tram-ride away, but an added reason for visiting it
this summer is a Bruce Nauman retrospective which runs until 26 August.

Even if time is short, I always try to visit the Fondation Beyeler. Although it is only 15 minutes from the centre of Basel, the Renzo Piano building overlooks verdant fields dotted with grazing cows. Every year, it holds a blockbuster show timed to coincide with Art Basel. The current exhibition, Bacon-Giacometti, runs until 2 September.

The permanent collection alone, including titans of modern art from Monet to Calder, makes a perfect end to an artistic city break.

Georgina Adam writes for the Financial Times and The Art Newspaper.

Where to stay

The place to stay when you are in Basel is the sumptuous and expensive five-star Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois (Blumenrain 8, +41 61 260 50 50, However, getting a room at the Three Kings during Art Basel takes some doing. Should you manage it, you find that the smart salons and the hotel's balcony overlooking the Rhine are where the cream of the art world, from collectors to auctioneers, gather. The elegant three-star Teufelhof Basel (Leonhards-graben 49, +41 61 261 10 10,, with its 'art rooms' and Michelin-starred restaurant, is another highly sought after place to stay.

If you like something a bit more quirky, try the concrete and bright colours of the four-star Nomad Hotel (Brunngässlein 8, +41 61 690 91 60, Now a comfortable and stylish boutique hotel, it was created from a 1950s apartment block. The location is very central,
only two minutes' walk from the Kunstmuseum. Another option is the three-star Hotel Rochat (Petersgraben 23, +41 61 261 81 40,, situated close to the old town. Established by the Blue Cross temperance organisation in 1899 – and counting Lenin and Hermann Hesse among its previous guests – it remains a simple, but efficient place.

Where to eat

First stop in the evening for hungry and thirsty art aficionados is a famous bar and brasserie whose renovations were, once more, designed by Basel-based architects Herzog & de Meuron. The Volkshaus (Rebgasse 12-14, +41 61 690 93 10, has an elegant interior and a comfortable beer garden, but at night it positively pulsates with energy and good humour. For a glass or two of fine wine, the popular Invino (Bäumleingasse 9, +41 61 333 77 70, offers five red and five white wines, which are changed every month or so. Cold meats and cheese are also on hand.

For something more substantial and formal, dine at the Michelin-starred Cheval Blanc (Blumenrain 8, +41 61 260 50 07,; pictured below), the restaurant at the Three Kings hotel – another firm favourite with the art crowd. For simpler fare, Cantina Don Camillo (2nd floor, Burgweg 7, +41 61 693 05 07, is in a former brewery and has a lovely rooftop balcony. Finally, try Schlüsselzunft (Freie Strasse 25, +41 61 261 20 46, in Basel's oldest guildhall. G.A.

Related auctions