Exhibition at Kunstmuseum Basel pays homage to its most important patron

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Exhibition at Kunstmuseum Basel pays homage to its most important patron
Installation view Kunstmuseum Basel | Hauptbau Künstler, Beteiligte: Bilderlust. Louise Bachofen-Burckhardt - Sammeln und Stiften in Basel. Photo: Julian Salinas

BASEL.- A hundred years after the death of Louise Bachofen-Burckhardt (1845–1920), the Kunstmuseum pays homage to its most important patron in the early twentieth century. The exhibition in the main building’s ground floor galleries presents many of the outstanding works that Bachofen-Burckhardt secured for the museum.

“It is my ardent hope that I will yet be able to acquire many a fine piece for the beloved city of my ancestors,” the collector wrote to Wilhelm von Bode in January 1916; the eminent art historian, who led the Berlin State Museums from 1905 until 1920, regularly sent her recommendations on paintings to purchase. Her ambitious objective was a fundamental transformation of the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, the public art collection of the City of Basel: a treasure of regional significance with an emphasis on art from the Upper Rhine Valley, it was to become an institution of European standing on a par with museums in London, Berlin, and Paris. To this end, she greatly enlarged the collection of paintings her husband, Jakob Bachofen-Burckhardt, had brought into the marriage and, in 1904, donated all pictures to a foundation she created in his name.

The Kunstmuseum Basel was the foundation’s designated sole beneficiary, and so, upon Louise Bachofen-Burckhardt’s death, no fewer than 303 paintings, dating from between the late Middle Ages and the dawn of the twentieth century, entered the museum’s collection, including major works by Bartolomeo Vivarini, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Hans Memling, Jan Brueghel the Elder, Frans Francken II, Dirck Hals, Nicolaes Maes, Nicolaes Berchem, Jacob van Ruisdael, Jan van Goyen, Harmen Steenwyck, Rachel Ruysch, Jean-Étienne Liotard, and Alexandre-François Desportes.

Extraordinarily self-effacing, Louise Bachofen-Burckhardt shunned public attention—in her last will, she enjoined the papers from printing any obituaries—and dedicated her efforts to the memory of her late husband, the author of the famous book on matriarchy as the origin of all social systems. That is why she has remained a largely obscure figure despite her outstanding achievements: she was without a doubt a leading art collector at a time when few women ventured into this male-dominated field.

The centenary of her death is a welcome opportunity to throw the spotlight on the Kunstmuseum Basel’s benefactress and her activities in the booming art market around 1900. Drawing on unpublished sources, the exhibition devoted to Louise Bachofen-Burckhardt is also a tribute to the generosity of the foundation she established, which, in 2015, made an outright gift of the paintings that had been at the museum on permanent loan for many years.

A Passion for Painting vividly demonstrates how much of the Kunstmuseum’s present-day profile and renown are due to Louise Bachofen-Burckhardt’s endeavors. No less important than the addition of her treasures to the collection—with a single stroke of the pen, she more than doubled the museum’s holdings of Old Master paintings—is her influence as a shining example: a pioneer in the field of art collecting and philanthropy in Switzerland, she was surely an inspiration for many later Basel patrons such as Hans Vonder Mühll and Max Geldner.

Bachofen-Burckhardt was a child of her time, and the exhibition, without disparaging her accomplishments and generosity, offers a critical assessment of her discernment as a collector. A number of works she acquired were later revealed to have been painted by someone other than the artist to whom she had attributed them. Several pictures even show characteristics of regional styles inconsistent with the places of origin with which critics around 1900 associated them. Some works that were thought to be original creations have been reclassified as copies, and in a few instances, Bachofen-Burckhardt was taken in by outright forgeries.

Such reassessments are hardly surprising in a collection built between the final years of the nineteenth century and ca. 1915/20. Open questions clearly remain when it comes to Louise Bachofen-Burckhardt’s Old Master collection. Yet scholars now have a much better understanding of many issues than Louise Bachofen-Burckhardt, Wilhelm von Bode, and their contemporaries could possibly have had. The exhibition seeks to shed light on this development—not in order to call the outstanding merits of this benefactress in question, but so as to document the progress that an entire discipline has made.

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