The other Side of Werner Nekes

deutsch By Frances Terpak, Curator of Special Collections at the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities

Studying the biography of most notable collectors reveals that their passion for assembling objects began early in their life. Werner Nekes - the internationally acclaimed filmmaker - is no exception. At the age of five his passion for collecting surfaced when one day he accompanied his grandfather to work at the Thyssen steelmill in Duisburg. The precocious child was so fascinated by the different surfaces and colors reflected from the piles of mineral ores surrounding the factory that he went home with his pockets full of samples. Not satisfied with this circumscribed selection, he sought out other varieties until his collection grew to some 50 items. Having attained in two years a sense of accomplishment with this collection, the young Nekes then began to build a collection of fossils that he gathered in the local quarry. The thrill of gathering these natural wonders was heightened by working with his school teacher, who helped the youth study and date the fossils. At the age of 9 Nekes' happy life as a collector was suddenly shattered when his mother - unbenownst to her son - jettisoned both collections. For his mother the items had begun to invade the family's living space. For the youth it was a traumatic experience that he still recalls with emotion.

Most serious collectors have an inexplicable attachment to and relation with their objects that the non-collector simply cannot comprehend. I have met and worked with a myriad of collectors over the last several years and almost all seem possessed by an inner force to search out and acquire a purposeful grouping of items. Some collectors describe their need to collect in terms of an addiction; others say that it replaces a void in their life normally filled by a human relation; still others explain that they were forced to sell their collections because of the strain it caused in family relations. Having not yet attained the age of reason, Nekes' mother resolved the family predicament for her son. While she dampened his spirit to collect, she did not totally extinguish the flame. Unable to continue amassing items, Nekes turned his intellect to books - often buying and reading three or four a week on varied subjects from Kant to Hirschfeld. His thirst for reading and learning is the quality that sets Nekes apart from the mass of other collectors. While all collectors have to have an understanding of their field in order to function, Nekes' pressing desire to know more and recreate the historical ambience of a work is what propels him beyond the ordinary.
In his adult life a series of events brought him back to collecting. In 1971 when Nekes was 27 years old and teaching film at the Hamburg Art Academy, the photographer Fritz Kempe asked him to write an article on film making for "Hamburger Filmgespräche". Being an experienced filmmaker who is always searching for new modes of creating, Nekes came to the idea of writing about thaumatropes, a simple circular piece of paper with a related image on each side that by twisting its attached strings causes the two images to fuse with one another. The device, developed by John Ayrton Paris in 1825, fascinated Nekes as an early precursor of the invention of cinema. The spirit to collect was rekindled in the adult Nekes, who now was seized with the idea of ferreting out all the optical devices, illusions, moving images, projected images, or any other object or text that would have formed the basis for the discovery of cinema. His desire to build a pre-cinema collection luckily coincided at this time with his extensive worldwide traveling due to the screening of his experimental films. Every trip Nekes took included time to search for the known and unknown artifacts that lead to cinema. He was smitten with an overwhelming urge to create the best historical collection on how the modern moving image came to be. For ten years Nekes searched for his beloved thaumatropes, looking in such far-flung cities as Bilbao, Palermo, Edinburgh and Graz. By 1981 when he finally found a set in Cologne (which, in fact, still remains the only original set he has seen on the market), he had already amasssed a formidable body of optical devices and visual material that had helped to define the ways of seeing throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

Unlike most film museums that display only a series of devices leading directly to film, Nekes had acquired a broad sweep of visual history including 18th-century anamorphosis images, panoramas, early 19th-century moveable greeting cards, transformation and transparent images, Vexierbücher, lithophanes, metamorphosis and animation toys, plus a related library. A strong component of this collection consisted of contemporary toys that showed the continuation of these principles. As this collection grew and Nekes incorporated the optical devices and images into his teaching as a professor of Filmmaking at Kunsthochschule Offenbach he struck upon the idea of making a documentary film ("Was geschah wirklich zwischen den Bildern”) which would show how the devices in his collection operated without exposing them to the hands of students who often mishandled the fragile pieces. The film won numerous international awards in the 1990's and has been shown on TV in over 50 countries.

