Prisons of the Imagination

24.05.2019 to 10.11.2019
Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg

This year’s collection presentation focuses on Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s (1720–1778) famous series of 16 etchings Carceri d’invezione (Prisons of the Imagination) from 1761. The ambiguity of Piranesi’s title – which can be understood as the imprisonment of the imagination, but also as the imagined prison – invites all sorts of interpretations. The depictions also open the way for speculation because there is not a single enclosed space among them as might be expected in a prison. Instead, the images deliver the viewer into a world of in-between spaces. Gates and arches, stairways and ladders lead to nowhere or into a wall; changing perspectives and proportions are a constant source of irritation; interior and exterior spaces can no longer be distinguished from one another.

The 19th Century: Imprisonment as a Motif

Works from the 19th century continued to deal with the subject of imprisonment. In Francisco de Goya’s (1746–1828) work, the dungeon appears as a place of solitude and existential threat. For Honoré Daumier (1808–1879), who had to spend time in a sanatorium because of the biting nature of his caricatures, the prison became the scene of self-deprecating resistance, whereas Odilon Redon (1840–1960) perceived the isolation from the outside world as a protective space that made free and dreamlike imagining possible in the first place.

The 20th Century: Indoor and Outdoor Space

In the 20th century Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) revisited Piranesi’s idea of the paradoxical interweaving of interior and exterior space to establish a higher-level “metaphysical” setting in his paintings, a place that also played an important role in Surrealist painting. Uncoupled from the constraints of reality, it offered them a new, “super-real” space. Here, beyond the reach of all moral norms, the temptations and threats of Eros could be discovered, the secret life of nature explored, or the absurd conditions in a French internment camp described – as can be seen in the works of WOLS and Hans Bellmer dealing with camp life at a large brickworks in the French Camp des Milles.

Selbstübermalung (Painting Over Oneself)

The works of two contemporaries who have experienced their own selves as a prison are brought together in Rosemarie Trockel’s (b. 1952) wall piece Prisoner of Yourself (Gefangener deiner selbst) from 1998 and Arnulf Rainer’s (b. 1929) undated Selbstübermalung. Here it is the act of painting that isolates the artist from reality and ultimately threatens his or her extinction – or the spinning forth of socially imposed patterns.

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