Last Controversial? Day in Basel

On our last day in Basel we decided to visit the Kunstmuseum. The museum boasts of the largest and most significant art collection in Switzerland. I can confirm that they indeed have a vast array of artworks, which needs much-much-much more than one day for viewing.

The art pieces that stood out for me included my old favorites Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. There was a Gold & Glory exhibit that was overwhelming in its ostentatious triumph. It marked the ironic pursuit of the spiritual, as well as the corporeal, through gaudy gold ambition. Bappi da would have been so proud!

I have to say that this has been one of my most special museums experiences – not just because it was massive, that it was, but because the pieces present spoke to my heart. It was so carefully curated in terms of colors and themes that it emerged like soulful poetry. Here are some the artworks I found beautiful:

I found a special exhibition called Controversial? at the museum quite exceptional. It was introspective. Cleverly positioned, on one hand it seemed to add the academic layer of perspective, and on the other hand, it justified the entire museum collection – almost giving permission for voyeurism. Making being contemporary (thereby more aware) a tool for legitimization of the past in a terribly commercial manner. It did make for controversial viewing, after all the most controversial part was us in the museum – LOOKING in – LOOKING at – LOOKING for.

KP Brehmer, The Feeling Between Fingertips, 1967

The museum described the exhibit as:

Numerous museums recently found themselves put on the defensive by critics who demanded that they justify the presence in their collections of works of art that were regarded, for a variety of reasons, as provocative. The media picked up on these challenges, sparking broad-based public debates, and the responses of the institution’s leaders were not always even-tempered and apt to effectively rebut the accusations.

Like other museums, the Kunstmuseum Basel, too, has many objects that, depending on a viewer’s vantage point, may be seen as controversial. This presentation of art from our collection zooms in on the issue, showcasing works, from our holdings that prompted critical discussion when they were made or when they were acquired, that still rub some people the wrong way—or have started doing so only now. Some of them proved or still prove contentious with the general public, while others have met with objections from specific audiences.

Guerrilla Girls, Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into The Met Museum?, 1989

The presentation, which includes selections from all divisions of our collection from the Old Masters to contemporary art aims to examine current debates over art and its ability to provoke. Rather than narrowly focusing on the—genuine or fabricated—scandals around individual works or artists, we see today’s sometimes vitriolic arguments over art as an opportunity to reconsider well-known as well as less familiar works from a different angle and enrich their discussion with new facets.

The show is meant as a reminder that our perceptions and assessments of works of art are always framed by contemporary social and political realities. What we see when we contemplate them usually reflects only a fraction of the many layers of meaning contained within them, and even tomorrow we may have a very different perspective.

Paula Modersohn-Becker, Self-Portrait Semi-Nude with Amber Necklace II, 1906

The Basel Kunstmuseum is going to hold a special place in my heart because it made me uncomfortable about how much I enjoy going to the museum and studying artworks with unabashed pleasure. Let’s put it in a more cliched/understandable way – it made me think. I have always examined why an artist drew something or someone, or why a museum chose to display it. I have also looked into how art is shown – where its put and what it is meant to incite. I had never delved into my role in this entire process. I was always apart. Someone who was a bystander. This exhibition included me. I considered myself, as being brown, as being a woman, …and wanting to be there to see these works.

In the reexamination of my intention and ideas I had to seek reasons why I enjoyed it (looking) so much. I know I am not going to stop visiting museums or contemplating over brush strokes, however, now I will have this exhibit whispering in my ear, “Hey, you are looking….”

3 responses to “Last Controversial? Day in Basel”

  1. […] What engaged me most in this article is its reflection on looking. Olds says, “And I thought, well I’m glad I didn’t think it would be cool to have some tricky thing like “stop” at the end of the poem because I like the sense that once we’ve looked at a painting the looking doesn’t stop—it stays within us.” I had dwelled on this aspect previously, wondering: “after all the most controversial part was us in the museum – LOOKING in – LOOKING at – LOOKING….” […]


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