Matisse in Space -- and Switzerland

Sunday, March 19, 2006

WHAT: "Henri Matisse: Figure Color Space" at the Beyeler Foundation in Basel, Switzerland

WHEN: Today through July 9


WHY GO: French master Henri Matisse liked to break the rules when it came to perspective and space, through his revolutionary use of color and the ever-present figures in his paintings.

For that, the entire art community is grateful. "His openness and open-mindedness is extremely appealing," says Ulf Kuester, a curator of the Matisse exhibit at the Beyeler Foundation, an eight-year-old museum with more than 200 modern paintings and sculptures accumulated by master collectors Hildy and Ernst Beyeler. "He is an extremely influential artist, even for many artists today."

The exhibit -- which homes in on how figures and color in Matisse's works pushed the concept of space to its limit -- comprises more than 160 paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints from throughout his career and collected worldwide.

The unique countryside setting of this museum, designed by acclaimed architect Renzo Piano and situated just outside downtown Basel, adds yet more flavor to the exhibit. The show's works cover his early years -- when quiet interiors dominated his work -- to his exquisite cutouts from the 1940s onward.

DON'T MISS . . . the iconic "Blue Nude I," one of the artist's cutouts. Depicting a crouching woman, the 1952 work is a study in erotic contemplation. While nudes were certainly not an original subject matter by the time Matisse came along, his depiction of them based primarily on the use of color was something entirely new.

Local art lovers may be familiar with 1935's "The Pink Nude," because it's on loan from the Baltimore Museum of Art and is considered a 20th-century masterpiece. "The Portrait of Olga Merson" (1911) depicts the Russian woman who was deeply in love with Matisse in real life. Her unfinished face suggests a complex person whom Matisse found enigmatic.

EXTRAS: Time your trip for mid-June, when the annual international art show Art Basel ( http://www.artbasel.com/ ) takes place. The event overtakes Basel, a city of nearly 200,000 on the Rhine River in northern Switzerland. It runs June 14-18 and features contemporary works from more than 2,000 artists from 300 art galleries in 30-plus countries.

Every other Friday night beginning April 7, visitors can take an exclusive evening tour of the Matisse exhibit, including a four-course dinner at the foundation's Berower Park Restaurant ($68 per person). The museum also offers a similar brunch package on selected Sundays.

SLEEPS: Basel's Three Kings Hotel (8 Blumenrain, 011-41-61-260-5050, http://www.lestroisrois.com/ ), founded in 1026, is the oldest hotel in Europe. Newly reopened after closing for renovations, its 88 luxury rooms and suites provide views of the Rhine. The history and location will cost you: Rooms start at $269 a night. For another authentic Swiss experience at a cheaper rate, try the sprawling Swissotel Le Plaza (25 Messeplatz, 011-41-61-555-3333, http://www.swissotel.com/ ). Sure, it's a chain hotel, but the ones in Switzerland set the standard. Rooms start at $150.

All hotels in Basel are about a 15-minute tram ride to the foundation, or a little quicker if you're driving.

EATS: The Berower Park Restaurant (77 Baselstrasse, 011-41-61-645-9770) is on the foundation campus in a historic residence; if the weather's right, tables are set in the garden, where diners can view sculptures by Alexander Calder and Ellsworth Kelly. The fare is light Italian, with entrees ranging from $13 to $18. Otherwise, the city of Basel offers a wide selection of places to eat. One of the better known is the upscale Bel Etage (49 Leonhardsgraben, 011-41-61-261-1010) in the Teufelhof hotel; entrees, featuring French haute cuisine, go for $30 to $45.

INFORMATION: The Beyeler Foundation is at 101 Baselstrasse. Details: 011-41-61-645-9700, http://www.beyeler.com/ .

-- John Maynard

© 2006 The Washington Post Company