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Rolf Rappaz – an artist on eternal quest

The exhibition “Rolf Rappaz: A Life with Art and Graphics” celebrates both the work of an artist and the historic building that houses the Rappaz Museum.

By Shirley L. Kearney

The building that houses the collected works of Rolf Rappaz is one of the oldest in Kleinbasel. It dates back to the 11th century and is closely bound to the former Klingental Convent (1274), the site of today’s Kleines Klingental Museum. The Minnesinger and knight Walther von Klingen, donor and supporter of the convent, added Klingental 11 to its existing compound, where it functioned as the nuns’ weaving atelier. The museum is at the corner of Webergasse, or Weavers Lane, and Klingental. The stone archway leading from one street to the other was the entranceway to the properties of the convent.

Inside, three phases of architecture are felt. The space is magical, offering abundant natural light (from one window there is a glimpse of the Rhine) and an attractive openness conducive to exhibiting Rolf Rappaz’s two phases of minimalism, and there are enclosed and open balconies which afford a homey feeling. The ground floor is structurally medieval; a window in the floor exposes a 6 metre deep and excavated well reaching down to ground water (Sodbrunnen) which is normally dry, but, as this summer the weather has not been normal, water has seeped in. A Jugendstil/Art Nouveau staircase leads to the first floor, into a modest Baroque-style area with wide wooden floor boards.

The house remained in private hands until purchased by the city in the 17th century. In the 19th century it was eventually renovated from the outside in. Rolf Rappaz purchased the property in 1971 as his new atelier. After his death in 1996, his widow Gisèle Rappaz established a foundation for the protection and promotion of one man’s dedication to the arts.

The museum celebrates what would have been his 100th birthday with an exhibition focusing on his dynamism and intensity, first in graphic design and then as an artist. Rolf Rappaz was born on 9 September 1914 in Basel and was raised on Claragraben; later he moved to the St. Johann district. At the age of 15, after visiting the first Bauhaus exhibition in Basel, he returned home and, with the aid of a fretsaw, cut his mother’s Jugendstil furniture into simple pieces. This anecdote perhaps holds the key to his eternal quest for compactness, clarity and rationality.

In 1939, he opened his graphic atelier; from 1942 to 1945 he taught at the Gewerbeschule Basel; Jean Tinguely was one of his students. In 1954 he married Gisèle Joly, his muse and partner. Organising exhibitions was not his cup of tea as they would interfere with his work. A second Basel exhibition gave him the courage to redirect his creativity. In 1958 the Kunsthalle Basel, under the aegis of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), presented The New American Paintings. At the same time 40 of Jackson Pollock’s works were exhibited. This milestone convinced Rappaz that he had reached his peak in graphics and opened his eyes and heart to what he could achieve as an artist.

What awaits the visitor?

  1. The building, historical documents and photographs.
  2. Three short films.
  3. Graphic works – his 1945 Muba poster with swirling, spiral banners was, for the media, a symbol of farsightedness, reliance and optimism. It is an icon of Swiss Poster Art.
  4. An exact replication of his graphic atelier.
  5. Several of his conceptual, geometric and reduced-coloured pieces and more.

A jubilee ceremony will take place on Sunday 7 September, venue the Gare du Nord in the Badischer Bahnhof area, when the Basel pianist Jürg Wyttenbach will première his commemorative composition. Reservations required.

The exhibition “Rolf Rappaz: A Life with Art and Graphics” runs until 25 September.

Rappaz Museum, Klingental 11 An historic, architectural and artistic experience

Opening hours: Monday – Thursday, 10 am – 5 pm. Friday – Sunday, upon request. Free entrance. Tours in English may be arranged.

Tram 6, 8, 14, 15 17; Bus 31, 34, 38. Stop Rheingasse.

On the last Tuesday of the month, an “art luncheon” is served at the museum. The dates are: 26 August, 30 September, 28 October and 25 November. Reservations recommended as places are limited; price CHF 30.00.

info@rappazmuseum.ch for reservations; telephone: 076 429 71 21.


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