The Basel Fasnacht (commonly called Carnival) in its present form is a development of the past hundred years or so. Piccolo players, drummers, drum majors, vanguard, outriders, small wagons, Guggenmusik (often deliberately discordant variations on popular songs played on brass instruments) and cliques (club-like groups that during Fasnacht dress in costume on a particular theme and march to drums and piccolos). Although the individual elements already existed in the nineteenth century, their present combination and the role of themes in the Fasnacht only crystallised in the twentieth century i.e. since the Fasnacht Committee has existed to provide a certain organisational framework. As a tribute to the Fasnacht Committee in its centenary year, the Museum Tinguely
is staging an exhibition on "the art" of the Basel Fasnacht.
A number of artists have played a large, indeed crucial role in the development of the Basel Fasnacht and in particular in the importance attached to annually changing themes that comment on and make fun of political, social and cultural events. The practical realisation of the themes which outsiders often find difficult to understand was often left to artists and graphic designers, who designed the costumes and masks that gave each float its specific character in accordance with the wishes and ideas of the theme commissions. The real showpiece of a float, which also imposes an element of discipline on Fasnacht art, was and is the lantern a canvas-covered frame two to three metres tall that is painted with transparent paint and internally illuminated at night. Carried by hand or mounted on a cart, it depicts the cliques chosen theme for the year. Not surprisingly, lanterns are thus also the clearest manifestation of Fasnacht art and its development.
Introduced in the mid-nineteenth century, the original function of the lanterns was to serve as lamps at the early-morning Morgenstreich procession after torches were banned in 1845. From the start, these lanterns, which initially had paper coverings, were decorated with paintings or drawings. At first, these lanterns were only carried at Morgenstreich and do not appear in pictures of the afternoon processions of the floats. Only in the course of the 1860s did lanterns start to be carried in the afternoon (in the Quodlibet float from about 1864). The painter of the globe lantern of 1866 is one of the first artists known by name: Samuel Baur, a painter and decorator who had already been involved as an artist in the Fasnacht for a number of years before this date. Lanterns from this time appear in drawings by Niclaus Strübin and others. From 1870 onwards, each year's lanterns were recorded in illustrated broadsheets and thus preserved for posterity. The Fasnacht was documented by a number of artists, including Hieronymus Hess, the aforementioned Strübin and Baur, and Karl Jauslin, a lithographer. With the exception of Samuel Baur, the names of specific lantern artists have not been recorded.
The first major lantern artists are recorded between 1900 and 1905: Carl Roschet, who painted for the VKB clique, and Louis Dischler of the Lälli clique. However, widespread interest in the artistry of the painted lanterns took root only after the First World War. This was the beginning of a development that continues to unfold even today. Artists who have contributed to this field include well-known names such as Niklaus Stoecklin, Alexander Zschokke, Charles Hindenlang, Burkhard Mangold, Otto Plattner, Fritz Baumann, Paul Wilde, Max Haufler and Theo Eble and later Max Sulzbachner, Hans Stocker, Theo Ballmer, Jean Willi, Wolf Barth, Kurt Pauletto, Werner Ritter, Hans Weidmann, Max Wilke, Samuel Buri, Elisabeth Thommen, Valerie Heussler and Britta Grob and graphic design artists such as Ferdi Afflerbach, Paul Rudin, Arthur Rudin, Ernst Rudin, Theo Ballmer, Robert Hiltbrand, Hanspeter Hort, Fredy Prack, Christoph Gloor, Werner Nänny, Hanspeter Sommer, Rolf Vogt and Werner Kern. Contemporary artists who have made a name for themselves in this genre include Roland Gazzotti, Lorenz Grieder, Oliver Mayer, Domo Löw, Walter Lienert and Pascal Kotmann. Of course, this list neither attempts to rate the mentioned artists nor is it by any means complete!
From 1921 on, the lanterns were discussed in the National-Zeitung and the individual artists' names published (contrary to the custom of anonymity that applies to other aspects of the Fasnacht). An exhibition of all the lanterns is held every year on Fasnacht Tuesday. This initially took place in a school courtyard, then at the trade fair centre, and nowadays on the Münsterplatz.
The involvement of numerous artists in the preparations for Fasnacht gave rise to a specifically Basel genre, the Fasnachtshelge or Fasnacht caricature. Over the years the Basel Fasnacht has been the subject of a vast quantity of drawings, oil paintings and lithographs ranging from kitsch to sentimentality. Even if most had little or no artistic value, they defined the image of Fasnacht for the rest of the world (and for the households of many Basel Fasnachtgoers for the remainder of the year). In the exhibition at the Museum Tinguely, these "post-productions" have had to give way to the lantern images, which are certainly the most immediate embodiment of the artistic esprit of the Basel Fasnacht. The selection of about 20 lantern canvases from the past one hundred years bears testimony to the power of these ephemeral images, records the phenomenal development of lantern painting and expresses the artistic will that is unique to the creators of the Fasnacht floats. Of course, it goes without saying that this exhibition presents only a selection, a part of a much larger, more comprehensive whole. At some point it will be possible to view "everything" in the Fasnacht Museum.
The involvement of artists motivated a few famous artists to actively grapple with the Basel Fasnacht as an artistic subject. The two most important contributions are certainly those of Jean Tinguely and Joseph Beuys.
In 1979 Beuys donated Feuerstätte II (The Hearth II) to the Kunstmuseum Basel. This installation was created after the Fasnacht in which the Alti Richtig clique satirised the purchase of Beuys The Hearth (Feuerstätte). The float and the interpretation of the topic obviously appealed to the artist, who not only visited Basel for the Fasnacht, but worked together with the Fasnacht clique to create The Hearth II using the props and costumes from the float.
For his part, Jean Tinguely celebrated Fasnacht with the Kuttlebutzer from the early 1970s onwards, on the one hand creating floats for his clique and on the other using Fasnacht masks as a theme in his sculptures. In the exhibition, the 1988 work LAvant-Garde directly addresses Tinguelys impressions of the Fasnacht, while other sculptures such as Self-portrait in the Centre Pompidou, Paris or the Fasnacht Fountain (Fasnachtsbrunnen) in Basel document his enormous interest in this manifestation as masquerade and dance of death.
Perhaps the Fasnacht's view of art and artists' view of the Fasnacht also reflect the openness with which the city has consistently responded to new developments in art. Ridicule and irony may have been instrumental in making it easier for some to come to terms with new and unknown phenomena. Seen in this way, "Fasnacht & Art & Tinguely" are old acquaintances who once again are jointly honoured at the Museum Tinguely.