The Art of Restoration
Castle Kummerow in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern
Words and Photos by Annika Kiehn, January 2020
When Castle Kummerow, completed in 1730, lost its purpose as a home to the noble German family of Maltzahn, it served a variety of functions during the German Democratic Republic (GDR), which lasted from 1945 to 1989. These functions include a restaurant, a holiday campground, a post office, a kindergarten, and many more—a vivid era that had turned the manor into a public house. However, like many other manors in the province of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, it was shut down by the authorities following German reunification. National ownership was quickly given up in order to shift maintenance costs to private owners again, and for decades, it appeared as though nobody could properly manage this baroque lady.
Then came Torsten Kunert from Berlin. As a real estate agent, he was familiar with the demands of a nationally listed building. Besides, he fell for the landscape of this area. Not only did he restore most of her original charm, he also outfitted her with the most prestigious contemporary photographic artworks you can find on the art market. As a former GDR citizen himself, he had no odd feelings about preserving the layers of communist times that now contribute to the eclectic flair of the exhibition. In doing so, he established a one-of-a-kind place of beauty and Zeitgeist.
In manors, art, or rather craft, is typically expressed through opulent antique furniture or decorative elements such as a hand-shaped iron staircase, for instance, stucco ceilings or parquet floors. Transforming a ruin into a vivid house again is an extraordinarily sensitive transition process, especially if it is listed and the heritage foundation has a word or two on the whole matter. When you find a place so worn down, it offers a vast range of possibilities for defining its new charm. The question is: how much of the historic charm can remain or should remain? It is a challenge and a delight to define that thoroughly.
However, Castle Kummerow, set next to Lake Kummerow, is one of Germany’s most prestigious photo museums, if not even in Europe. It is also one of the most remarkable memorial places, which resembles the torn past of manors in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.
When I first entered the house in May 2016 for a pre-opening seminar on manorial heritage, I was immediately struck by the sensitive and authentic restoration approach used to restore and exhibit the house’s beauty. As evidenced by the outcome of this process, considerable effort has been expended to realize such grand visions. Kummerow is an outstanding example of how the art of restoration can highlight the proportions of an old building. Built between 1725 and 1730 after the paragon of Castle Versailles, it has kept most of its original grace. Once you enter the castle, you are immediately caught in a very free-spirited restoration concept, which characterizes the building like a red thread. On the front door, a yellow plastic sign warns visitors: “This building is under construction.” It is meant as a joke to highlight that this place has seen hard times and will not be forgotten by a restoration that would make it look new.
I adore the humor that pervades the building‘s fragmented appearance. According to Torsten Kunert’s daughter Aileen, who now manages the place since her father died in spring 2020, “Very often guests take a quick look around and say: Oh, we will come back when it is finished! And when I tell them that IT IS actually finished, they get even more confused. And then comes the moment of silence, and I can sense how the visitors are trying to get adjusted to this rather unconventional concept of restoration. There are very controversial opinions on how it should have been done.”
Her father, Thorsten Kunert, an art lover and real estate agent/dealer, bought the castle in 2011. It is counted as one of the most significant manor buildings in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. “He said that if he had come a year later, it would have been likely that the house might have just fallen apart by then,” she recalls. Thorsten Kunert was looking for a place that would serve as an exhibition site for his private collection of contemporary photographic artwork.
Aileen Kunert never tires of explaining the concept of restoration, which follows a supposedly random mix of historical details and a modern replacement. She says, “This place gives me a certain comfort I find hard to explain—in that you should follow the rules to a certain extent and then make your own turn to find your true self. This is exactly what is mirrored in Castle Kummerow.” Concerning her father, she says, “He sort of wanted to honor the layers of time, which have shaped the house. Especially the Zeitgeist of the German Democratic Republic, which had no appreciation for anything noble, was important to be kept, as this period in the history of Germany had a great impact on the life of my father.”
The house reflects his ambiguous life due to his past as a former Berlin GDR citizen. Torsten Kunert intended to highlight the various facets of the original and semi-original interior. The appeal of a Lenin-Slogan, for instance, can be highly disturbing for a visitor, especially if it reflects their own history in the GDR. “To my father, they are authentic,” says Aileen. “And as a result, they were most true to him, which is why he cherished them.”
The preservation of fragments can be interpreted as a reflection of his own history. For Torsten Kunert, it is more than just a nostalgic fondness to keep up with these traces of the past. The GDR times versus manor house tradition – Kunert dares a unique approach to illustrating the effects of politics in this rural region that is now poised for tourism growth.
“I like the contrast of baroque architecture, which is plastered with GDR-propaganda quotes and images. Some guests might dislike them, arguing that they are inappropriate for such an elegant house,” says Aileen. “And there’s the clue to it: the broken parts of the house become exhibition pieces themselves, so they perfectly complete the fusion of the historic interior and the modern photographs. My dad used to say: I want nothing fake in this house! Fake, for him, means to restore the original substance so you could not tell at first glance if it is old or new. But here, you can immediately see where the glory is gone forever and where it is preserved. In that, the house becomes a true storyteller of the past – with every phase of it!”
Marvelous photographs are perfectly suited to large rooms with an air of grandeur and aristocracy. What is typically found in capital museums, such as MOMA or Tate Modern, is being taken into the middle of nowhere—with works by famous artists like Andreas Gursky, Martin Schoeller, Helmut Newton, Marina Abramovic, or Will McBride, as well as some famous GDR artists. Thorsten Kunert liked to be edgy, combining beauty with awkwardness. A theme which he extends in his collection. Aileen pauses for a moment: “That’s what life is all about, isn’t it? It’s the cracks that shape us.”
The exhibition program and guided tours
Accompanying the permanent exhibition of the Photographic Collection, there is an annual special exhibition and a cabinet exhibition in Kummerow Castle. In the adjoining building there is the permanent exhibition of the sculptor Uwe Schloen. In the “Hotel Raketa” live 300 figures made of wood and silicone.
The focus of the Photographic Collection – Kummerow Castle today is on contemporary works created since the turn of the millennium. An audio guide leads through the exhibition. Every Sunday at 11 a.m., the 1.5-hour historical tour of the castle takes place. Private tours can also be booked.
Am Schloss 10
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