Diethard Leopold on experience of working with the family collection, curatorial practice and new challenges of the Leopold Museum in Vienna

13 november, 2020

Diethard Leopold¹. Design: Nikolay Karabinovych

You studied German Literature, Psychology, and also Theology at the University. Afterwards, you became a curator. Considering the fact that you are from a family of collectors, why didn’t you decide to study Art History from the beginning? Why did you choose that long path?

I just followed my personal interests. I grew up in a kind of museum myself. There was always talk about paintings and artists, and I wanted to do something different. I was more into literature and psychology at that time. We as a family were more interested in the aesthetic aspects of art, not so much in the theoretical or scientific. So there was simply no reason for me to go to University, I’d rather go to galleries and talk to friends and artists.

Why did you decide to come back to the art field?

That big thing has happened — the Leopold Museum was built for the family collection. I was always close to my parents, so I followed the process intimately. For many years, there were negotiations to build the foundation, and finally, it was created in 1994. It took 7 years to build and open the museum. During these 7 years, starting in 1997-98, an unavoidable topic in the art world came up: the restitution of artworks stolen during Nazi times.² My father started the collection in the late 1940s, after the war, so he wasn’t personally involved in anything like this, but some of the artworks were questioned. So there was this topic of restitution connected to the museum, and in 1998 two paintings from the Leopold collection were seized after being exhibited in NYC at MoMA. And when the Leopold Museum opened in 2001, there was a constant discussion about these things. I thought that the museum needs another language to talk about these problems. It also needed to take a step forward in its exhibition program to be more centered not only on Schiele but on the whole of the Vienna 1900s Secessionists’ movement. 
So both things were in my interest. Consequently, I became a mediator between claimants of stolen art and the museum’s foundation, and also helped in finding a language that would be appropriate for such grave and tragic matters. On the other hand, I was interested in setting up a permanent exhibition of “Vienna 1900” within the museum’s presentations. To bring together not only paintings but also furniture, jewelry, and various handicraft objects which were constituent parts of the Vienna 1900 movement.

Moreover, both fields interested me as a psychologist. So I joined the museum actively in 2008, in preparing the first permanent exhibition of the Vienna 1900 movement in Vienna. Later I entered the managing board of the museum’s foundation in 2010. Within this board, I was responsible for pro-actively bringing forward solutions to pending restitution cases. I worked in this position until 2015. 

Are you connected with the Leopold Museum now?

I continued to work as a curator of different special exhibitions until last year. In this period I could realize all I wanted to do for the museum, and after that, in last year’s fall, I forwarded my part of the collection to the next generation, my twin children. I am still an important lender to the museum but not that closely connected anymore. I am looking forward to doing other things in my life now. At the moment, I write a book, produce Japanese Noh-plays and write an opera together with a Vienna based German composer.

Are you writing about art? 

Yes, I am writing about art, but it's kind of so-called faction³. It combines my interest in Egon Schiele and my work as a psychotherapist. 

How did the topics that you've researched in the University help in your curatorial practice? 

I think combining my studies in literature and theology as well as my knowledge in psychology and especially my experience in psychotherapy led me to the most fascinating aspects in my work as a curator. On the one hand, my interest in literature and in cultural studies gave a background to my exhibitions. But on the other hand, my work as a psychotherapist made me aware that in entering a museum, in visiting an exhibition, you need various fields of perception in a meaningful sequence. Not only your visual perception but also your intellectual capacities, your sense of space, and, most important, the arousal of emotion. In addition, the sequence of different sense stimuli enhances the relaxation and freshness of perception.

If you are entering an exhibition where you have 100 paintings in a row, for example, you will soon get tired. If you are entering an exhibition where you have one painting and a description next to it, and you need 5 minutes to read it, you will get bored or overworked. But that is, regrettably, the usual set-up of exhibitions. Alternatively, you can set up a special, subtle mixture of text, artworks, flat on the wall and voluminous in space, music stations with earphones, video, relaxation areas with books, and the like. The whole should first of all be sensually pleasing. It’s not so easy to do such an exhibition-type and it heavily involved my knowledge and experience in psychology. 

