Exhibition offers a dedicated and comprehensive study of Max Sulzbachner's work

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Exhibition offers a dedicated and comprehensive study of Max Sulzbachner's work
Installation view of Max Sulzbachner. Mondnächte und Basler Tamtam. Photo: Julian Salinas.

BASEL.- The Kunstmuseum Basel’s Kupferstichkabinett (Department of Prints and Drawings) honors the artist Max Sulzbachner (1904–1985), a native son of Basel, with a retrospective in the Hauptbau’s mezzanine gallery and an accompanying publication that survey his rich and diverse oeuvre. Although Sulzbachner is widely known and abidingly popular with Swiss audiences, his art has never been the subject of a dedicated and comprehensive study. The exhibition and catalogue close this gap in the historiography of art in Basel.

Since 2014, the Kunstmuseum Basel’s holdings of works by the artist have been considerably enlarged by a generous donation: Betty and Hartmut Raguse-Stauffer have given four drawings, thirty woodcuts, and four etchings to the museum. With the addition of these works, the Kupferstichkabinett now has a representative cross-section of Sulzbachner’s Expressionist early oeuvre, when his creative powers were arguably at their zenith. They perfectly complement the museum’s existing significant holdings of Expressionist art from Basel and Switzerland.

Mondnächte, or Moonlit Nights, is the title that Max Sulzbachner chose for a series of arresting woodcuts in 1925. The prints are characteristic examples of his early oeuvre, which shows the influence of Rot-Blau, an artists’ group in Basel. Sulzbachner was an ardent admirer of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Expressionism. A little later, he was one of the first artists in German-speaking Switzerland to study the French modernists.

His interest in local affairs and local traditions was evident early on. At the same time, he was eager to emulate the most recent tendencies in visual art, finding crucial inspiration in the exhibitions held at Kunsthalle Basel. Sulzbachner’s readiness to embrace artistic innovations is reflected by a series of major stylistic shifts in his oeuvre.

Basel and its “Sulzbi”
Over the course of a long life, Sulzbachner applied his creativity in a wide range of settings: he also won great acclaim as a graphic designer, set decorator, caricaturist, teacher, and book illustrator and tried his hand at writing. His output included paintings, woodcuts, etchings, murals, stained-glass windows, ceramic plates, Fasnacht lanterns, and figurines in the style of folk art.

Known to his contemporaries—and his fans living today—as “Sulzbi” and the “king of lanterns,” Sulzbachner was a beloved figure on the local scene. Never one to miss an opportunity to become involved, he was a dependable and prolific contributor to the Basel carnival and other festivities in and around the city, work that sustained a lasting bond between his art and the local and national vernacular culture. References to current events and political issues in Basel and a penchant for stylistic exaggeration and caricature are hallmarks of his entire oeuvre.

Bridging the gulf between different cultural spheres was a central aspiration of Sulzbachner’s art. Rediscovering the work of this Basel artist, visitors will thus also have an opportunity to learn a great deal about Basel’s art and culture scene from the modernist period to the 1960s.

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January 9, 2020

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