In 1992 with the support of the Filmstiftung Nordrhein-Westfalen Nekes exhibited his collection for the first time at the Wassertum and Ringlokschuppen in Mü1heim an der Ruhr where he curated the show himself. The didactic and technically-challenging installation, which had many interactive components, captivated viewers of all ages. Entitled "Von der Camera Obscura zum Film", the exhibition and related catalogue displayed a highly unusual grouping of items from the rare and unique (a portable 18th-century camera obscura in the shape of a book), to items common in their own time that entertained mass audiences, but survive today in limited numbers (magic lantern slides). While providing an overview of the development of perception from the 18th through the 20th centuries, the exhibition equally revealed the multifaceted approach taken by the collector. The exhibition showed not only Nekes' fascination with technological devices, such as the room-size camera obscura he designed for the top of the Wassertum that still remains in place, but also his ambition to observe the persistence of a device through time, demonstrated by the rich layering of items on view. Several of the concepts presented in the exhibition were supported by illustrations and texts selected from his antiquarian library. Unlike some collectors who function primarily according to aesthetic considerations, Nekes is compelled to know the context of an object and how it functioned. Not content to just sit and admire a piece, he studies its contemporary historical use and often fabricates some missing components to enable an item to function fully.

After the exhibition, this thirst for knowledge propelled Nekes to organize an international festival on the historic plays of Shadow Theater in Oberhausen. Performers from India, China, Bali, Thailand, Egypt, Turkey and Greece, delighted local audiences with their time-honored repertoires. Having its origin in the antique period, shadow theater represents one of the oldest and most widespread form of popular entertainment throughout the world. Nekes interest in this artform relates to its importance for the history of cinema, which is represented in his own collection by a series of 18th- and 19th-century shadow puppets.

Nekes' style of collecting, coupled with his desire to contextualize an object, had already attracted national and international attention. In the early 1980's Hilmar Hoffmann and Walter Schobert approached Nekes to conceptualize a pre-cinema section and layout for the future collection projected for the Deutsches Film Museum in Frankfurt. Given his extensive knowledge in the field, Nekes was an ideal consultant as he knew the history, the technique, and, not least importantly, the market. In 1993, the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities acquired a significant portion of Nekes' collection not solely for its importance concerning pre-cinema history, but more importantly as a cohesive group of artifacts that laid the foundation for the communications revolution of the late-20th century. Often confused with its sister institution, the Getty Museum, the Getty Center is an inter-disciplinary research institute that seeks to study a culture in its totality by reexamining the meaning of artifacts. Besides complementing the Getty Center's strong antiquarian book holdings, the Nekes' collection at the Center allows scholars to experience firsthand devices that dominated earlier artistic practice and study visual materials that have been relegated to the margins of museum collections. The Getty Center plans to mount an exhibition entitled "Lens to Digital Perception" that will feature Werner Nekes' collection as the core of that installation. Moreover, the newly-founded Metropolitan Museum of Photography and Film in Tokyo hired Nekes to consult on its first exhibition series concerning early media history. A considerable number of items from Nekes' collection are now on exhibition in the current opening show.

What lays on the horizon for Werner Nekes? He is currently in the process of completing five documentary films that delineate the historical development of certain cinematic concepts: "Durchsehekunst" (Perspective and Shadow); "Belebte Bilder" (Animation); "Vieltausendschau" (Montage); "Bild-Raum" (Ambiguous Image and Space); "Wundertrommel" (Wheel of Life From Persistence to Cinema). In these five films based on his present collection, Nekes manipulates the camera lens to see our historical past in a way that it could not have been seen with the naked eye, then or now. For example, he zooms the camera back through complex images, like a perspective peepshow created by Martin Engelbrecht between 1720 and 1750 in Augsburg, in order to see all layers intimately. For the viewer it has the magic of moving back through time and space. Although in some sense this is a falsification of how the paper theater was viewed, I think Martin Engelbrecht, its creator, who was an unparalleled innovator for his time, would be delighted to see how modern technology can expand upon his art. Through his symbiotic endeavors of collecting and filmmaking, Nekes is salvaging the past for the present and, in so doing, is again reaching the kind of audience that would have enjoyed these popular artforms. The world is full of collectors, but few exhibit so many combined talents as Werner Nekes, who, equally comfortable in the past and the present, assiduously studies our cultural heritage to entertain and enlighten us.

Frances Terpak, PhD., geboren in Pennsylvania, U.S.A., Studium der Geschichte und Kunstgeschichte an der Yale University. Seit 1983 Curator am Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, Los Angeles, verantwortlich im Bereich Rare Photographs, Special Collections.