A conversation with Kyllikki Zacharias, director of the Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin


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Kyllikki Zacharias is author of a dissertation on the Russian avant-garde and Symbolism, focusing on the work of Mikhail Vrubel. Since 2009 she has been curator at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and director of the Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg. She has curated number of original and influential exhibitions dedicated to artists such as Francisco de Goya, Honoré Daumier, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Brassaï, Paul Klee, Max Ernst, André Masson,Hannah Höch, Louise Bourgeois, Jean Dubuffet, and others. The Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg houses one of the most valuable collections of works from Romanticism to the avant-gardes of the post-World War II.

Personal archive from a visit to the Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg. Permanent exhibition, works by Jean Dubuffet and Henri Laurens are visible.

Is your way of dealing with the art works grounded in specific methodology? In the permanent exhibition, as well as in the special exhibitions, several levels of engagement with the image could be possibly identified – sometimes they are historical, conceptual, or they work with the visible concepts of particular works of art (dynamics, theme); in other times they develop “characters”, if I can allow myself such interpretation. Let us focus on two of the most influential exhibitions at the Scharf-Gerstenberg Collection, curated by you: Das Wunder in der Schuheinlegesohle. Werke aus der Sammlung Prinzhorn and Surreale Sachlichkeit. Werke der 1920er- und 1930er-Jahre aus der Nationalgalerie.

When I started the project [Das Wunder in der Schuheinlegesohle. Werke aus der Sammlung Prinzhorn], I contacted a long-time acquaintance of mine, Thomas Röske, the director of the Prinzhorn Collection (Sammlung Prinzhorn) – a wonderful collection in Heidelberg that has a database of about 7 or 8,000 works – who reacted positively to my idea, inviting me to choose whichever works I wanted. The collection was closed during the Nazi era and then rediscovered in the 1980s when it toured all over Germany. It has been shown in scientific societies researching psychiatric problems such as reticence, states of fear, and other mental health challenges: in other words, the works in question were presented through a psychiatric prism. When Thomas Röske began his work with the collection many years ago, he completely abandoned this kind of practice and re-presented some of the artists in the collection, focusing on the artistic dimensions of their work without fixating on their illnesses. I was the first one in years to present a group of artists from the collection at once.

So, when I went to Heidelberg to start working on the collection, I asked myself: “How do I present the works?” Usually, when presenting a group of artists, we build upon our knowledge of existing schools, artistic tendencies, currents; this knowledge makes it easier to present the artists, since they share a common language, references, poetics; their themes have an overt or hidden connection. In contrast to this “standard” situation of modernity, the artists we are discussing here are usually people in a borderline or hospital situation. They are usually disconnected from the artistic and social context, they do not know each other, nor care about each other, and each one of them is absorbed in her or his own obsessions. Only a very few of them have had any form of artistic education – for example, studied a craft or practiced certain skills. Most of them, however, were without any artistic orientation. So, the task was really difficult. It took me a couple of weeks to think it through, and at a certain point I realised that I had actually been given a surreal opportunity… I had just to put myself in the position occupied by Breton or the Surrealists, that is, to choose what speaks to me, what impresses me, but at random: when I see a work and it grabs me, it would become clear that it’s what I need. As if I was walking down the street, which is grey, dark and dull, and suddenly I see a strange window: well, yes, that’s it! So, for a day or two I went through the whole database and just pulled out what I thought was interesting. Of course, then I went through the originals and then started organising the concept. Strangely enough, it did organised itself magically, as if by itself. At the end of this process, several different groups had formed: there were works, some of which were well-known, but there were also a number of completely unknown works that had not been shown before. Of course, there were also artworks that testified to the fact that the artists were not completely isolated from their contemporary artistic processes: they had access to the press, that is, to information; some of them may have visited museums as children, or were familiar with a certain type of work, and it seemed that they were rediscovering this knowledge. One of the themes for example was the black box; this was the time when radio became popular, and it was common for mentally challenged people to think of the radio as a thought-control mechanism. For example, there was a whole series of works that stood out showing people with beams coming out of their heads, or people making hats out of aluminum foil or something like that.

Personal archive from a visit to the Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg. A display from the temporary exhibition “Many are the creatures…” New Acquisitions Presented in the Context of the Collection held from May 27, 2023 to November 12, 2023. Odilon Redon’s painting Homage to Goya (Hommage à Goya) (1885) is seen at the bottom.

Such methodological approach could be described as kind of écriture automatique. This led to another exhibition, Surreal objectivity. Works from the 1920s and 1930s from the National Gallery [Surreale Sachlichkeit. Werke der 1920er- und 1930er-Jahre aus der Nationalgalerie], I did a little later, which was also due to a random choice. This time it was related to our database: the director of the New National Gallery [Neuenationalgalerie] also gave me the opportunity to freely select works from the collection. I looked through it and I found a painting by Franz Lenk[1]. In the foreground of the painting was a flower standing on a small wall, and behind the wall was a landscape. Looking at it, I suddenly realised that there was something really strange about it. That’s how I got the idea of what happens when new objectivityand magic realism interact – the particular atmosphere that is created when foreground and background come together: an eerie surreal atmosphere. I said to myself, “Well, this may be madness, but it’s also surrealism!” I continued in the same vein, like gold diggers repeating the same actions, sifting over and over. Finally, as with Prinzhorn, I had different groups in which I combined surrealist works with works of Neue Sachlichkeit [“new objectivity”], a category in turn divided into different subcategories, which I brought together. In this case, it was particularly interesting to me that although the new objectivity by default aims to show what is orderly, pure, objective – everything that is far from emotional expressionism, there remain hidden and intense psychological spaces in the concept, which we also find in Surrealism. This is obvious to those who have the senses to detect such uncanny spaces.

Thus, bringing together the new objectivity and surrealism, I believe I achieved a good synthesis. This is how the idea of “surreal objectivity” – Surreale Sachlichkeit (instead of Neue Sachlichkeit) – was formed. This idea was something quite new and had great success. The exhibition was awarded by AICA [International Association of Art Critics] as the best exhibition in 2017 in Germany.

My teacher Jürgen Harten, with whom I did my internship in Düsseldorf (at Kunsthalle Düsseldorf), always talked about constellations. About the fact that when you put a painting on the wall, it always becomes part of a constellation together with the surrounding works and objects. You can do a lot following this principle, through this method; however, I could also give an opposite example. At the Folkwang Museum, where I used to work, a new director was elected who rearranged the collection. Many people didn’t like the new arrangement, they found it strange. In fact, his principle was the exact opposite of the principle of the “constellations”: his approach was to arrange all the works for themselves, so that they didn’t interact with the surrounding works at all. This equally interesting approach could be called “anticonstellation”.

[1] Franz Lenk, Amaryllis (1930).

A conversation with Kyllikki Zacharias, director of the Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

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