The Kunstmuseum comes to Madrid

Basel gallery allows 170 of its works to leave Switzerland for first time for historic show

Workers ready the exhibition of Kunstmuseum works at the Reina Sofía.
Workers ready the exhibition of Kunstmuseum works at the Reina Sofía.Samuel Sanchez

Escorted by police vehicles, the five climate-controlled trucks began arriving one at a time, for security reasons, at the end of February. Aboard each was a specially assigned courier tasked with ensuring the journey passed off without incident. After covering the 1,649 kilometers from the Kunstmuseum in the Swiss city of Basel to Madrid, their precious cargo was unloaded at the Reina Sofía modern art museum. The crates were taken straight to the rooms where their contents would be exhibited and left for 24 hours, allowing them to adapt to their new conditions. Only then were they opened by curators, who began unpacking a treasure trove that included works by Picasso, Kandinsky, Van Gogh, Giacometti, Gauguin, Cézanne, Monet, Rothko, Klee, Munch, Gris, Léger, Warhol, Chagall, Mondrian, Richter, and Modigliani.

In total, around 170 works will be on display for six months between March 18 and September 14, many of them going on show outside Switzerland for the first, and possibly, last time.

Among the works on show will be the world’s most expensive painting: Gauguin’s When Will You Marry?

The Reina Sofía has taken advantage of the fact that the Kunstmuseum is currently closed for refurbishment to borrow some of the planet’s best-known works of art. Among them, from July onward, will be the world’s most expensive painting: Gauguin’s When Will You Marry?, which was on loan to the Kunstmuseum, but has recently been bought by a gallery in Qatar for a record €275 million. The Kunstmuseum has also lent no less than 10 of its prized Picassos, which will form the centerpiece of the exhibition.

Preparations for the show are well in hand, and most of the canvasses are already in situ, waiting to be hung, leaned against walls in the gallery, or placed on tables. Among them are Paul Klee’s wonderful Senecio and three well-known portraits of Jewish notables painted by Marc Chagall that only left Switzerland for the first time in 2013, to be shown in Vienna.

“The couriers that accompanied the paintings are working with us, and will stay until the works have been hung,” says Manuela Gómez, the curator overseeing the exhibition. “We have examined the works together, and then we sign a report confirming their state.”

One of the Kunstmuseum works is put in place at the Reina Sofía.
One of the Kunstmuseum works is put in place at the Reina Sofía.Samuel Sánchez

“The works are checked, photographed, and reports are made out, both during packing and unpacking, to testify to the state of the works, in case there are any problems with them or the insurance,” adds Jorge García, the Reina Sofía’s head of preservation. “The type of glove used by the people who move the works can vary, depending on the specific characteristics of the pieces.”

In the gallery dedicated to Cubism, Reina Sofía director Manuel Borja-Villel, along with Bernhard Mendes Bürgi and Nina Zimmer, the Kunstmuseum’s director and deputy director respectively, move between crates in the process of being unpacked. “Installing these pieces on the wall is a performative task,” explains Borja-Villel as he crosses the room. “Once they have been hung, you see some don’t work well together, so you have to adapt the concept and the plans that you had made.” He points out that the Impressionist works are best placed so that they can be seen close up, while works by Warhol or Richter require more space around them.

“This room was to be finished off with a piece by Bruce Nauman, but as soon as it was up and turned on, we realized it contaminated all the others. So in the end, we hung it at the start of the exhibition tour, like a neon advertisement. In art, the exception, instead of confirming the rule, changes it,” adds Borja-Villel.

The exhibition is divided into two parts: White Fire, made up of 106 pieces from the Kunstmuseum’s collection of modern art, shows how art has evolved from the end of the 19th century to the present. It includes paintings, sculpture, collages, photography and video, and will be held on the ground floor of the museum.

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The second part is called Collectionism and Modernity and draws on the Im Obersteg and Rudolf Staechelin collections, much of which have been on loan to the Kunstmuseum over recent decades. The 60 or so pieces from the two collections have never been seen outside Basel before, and provide a perspective on modern figurative painting from the end of the 19th century up to around 1940 and include works such as Van Gogh’s Daubigny’s Garden and Picasso’s Arlequin au loup.

Borja-Villel says the Reina Sofía Museum was tipped off about the possibility of borrowing part of the Kunstmuseum’s holdings two years ago, thanks to C. Raman Schlemmer, who has lent part of his collection to the Madrid gallery. “He called and said the museum in Basel was going to close for refurbishment. So I contacted Mendes-Bürgi and said I would be delighted to have the works,” says Borja-Villel.

The Kunstmuseum has lent the pieces free of charge, while the costs of transporting them here and exhibiting them have been covered by the Madrid regional government and the foundation set up by Spanish infrastructure company Abertis.

Two Picassos in one

Among the works that will go on display from March 18 at the Reina Sofía Museum is a Picasso painted on both sides of the same canvas: Buveuse d'absinthe and Femme dans la loge, both dating from 1901.

Manuel Gómez, the exhibition’s curator, says that after reaching agreement with the Kunstmuseum, the Reina Sofía designed a special stand for the work that will allow visitors to view both sides.

The Picasso – along with works by Gauguin, Van Gogh, Renoir, Redon, Pissarro, Manet, Modigliani, Monet, Cézanne, Chagall, Soutine, Jawlensky and Hodler – is from two collections created by two Swiss businessmen, Rudolf Staechelin and Karl Im Oberstag, who died in 1946 and 1969 respectively. Staechelin began buying French late 19th-century art in 1914, while Im Obersteg focused on contemporary pieces starting from 1916. The two collections provide a overview of modern figurative painting up until 1940.

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