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  • Writer's pictureDr Julien Drouart

Designpanoptikum Museum: Surrealism in contact with the artist

Updated: Jan 12, 2022

The DesignPanoptikum is a great success.
A visual that is both frightening and wonderful

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 to the Designpanoptikum Museum is optional. It is also a personal favourite.

In his first Manifesto, the Frenchman André Breton theorised the Surrealist movement by asserting the supremacy of the unconscious in the interpretation of a work and the voluntarist dimension of a movement that was supposed to disrupt the individual in his representations. As early as 1924, the essayist characterized the key word of Surrealism: rupture. Breaking with the comfort and certainties offered by habit.

Because surrealism demanded a total commitment to changing the world, it quickly appropriated Rimbaldian, Marxist and Freudian thoughts and merged them into a single dynamic. It is necessary to reject the prohibitions imposed by morality and to escape from received values. In order to promote psychological automatism, dreams take on a special role and the association of the real and the imaginary lays the foundations for an absolute, even transcendental reality.

Some Surrealists achieved international fame: Salvador Dali's Melting Clocks; René Magritte's The Treachery of Images and his famous "This is not a pipe"; Pablo Picasso himself broke with his art to become a fellow traveller of the movement. Their art is subversive and provocative. This does not necessarily mean 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 because it is so divisive.

A bare mess?

A very small museum awaits the visitor. As an appetizer, the owner sells his product. He sells it well, very well even. He presents a few objects, altered or not, that he has fun diverting. A game of questions and answers begins 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, date mainly from the 1940s and 1960s. Hairdresser's or dentist's chairs, gigantic photographic reproduction devices.

A certain artistic touch is certainly present, but it is frightening because it diverts common uses and makes 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 elegant apparatus.

The fact remains that the objects are not just reproductions: they are beautiful in their conception; functional in their realisation. Their design is thus diverted and takes on a completely different meaning; the one that the visitor will give 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 important to listen to the artist's words.

A phenomenal experience that broke established codes

Although he did not share the accusations of psychic illness made against the Surrealist movement in the traditional press, Sigmund Freud never hid his detachment and sometimes even his annoyance at seeing some of his ideas annexed and his person 'deified' by this 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 (sic!), 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 jostle the visitor and can frighten him. He appears to be crazy, and probably isn't, but it is by accepting to listen and exchange 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 makes it accessible to the visitor, if the latter accepts the break that awaits him.

Reasons to go

  • A delightful atmosphere of an old-fashioned scientific laboratory

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

  • An artist engaged with the visitors

Reasons to avoid

  • A high entrance fee

  • The new locations now in the Saint-Nicolas district

  • Logically, very limited opening hours

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