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  • Writer's pictureFrancesca Ramsay, MA

A Brief History of the Scharf-Gerstenberg Collection

What is the Scharf-Gerstenberg Collection?

The Scharf-Gerstenberg Collection, or Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg in German, is an exceptional collection of paintings and sculpture showcasing some of the world’s finest 19th and 20th-century artists.

Scharf-Gerstenberg Collection

Gunnar Klack, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Scharf-Gerstenberg Collection Exhibits

The Scharf-Gerstenberg Collection is a must-see for any fan of the Surrealists – works by Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, René Magritte and Man Ray all hang on the walls of this unusual gallery. But the collection began many years before Dalí was melting his clocks. It documents 250 years of human obsession with the fantastical. The journey begins with Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s gloomy dungeon scenes and the unsettling nightmares of Francisco de Goya. Late-19th-century Symbolism is represented in works by Max Klinger, Alfred Kubin and Odilon Redon – look out for Redon’s perverse Hommage à Goya, a winged head floating above the ocean. Jean Dubuffet’s butterfly-wing Nez d'Apollo Pap highlights the continuation of Surrealism after the Second World War.

Scharf-Gerstenberg Collection History

This outstanding museum has its origins in the collection of Otto Gerstenberg, Chief Executive of a Berlin insurance company and one of Germany’s most important early-20th-century art collectors. But he certainly didn’t collect Surrealism! Instead Gerstenberg focused his interest on Old Master prints; he owned a comprehensive collection of work by Dürer, Rembrandt and Goya. When his attention turned to the French Impressionists, he began to collect paintings by Monet, Renoir and Degas. Tragically, almost every work was lost during the years of the Second World War. Most of them were destroyed during airstrikes, and of the surviving works many were later plundered for Russian museums.

What little survived of Gerstenberg’s collection was handed down to his grandsons, Walter and Dieter Scharf, in 1961. Dieter inherited his grandfather’s Goya and Charles Meryon prints, and decided to use them as the starting point for his own collection. This swiftly grew to around 300 works by over 50, predominantly Surrealist, artists. You’ll find his collection here, exhibited over three floors, a diverse mix of painting, sculpture, photography and works on paper. Iconic works by Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee and Alberto Giacometti are exhibited beside lesser-known but no less fascinating artists. Discover Victor Brauner, Wolfgang Paalen and Georges Hugnet. And when you’re ready for a sit down, make sure it’s in front of one of Dalí’s collaborations with Surrealist film-maker Luis Buñuel.

The collection is exhibited in one of the two former Garde du Corps buildings originally commissioned by King Frederick William IV as barracks for his personal bodyguard. (This building’s twin is home to the modern art of Museum Berggruen.) Both were designed in Neoclassical style in the 1850s by Friedrich August Stüler, who could never have foreseen the avant-garde art collections they would end up housing!

The Scharf-Gerstenberg Collection has been based in this building since 2008. Previously it was home to Berlin’s Ancient Egyptian collection, before that moved in 2005 to Museum Island. Look out for a couple of unusual archaeological artefacts as you wander round: the 1st-century-AD gate from the Temple of Kalabsha and the pillars from the Temple of Sahure, dating even further back to 2500 BC, which never quite made it to their new home. A strange yet perhaps fitting juxtaposition in a museum dedicated to all things surreal.

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