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  • Writer's pictureDr Julien Drouart

Designpanoptikum Museum: Surrealism in Berlin

Updated: Jun 21, 2023

The DesignPanoptikum is a great success.

The Designpanoptikum Museum is one of those disconcerting experiences that make people talk. Dedicated to surrealism, it leaves no one indifferent: you either love it or you hate it.

A Visit Is Optional. It Is Also a Personal Favourite.

In his first Manifesto, Frenchman André Breton theorized the Surrealist movement by asserting the supremacy of the unconscious in the interpretation of work and the voluntarist dimension of a movement designed to disrupt an individual's perceptions. As early as 1924, the essayist characterized the keyword of surrealism: rupture. This meant breaking with the comfort and certainties offered by habit.

Surrealism demanded a total commitment to changing the world, quickly appropriating Rimbaldian, Marxist, and Freudian thoughts, and merging them into a single dynamic. It necessitated rejecting prohibitions imposed by morality and escaping from received values. To promote psychological automatism, dreams took on a special role, and the association of the real and the imaginary laid the foundations for an absolute, even transcendental reality.

Several Surrealists achieved international fame: Salvador Dali with his Melting Clocks; René Magritte with The Treachery of Images and his famous "This is not a pipe"; even Pablo Picasso broke with his art to become a fellow traveler of the movement. Their art is subversive and provocative. This does not necessarily imply a left-wing, anarchist, or revolutionary commitment; some claim to be right-wing anarchists.

In Berlin, a private museum has been trying to introduce visitors to surrealism since 2010. This is a risky gamble, especially as the artistic movement remains controversial due to its divisive nature.

A Bare Mess?

A very small museum awaits the visitor. As an appetizer, the owner sells his product – and he does it well, very well indeed. He presents a few objects, altered or not, that he enjoys diverting. A game of questions and answers ensues until the convinced visitor decides to pay the full price to enter the exhibition premises.

Once through the gate, incomprehension and doubt arise. In the few rooms, hundreds of objects are strangely amassed without any apparent coherence. These objects, of all origins and uses, mainly date from the 1940s to the 1960s. Hairdresser's or dentist's chairs, gigantic photographic reproduction devices, all jumble together.

A certain artistic touch is present, but it is unsettling because it diverts common uses, rendering them unrecognizable, unknown, and therefore frightening and monstrous. The steampunk atmosphere is gripping. The artist-owner of the museum plays with our representations and leads us to rethink the object, to let our imagination and fantasy prevail over reason and acquired knowledge. A simple door handle becomes a futuristic device, an instrument of torture, or an elegant apparatus.

The fact remains that the objects are not mere reproductions: they are beautiful in their conception and functional in their realization. Their design is thus diverted and takes on a completely different meaning; the one that the visitor gives them. There are no written explanations, no informative placards, and the "works" are not arranged in thematic rooms. Many will be disappointed to have had the freedom to see. But as is often the case with the surrealist movement, it is crucial to listen to the artist's words.

A Phenomenal Experience that Broke Established Codes

Despite not sharing the accusations of psychic illness made against the Surrealist movement in the traditional press, Sigmund Freud never hid his detachment and even his annoyance at seeing some of his ideas annexed and his persona 'deified' by the same movement. Shortly before his death, he met Salvador Dali, who presented him some of his works, developing the powerful connection between art and psychoanalysis. The experience was such that Freud had to admit that, in the end and contrary to his own prejudices, the Surrealists were not the complete lunatics he thought they were.

The Designpanoptikum Museum is the work of a single man. This Russian artist, who grew up in the Soviet Union and escaped military service in his country, rejects hierarchies, breaks the established norms in the ultimately very closed world of museums, and claims total involvement in the life of his establishment. He takes on the roles of curator, treasurer, museographer, and, above all, tour guide. His outspokenness, his accent, his gruff and intrusive presence startle the visitor and can even frighten him. He seems crazy, and probably isn't, but it is by accepting to listen and engage in dialogue that the space ceases to be an exhibition room and becomes a museum.

The codes are a complete break with classic art museums, both in form and presentation. In this way, the artist succeeds perfectly in "musealising" the surrealist movement and making it accessible to the visitor, if the latter accepts the rupture that awaits him.

Reasons to Visit

  • A delightful atmosphere of an old-fashioned scientific laboratory

  • An arrangement of objects that appeals to the senses and imagination

  • An artist engaged with the visitors

Reasons to Skip

  • A high entrance fee

  • The new locations now in the Saint-Nicolas district

  • Logically, very limited opening hours

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