Do you use some kind of psychological tricks to manipulate the viewer in the exposition?

I would not call the afore-mentioned integration of different sense stimuli manipulative. In principle, it is not my goal to manipulate people. If the set-up of an exhibition can consciously reflect what it’s all about, it is like in a good psychotherapy or psychoanalysis: there you can talk about what helps and what does not help, you should heave interpretations and memories onto a conscious level. Textual information and aesthetic juxtaposition in an exhibition should be equally helpful. This is not manipulative but enriching the whole experience.

For example, I did a Japan exhibition with a Japanese family collection consisting of numerous ink paintings. If I just had 80 of them side by side, it would be boring, wouldn’t it? I decided to show Netsuke alongside, these small ivory figures which evolved between 1600 and 1900; the Japanese originally used it on their belts as counterweights for purses. It has become works of art in itself, and they are now very popular due to Edmund de Waal’s book The Hare with Amber Eyes. So in between chapters of groups of ink paintings, after seven or eight of them, I placed columns with netsukes on top of them inbetween – Netsukes, which in their own way reflected the topics shown by the ink paintings. The sensual perception of the visitors necessarily took turns between looking at the wall and stepping back and seeing something voluminous in space. That alone worked quite well. 

In that exhibition, in creating “chapters” — aesthetically and emotionally — I had eight atmospheric words written in bold Japanese characters (and translations thereof) onto the upper part of the walls. These terms meaningfully structured the exhibition and they signified the sensual effects of the paintings, for example, “Loneliness” or “Spiritual Energy” or “Humor” etc. Contrary to the usual “Japan exhibitions” these were not art-history terms, but they came from the actual situation where the paintings had been used in the first place: the original collector had practiced tea ceremony. He would invite two or three friends, and for this special occasion hang a certain painting which exuded a certain emotional atmosphere. This was the real function of this kind of art, and the exhibition reflected it.

Needless to say, the actual work is much more subtle than this. It involves the art-works’ respective appearances, sizes, and something like I would like to call the energetic emanation. Arranging these together with texts, video, music etcetera is in itself a compositional issue like composing a piece of music. It has to do with rhythm, rhythmic curves, their beginnings, and their endings. The free spaces between all these objects are also of an extreme importance. You cannot absolutely plan this in an exhibition’s model, the last decision has to be done with the real objects in the real space. Curators who work on screens mostly nowadays have less and less proficiency in this field. I am often disappointed when I walk through exhibitions and wonder if the people who set them up have eyes and some sort of body sense or only their intellectual and scientific concepts in their heads which often deaden the senses. But art has the sensual as its primary field, as also the word aesthetics teaches us: it derives from old Greek, aesthesis, which encompasses the meaning of the English words perception, sensation, and feeling.
Tracey Emin & Egon Schiele, "Where I Want to Go" (23.4.—14.9.2015) Photo:

Was it some kind of a dialogue with a permanent exhibition?

Actually, I put it in dialogue with contemporary art. I added a contemporary kimono artist who used natural fibers to make decorative kimonos, and among others, I presented a young, abstract female painter who uses the same colors as can be seen in Japanese woodblock prints – which were shown in that exhibition, too.

Talking about those prints, I had used some of them for my “Vienna 1900” exhibition. It was the most natural thing to do because Schiele and especially Klimt collected woodblock prints. And you can see a large influence on Viennese artists in general by Japanese art.

I also want to ask about your interest in Japanese culture and archery. I clearly can understand how it can be in dialogue with modernist artists. Why do you also have this interest in Japanese culture?

Once in my life, I wanted to live abroad, in a culture that doesn’t have an imprint of European culture. By coincidence, I was asked by a University in Japan if I would like to teach German literature and language there. I thought, “Perfect, it’s far away enough”.

Of course, modern Japan is heavily influenced by the West, but there’s still an authentically indigenous, special cultural climate in Japan, and I was really fascinated when I got in touch with the (for me) strange and different approach to human life and existence in general. At first, and this is important, I was completely disorientated. I didn’t understand the behavior of the Japanese and I really thought in those first weeks that everybody there is crazy somehow — until I started practicing the traditional “ways” of archery, Kyu-Do, and tea-ceremony, Sa-Do (“do” meaning way or path through life). These practices were tickets to understanding the foreign culture from within. Many things became clearer then.

