F or residents and visitors to Berlin, the Scharf-Gerstenberg Collection, a museum opposite Charlottenburg Palace in the west of the city, provides a unique window into the thrillingly imaginative – and expansive – world of Surrealist art. That window was opened two decades ago by a distinguished family of German philanthropists and is set to begin a new chapter with the sale of an important work by Picasso at Sotheby’s this Fall.
The museum combines two collections: the first a group of important graphic works acquired by Otto Gerstenberg, an early 20th-century mathematician and entrepreneur; the second an exceptional survey of works by Surrealist masters and their precursors collected by Otto’s grandson, Dieter Scharf. Together, the collection includes major pieces by key protagonists from the Surrealist movement, including Salvador Dalí, René Magritte and Man Ray.
In 2001 Dieter, his wife Hilde and his daughter Julietta Scharf established the Foundation of the Dieter Scharf Collection in Remembrance of Otto Gerstenberg in order to share the works with the public. On 13 November, that remarkable legacy will be supported by the sale of Pablo Picasso’s La Glace – a pivotal Cubist still life from 1912 from the family’s private collection – which will be offered during The New York Sales to benefit the foundation.
It has been a poignant undertaking. “The foundation which my parents and I established shortly before my father’s death means a lot to me,” Julietta Scharf explains. “The foundation is the legacy of a collecting family across several generations. We all agreed that this treasure should not be spread around. Therefore, we also included elements from the collection of my great-grandfather Otto Gerstenberg into the foundation. Especially the precious and valuable works by Goya and Charles Meryon. From the 1960s, my parents concentrated on collecting Surrealist art, albeit in the broadest sense.”
Julietta refers to the remarkable way in which the collection spills over into “other drawers” – repositories that expand our understanding of Surrealist art. For example, the foundation collection includes works by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Odilon Redon and Victor Hugo, as well as the Surrealists’ successors – their “soulmates,” notes Julietta – such as Jean Dubuffet, Paul Klee, Hans Bellmer and Wols. It is this unique and inclusive scope that makes the collection so appealing.
There have been numerous triumphs in the foundation’s two-decade history. “The real highlight was probably the decision in 2004 by the then-director of the Berlin State Museums, Peter Klaus Schusters, to facilitate the present location of the foundation at the Schloss Charlottenburg opposite the Berggruen Museum,” says Julietta. “It is a wonderful building which used to house the Egyptian Collection of the State of Berlin. After four years of refurbishment, it was opened in 2008.”
“From the 1960s, my parents concentrated on collecting Surrealist art, albeit in the broadest sense.”
In the years since, curator Kyllikki Zacharias has staged many successful exhibitions, including Hans Bellmer-Louise Bourgeois: Double Sexus (2010) and Surreale Sachlichkeit (“Surreal Objectivity,” 2016), which was awarded Best Exhibition of the Year by the International Association of Art Critics. In addition to focused exhibitions on figures such as Max Ernst and Yves Tanguy, there have also been what Julietta describes as fun and absurd presentations such as The Miracle in the Shoe Insole: Works from the Prinzhorn Collection (2014) – which looked at the relationship between madness and creativity – and last year’s Phantoms of the Night: 100 Years of Nosferatu.
Julietta works closely with the museum curators to orchestrate the exhibition program and organize loans to other institutions. It is, she says, a shared enterprise. “It also brings me immense joy to extend the collection, especially in the areas of drawings and prints,” she says, while adding that she always looks to retain the “red thread” – the main focus – that her father laid down for the collection.
Julietta’s favorite pictures in the collection are those she first saw in her childhood. “I would never let go of Dubuffet’s Red Cow or Goya’s wonderful test prints,” she observes. But she looks to the future, explaining that in an economically difficult period for institutions, the sale of Picasso’s La Glace, which she inherited from her father, will help maintain the foundation’s freedom to stage intimate, historically focused exhibitions, retain a publishing program and explore the possibility of new acquisitions. Ultimately, it will ensure that the collection “remains a productive part of the museum landscape in Berlin.”