“The collection is autobiographical in the way it is associated with my life. If I buy an Andreas Gursky, it will be of a Berlin scene.”
We meet up with Torsten and Christina Kunert in their beautiful home on the banks of Langer See. In March of this year Torsten opened up Schloss Kummerow to house his extraordinary photography collection. Located in a lovingly restored Baroque castle in Mecklenburgische Seenplatte, the result is a thrilling combination of contemporary photography alongside the preserved remnants of Germany’s cultural heritage.
FAM: We are meeting just a week after Donald Trump’s surprise election victory in America. I know Christina you grew up there, are you still reeling from the result?
Christina: I was distraught, like everybody else I know. It’s sort of fascinating but I have a bit of hope it won’t be as totally horrific as we all feared. As much as I dislike Trump it’s even more worrisome that the system failed so many.
OK, now to the art. Torsten, I read that you were planning to buy a holiday home but somehow instead bought a castle?
Torsten: Don’t believe everything you read in Spiegel! We already had a house in Mecklenburgische Schweiz when we saw that the castle was up for auction.
At the time it was in bad condition?
Torsten: It was a ruin! In GDR times they had replaced windows and the roof, but badly, so there was rain damage and rotten oak beams. There are rooms where a third of the floors are old and the rest is new, we didn’t try to cover it up.
Christina: Torsten is a property developer who works a lot with preserving protected buildings, “Denkmalschutz”, so he was ideally qualified to oversee the renovation.
Christina, when Torsten first told you about the castle were you excited or a little concerned?
Christina: I thought of the American movie The Moneypit from 1986. At the start he wasn’t entirely sure what to do with it.
So you did not always know you would house a collection there?
Torsten: I had my eye on a cultural, artistic use. I wasn’t sure if it would be painting or photography or both. The idea is to make the castle the center of life in the village again, with a kindergarten, places to sleep, places to eat, it will be quite an attraction once finished.
Was the community surrounding the castle suspicious because of previous failed attempts to find a use for the castle?
Christina: They just wanted to first see if something would actually happen. It has had several owners promising to turn it into hotels, etc. and we were the first to actually do something. We just received €3 million in funding from the federal government last week for the outhouses.
Christina: Thank you, until now we had received €2 million for the main house, roughly 41%—a fight over many years. We have a lot of support from the Christian Democratic Union of Germany although they’re a little horrified by the East German symbols on the wall—a lot of bad things happened under those banners!
What type of banners?
Christina: Graffiti banners, such as Walter Ulbricht’s (East German head of state) “Denken ist die erste Bürgerpflicht” (Thinking is the first civic duty). It was also a GDR school, so there are hammers and sickles and various propaganda slogans.
And Mecklenburg Vorpommern, it’s quite a deprived area? To get this renovated must have been quite a labor of love?
Torsten: Bismarck once said that when he died, he would go to Mecklenburg, because everything happens 100 years later there. It’s the countryside, it’s not modern, it’s not fast-moving. But wonderful things happen there.
The collection boasts the most high profile photographers in Germany, from Thomas Ruff to Thomas Struth and Andreas Gursky, were you seeking that form of identity?
Torsten: It was a focus, an objective, but it’s not the overarching theme. Becher’s pupils are important for Germany and because it is a public collection. The collection is autobiographical in the way it is associated with my life. If I buy a Gursky, it will be a Berlin scene that appeals to me, like his work Love Parade, 2001 which I went to way back! This was important to me.
There is an emphasis on the GDR—are you seeking to preserve this moment in history, a similar compulsion to preserving the history on display in the castle?
Torsten: I won’t ever forget about it because it was my life, but I want to keep it alive for future generations who are losing touch with it.
Christina: We have a Harald Hauswald photograph of a Bruce Springsteen gig that took place in Berlin in 1987. The young guards protecting the stage are from the FDJ (Freie Deutsche Jugend; a political youth movement in East Germany). They share the identical glum expressions of the commuters on a train in another of his images. It is fascinating to see them next to each other. But the German Democratic Republic was not just grey ruins, we have many pictures of normal life with joy, dancing, and fun—the simple, the everyday.