The Japanese have a peculiar self-concept, which is influenced by Buddhism. To make it short and simple, this self-concept states that the self is empty, that in its core it’s nothing – no-thing. That means though, that the self is not a substance, but a creative process; so it is not just a negative nothingness. 

For example, in Europe, we have this personal value of “you are a particular person and you should be true to yourself in various situations”. In Japan, it’s quite the opposite: the situation dominates what you are, so you should be different and flexible according to the situation. 

Well, I am disoriented now.

For instance, if you walk together with a group of friends, you yourself behave a little bit differently than you would with your colleagues. So you yourself are nothing. You are created by the situation. It opened a totally new door for me to concretely experience this different concept of ego or self – to understand that it is not crazy but a different version of humanity. And that I could live like this myself, too.

I`m not saying that one culture is right and another one is not, but nowadays I find it interesting to switch between these two concepts. And I guess there are even more such different concepts in the world at large, look at Africa for instance.
Tracey Emin & Egon Schiele, "Where I Want to Go" (23.4.—14.9.2015) Photo:

Speaking of these dialogs between contemporary and modern, I want to ask you about the exhibition where you had a dialog between Schiele and Tracey Emin. Why did you decide to invite Tracey Emin? And how often does Leopold museum have these kinds of exhibitions that re-actualize modernistic practices?​

The main curator of this exhibition was Karol Winiarczyk, and I was just the co-curator and a mediator in the background. But still, I had originally initiated this exhibition following a meaningful hint given to me by Miryam Charim of Charim gallery in Vienna. 

If you combine, for example, Schiele, who has his place in art history, and contemporary artists like Tracey Emin, I would say that Schiele gives to works of Tracey even more depth and aura as is already there, and Tracey gives back to Schiele likewise liveliness and energy, a relevance for today’s world. I think that's the reason why I wanted to combine them and invite Tracey. I also thought it was a fantastic choice because she's a very proficient drawer. This element of drawing is very prominent in the work of both Egon Schiele and Tracey Emin. 

But she's also very different, which is important in my view because in juxtaposing old and new artists I do not look out for superficial similarities. That’s what many curators do nowadays, but often the differences are so great, you don’t feel the point of meeting, you don’t grasp the linkage. And then the curators give far-fetched intellectual constructions, whereby you learn a lot about the curators but almost nothing about the artists. 
Some people were shocked to see Egon Schiele and Tracey Emin combined. But I am sure the majority was fascinated because deep down these both artists have an authentic existential interest in human beings, human life, love, loneliness, being encaged and simultaneously expressed by the body. I think it was one of the most beautiful exhibitions to take place in the Leopold Museum. 

We did such juxtaposition with Schiele another time in 2018. It was 100 years after  Schiele`s death. Me and the curatoress Verena Gamper of the museum had created a large exhibition of 1000 square meters — a whole space of the five floors of the museum — just for Schiele. At the end of that year, some works of Schiele went as loans to other institutions, other cities like to Paris for the Fondation Louis Vuitton. So we decided to have within the nine rooms of the Schiele-floor nine dialogues with contemporary artists. It was nice and in four of the nine spaces, I ventured to present artists I personally collect.

What kind of art do you collect?

I collect young artists’ works. On the one hand, the works have to be attractive on a purely sensual level, so I can relate to the artwork even if I know nothing about it. But on the other hand, I also have to find an interesting artistic concept which stands behind the creation of the works. It enriches and deepens the sensual experience. 

