Civic Culture of Remembrance and Modernism
From the outset, the museum authorities charged the collections with a federal mission, wanting them to exert a “beneficial and salutary influence on the entire Fatherland”. The “unofficial national gallery” grew over time, primarily through acquisitions of Swiss works of art. When negotiations got underway in 1883 regarding the establishment of a federal museum, the canton of Basel-City sought to be chosen as the location for the new institution and proposed its collections of cultural history as the nucleus of the museum, systematically expanding them in light of its candidacy. While the Swiss National Museum (Schweizerisches Landesmuseum) ended up in Zurich, plans were nevertheless realized for a history museum that was no longer generally Swiss but specifically related to Basel, located in the historic former Barfüsser Church from the High Gothic period. The establishment of the Historical Museum “was a self-assured display of Basel’s art-mindedness and craftsmanship, a mix of educational corridor and enfilade of stalls”. The transfer of the Museum of Applied Arts (Gewerbemuseum) to the state a few years earlier as an arena of contemporary achievements can likewise be seen under the aspect of civic pride and reinvented sense of commonality in which the citizenry understood its ideals and capabilities as a foundation of state and society.
While the collections had clearly established their international standing, this appreciation did not become rooted in the cultural awareness of a broader range of social classes until the end of the 19th century. The historic culture of remembrance that was growing in importance and impact at the time was strongly linked with the medieval collection and the many Late Medieval and Renaissance works of the Upper Rhine in the Kunstmuseum. In the years since, Basel has also cultivated its claim of possessing the oldest municipal art collection in continuous existence through its acquisition of the Amerbach Cabinet. On the occasion of two major public celebrations in 1892 (500th anniversary of Greater Basel’s acquisition of Lesser Basel) and 1901 (Basel’s 400th anniversary as part of the Swiss Confederation), Basel presented the civically minded portion of the population (and hence the base of support for the museums) with a series of identity-shaping historical and patriotic gestures that borrowed from the store of images from the past available in the museums.
With the epochal break of the First World War and in light of societal and cultural developments, the Basel museums became concerned with the citizenry’s assertions of legitimacy and quest for recognition and their representation within these very same institutions. The discussions regarding the relationship of the museums to modernism took on particular relevance in the area of the fine arts. The construction of a dedicated museum for Basel’s art collection ignited a “monumentality debate” in the late 1920s, in which the proponents of functionally oriented New Building (Neues Bauen) rejected the timelessly classic palatial form that was ultimately chosen as a demonstration of power by a conservative and “intellectually spent” notion of culture. In contrast to the form of architectural expression and the general anti-modernistic spirit of the 1930s, the acquisitions from the 1920s up to the outbreak of the Second World War took a decisively modern tack. In 1934, the public art collection added its first painting by Vincent van Gogh along with an ensemble of 134 drawings by Paul Cézanne. Founded in 1933, the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation supported the Kunstmuseum in these efforts and took up residence in the facility with its works of contemporary art in 1940. The breakthrough in altering the overall profile came with the special funding credit provided by the Basel-City parliament in 1939 at the instigation of museum director Georg Schmidt for the purchase of German museum holdings that the National Socialists had vilified as “degenerate art”.
The establishment of classical modernism at the Kunstmuseum continued with ongoing acquisitions of postwar-era art, in particular with works by American artists. In Basel’s claim to being a “Museum City”, the highly controversial and unsuccessful referendum against the purchase of two Picasso paintings in 1967 holds considerable importance and constitutes a key moment in Basel’s culture of remembrance in regard to the fusing of society and museum.
Famous quotes containing the words modernism, remembrance, civic and/or culture:
“By Modernism I mean the positive rejection of the past and the blind belief in the process of change, in novelty for its own sake, in the idea that progress through time equates with cultural progress; in the cult of individuality, originality and self-expression.”
—Dan Cruickshank (b. 1949)
“Thus I alone, where all my freedom grew,
In prison pine with bondage and restraint;
And with remembrance of the greater grief
To banish the less, I find my chief relief.”
—Henry Howard, Earl Of Surrey (1517?1547)
“But look what we have built ... low-income projects that become worse centers of delinquency, vandalism and general social hopelessness than the slums they were supposed to replace.... Cultural centers that are unable to support a good bookstore. Civic centers that are avoided by everyone but bums.... Promenades that go from no place to nowhere and have no promenaders. Expressways that eviscerate great cities. This is not the rebuilding of cities. This is the sacking of cities.”
—Jane Jacobs (b. 1916)
“Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy for promoting the progress of the arts and the sciences and a flourishing culture in our land.”
—Mao Zedong (18931976)