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Not just for looking at

July 22, 2010

Harald Falckenberg started collecting art late in his life. Today he is among Germany's most famous collectors, specializing in the art of civil disobedience. For him, art isn't to look at, but to talk about.

A work by American artist Paul Thek, part of Harald Falckenberg's collection
The Falckenberg collection includes works by American artist Paul ThekImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Provocative, unadjusted and out of the ordinary - Harald Falckenberg has a particular taste for modern and contemporary art. His private collection in Hamburg comprises nearly 2,000 works of art and is open to the public. US magazine Artnews described his collection as one of the 200 best collections in the world. Falckenberg spoke with Deutsche Welle about his understanding of art and why he would never put a painting on the wall to simply look at it.

Deutsche Welle: Dr. Falckenberg, a while ago you were a lawyer at the Constitutional Court here in Heidelberg. You’re an excellent golfer, an exceptionally gifted dancer, a good tennis player and an extremely good hockey player. And you are also managing director of a big company. How does your way of thinking go together with the thinking of an artist?

Harald Falckenberg: That is quite simple: If you are managing director of a company, you should achieve that your employees - and you - are creative and free. And I don’t want to apply too many rules. So I have to have a playful attitude and not be rigid with everything. And that is a little bit the same with art and with sports: You have some rules but you have to be creative to act within the rules.

To a certain extent you are talking about civil disobedience. Would you say you yourself have a streak of civil disobedience?

Yeah, everyone should have it. If you see governments all over the world, you should be disobedient, yes.

What made you decide that you wanted to collect art? It was fairly late in your life, I think.

Harald Falckenberg
Falckenberg says he likes art that doesn't have a representative characterImage: AP

I cannot give a correct answer. But there is one famous sentence of Sigmund Freud about it. He said, if very young children have to leave their father and mother in young years, they get into a new strange world and this freedom is compensated by dolls and teddy bears and things like that. And the children want to have many of them to fill this empty room in their life. And Freud says, when these children become older, they change from dolls to artworks and collect artworks.

So the art works are your teddy bears?

The sense of it is that you probably collect art works as a compensation for something which you don’t have in yourself. I don’t want to have art works as my property to become richer or poorer - first of all, you lose money by collecting art.

My idea is that modern art no longer has a representative character. For centuries artists made art work for the church, for the noblemen or for the bourgeoisie. And in a way they had to do what these people wanted. They had to paint Jesus or Maria for the church, battleships, dogs and horses for the noblemen and roaring deer for the bourgeoisie. And that’s what we call "representative art" because the people who wanted to have these artworks wanted to represent their glory and their power.

And in modern art, starting in the mid 19th-century, the artists wanted to do something for themselves. That is the movement of "l’art pour l’art." They didn’t want to work for others and so a psychological way of art making started. They wanted to be independent, they wanted to have autonomy. Then they looked into themselves and they could not discover anything good and beautiful and true. They were quite normal men. (laughs) They wanted to break down the rhythm and the harmony. It is a movement of distraction.

One of the most famous artists was Duchamp who had this pissoire on the wall. He just wanted to say, "Look at it! This is art because you look at it. It’s not art for itself, it is art because you regard it as art or disregard it as art, you discuss it and the longer you discuss it, the more valuable it is." This is a real break in the understanding of art and of life. And for me, visual art is so interesting because it can show you the spirit of a society, the spirit of people, the development of history at one glance. There is a direct impact.

And therefore I look at art as changing my mind, as thinking about things, as a discourse about something. And not as something to pray to. Praying is forbidden in my collection.

Part of the idea of your collection is that you want to make the art you own available to the public.

If I look for the discourse then I have to look for the public. Because then people come into my collection and say this and that. And I say, "No, no, no, no!" And then, in the end, perhaps we compromise. People who are real private collectors, they prefer to have it on the wall and look at it three times a day. I can’t do that.

Do you see a particular responsibility or role for museums today in this crisis?

The role of the museums has changed very much. A museum is traditionally a place for collections. But now there are the politicians. They say: "We give you money, so you have to attract more visitors and you cannot do it by your collection - make a lot of exhibitions." So the museums today are exhibition houses. This is a tendency. And that means on the other hand: The museums today are no longer neutral. They collaborate with collectors, with galleries, with artists.

And you as an experienced collector, would you say there are typical beginner’s mistakes?

Teddy bear
Art and teddy bears can serve a similar purpose, says FalckenbergImage: AP

I made a lot of mistakes in the beginning. Today I don't make as many but there are still a lot of them. (laughs) One of the typical beginner’s mistakes is: You have the tendency to look for the name and say: "Ok, this is a famous name, it must be good, this is Warhol or this is Gerhard Richter." And this is a great mistake because these great artists have done a lot of bad works, too, and if you collect 20 years after they made their career, you buy the leftovers which nobody wants to have. For young modern art, you have to collect in your time. It doesn’t make sense to collect art works from famous artists who made their career 20 years ago.

Art collecting, you also yourself once said, is a very tough job and in a way you’ve signaled a few times that you want to stop.

If it were too tough, then I wouldn’t do it. I have very much personal profit from it and I will continue with it until the end of my life. The other thing is, I have a museum and I do something very special because I do not only show my collection in the museum. I make shows, exhibitions. I have done about five to six exhibitions per year with other artists, with other collectors and with art works which are not owned by me. And now I’m 67 and this is what I want to stop, because making exhibitions, that is a tough and hard job. I have done it now for 15 years and I think I should try to give the responsibility to an official institution. There is a house called Deichtorhallen in Hamburg, a very important exhibition house, and it seems that they take over now, buy rooms and the exhibitions, not the collection. I will continue to collect.

Interview: Peter Zimmermann (gri)
Editor: Kate Bowen