Torsten, you were just 27 years old when the Berlin Wall came down. Does the impact of that event still reverberate for you?
Torsten: Yes, it does and it is that way for every German, particularly for Berliners who grew up with the wall. It was a highly significant event in both world history and personal history. I was in the army and suddenly I could unfold and develop freely.
Photography has risen in importance in recent decades and prestigious institutions around the world are scrambling to catch up with recent developments, are you interested in the technical side of things?
Torsten: Photography is always advancing through technical innovation—it is thrilling just trying to keep up with it all. Look at Sebastião Salgado, Thomas Demand, Hiroshi Sugimoto, they are already considered classic photographers! The way photographers perpetually try to find new ways of expressing themselves is driving this advancement—far quicker than in other mediums such as painting.
Photographers like Thomas Demand and Martin Dammann examine their own process, challenging its role as a transmitter of truth. Is this in some way a focus of the collection?
Torsten: That really sums it up actually. This endless exploration of the medium—the photographers who engage and experiment with this the most are also the most intriguing to me. Like Viktoria Binschtok, who takes an image through Google Street View and looks at related images through its algorithm. This way she creates clusters of images, but you don’t know which was her original image. When you see the work hanging in the castle you can see how we have tried to forge its connection to the space, to its walls, which have had twenty different coats of paint in 300 years.
It is called the Photography Collection Schloss Kummerow, not the Torsten Kunert Collection. Even though your DNA is embedded in the castle, is it important to you that the castle forms its own relationship with the art?
Torsten: Totally, visitors should look at the art and the castle and their connection, not think about me. At times I am still overwhelmed by the scale of it—it was a long and fairly monumental development. Of course it’s connected to me, but I would prefer that people should view it as being removed from that.
Are there any artists or works you don’t have or really want?
Torsten: I don’t really want to say! Perhaps others will copy me and they will be even harder to find, but there are several that I am intensively looking for.
A lot of the collector couples we interview seem to have met through their shared interest in art, is that the same case for you?
Christina: Actually we met on a blind date. We met when I was living in Zurich and working in banking consultancy. For two years I commuted to Berlin to see him from Tuesday morning to Thursday night. But it was OK, my father was in the American military and I had been used to traveling around.
Torsten, how has Christina influenced your collection, squeezed in some American artists perhaps?
Torsten: She has a great eye! We always discuss and exchange ideas about the works. Actually she studied art history and has a far more traditional grounding than me, and it gives us two quite distinct points of view.
You have an incredible collection at home, and we are sitting in front of this enormous Eberhardt Göschel painting, wasn’t he the first artist you exhibited at the castle?
Christina: The Göschel exhibition was a test run and it worked better than we had imagined.
Torsten: We could not wait to find out how it would all look, how it would work together with the castle.
There is a lot of humor in the art you collect, like these works of three women wearing enormous tires around their necks.
Christina: These are by Tatsumi Orimoto, a Japanese photographer, it’s a loving series even if it looks at first glance as if he is ridiculing them. His mother in the middle of the picture has Alzheimer’s. He lived in Brazil but came back to Japan to care for her as he didn’t want to put her in a nursing home. By making her the subject of his work he gets to spend time with her.
I notice there are no works above the stairs, are you rehanging here?
Christina: Actually we are discussing whether to build a cupboard here or hang more work. Torsten always wants to hang more work. You can imagine who wins, can you see any cupboards in this whole place?
Are fairs or auctions his favorite?
Christina: Definitely auctions, they combine Torsten’s passion for art and the deal!
Torsten: But Paris Photo in the Grand Palais is my favorite art fair, it’s incredible.
Finally, tell me a bit about your ambitions for the collection.
Torsten: I continually want to improve the quality of the collection and refine the interplay between the collection and the castle—I suppose it is my own artistic expression. We want stressed city dwellers to come and stay in the outbuildings and take advantage not just of the art on show but the walks and cycling possibilities in the beautiful surroundings.
To find out more about Schloss Kummerow please click here.
Interview by Duncan Ballantyne-Way — Senior Editor