For the aforementioned “Schiele reloaded” exhibition I presented Rudolf Planszky, Chloe Piene, Maximilian Prüfer, and Tadashi Kawamata. (Among the other artists were for example Louise Bourgeois and Sarah Lucas, presented by Verena Gamper.) Maximilian Prüfer is a young German artist who works with life’s processes, sometimes using small animals in creating his art. They then inadvertently crawl over surfaces, leaving traces, feed themselves, or shit on the plane, in other words, Prüfer makes the animals collaborate with him. Originally, I bought a round “painting” in black and white, which was actually produced by rain. Later I bought the triptych “Crow” which I presented in the Schiele exhibition: three large pictures of the same decaying corpse of a crow in different stages of decay — its head, wings, feet, body. Then there were various forms of brighter spots and white lines. It looked like an image of the Christian “Holy Ghost” depicted as a pigeon with white auratic light emanating from it. But those white spaces and lines were in fact the traces and leftovers of small animals that fed on the crow, that were eating the corpse and then left marks on the canvas when they went away. In the history of religion, there is a relationship between being fed and the grace of supernatural beings, or between being fed and the relationship to God. In a very down-to-earth mode, that triptych of Prüfer had spirituality and sensuality meeting each other and melting into each other.
Maximilian Prüfer, Crow, 2015 Photo:

Yeah! Saint Francis of Assisi also fed pigeons while preaching. 

Not only pigeons!

What is the main aim of collecting for you? Is it a hobby, investment, or support? What is the main idea behind it?

Sometimes we buy artworks that can enrich the museum collection. For example, we bought some Kokoschka paintings and water-colours or sculptures by the Belgian artist George Minne, who had an enormous influence on the aesthetics of the Viennese art nouveau movement, the so-called Secession around 1900, and especially on Schiele’s and Kokoschka’s early drawings of pubescent girls and boys. We also collect to enhance the collection internationally, foremost the French expressionist Chaim Soutine whose works seem to project the findings of Schiele and especially Richard Gerstl, the newly re-detected superstar of Vienna 1900. This is so-to-say serious “art history collecting”. 

But with young artists, I just follow my whim and my sense of relevance. Sensuality and spirituality are indeed topics that lead me through life, so if there is a combination between them in art it arouses the passion of the collector in me. This has also led me into buying some small-scale, fine works by my possibly favorite artist Max Ernst.

Growing up in a family of collectors, do you feel the responsibility to dedicate yourself to art?

Well, I felt it and I lived it for the last 12 years. But now I passed on the torch to my two twin children. One has to remember, that there are now two distinct collections: the one of the Leopold Museum Private Foundation, and the other one of our family which is still privately owned. I've passed my part of it to my children and asked them to work with the museum from now on. I think it’s better to actively pass on things you possess while still alive, rather than to be forced to pass it on by death. Saskia and Clemens are 30 years old now, full of energy and interest in art and in the museum’s development. They also started collecting. Indeed they have a different taste than me or their grandfather for that matter. They collect much more conceptually than I do.

So, probably, more conceptual dialogs between modern and contemporary art will appear soon in the Leopold Museum.

Giotto di Bondone, St. Francis Preaching to the Birds, 1297—1299

You said that you don't work with the museum right now, but you still have some kind of connection with it. What are the challenges of the museum? What do you feel you have to improve?

Until half a year ago I would have said that there are no problems but interesting questions for the museum. One of them being, if the collection is intended to show a whole period of art, “Vienna 1900”, or if it is centered just around special artists, and of these artists’ most significant works, as was the original intention of my father. So you have, on the one hand, an outlook-on-an-epoch museum, or on the other hand, a museum dedicated to artists like Schiele, Klimt, Kokoschka, Richard Gerstl, Alfred Kubin etcetera. 

But since the Covid crisis hit the museum, there are only 20% of the usual visitors’ number. Tourists — same as in the other big Vienna museums — were the main financial factor to have this museum survive economically, and in addition, big events, like charity dinners or the like, are impossible right now. So it has become a really challenging situation now. The question for the moment seems to be: if the museum can produce exhibitions which attract also the people of Vienna… I think though that this is the most relevant and very exciting question!

Wow! I thought that the government subsidy is the core financial factor.

Subsidy from the state amounts for approximately 40% of the budget. But since March, because of the lack of tourists, the 60% of the budget, for which the museum itself came up, has been reduced to 10-20%.

But you also have a board of sponsors!

There is no “board of sponsors”, just sponsors to whom I am very grateful. Their donations are used for buying new artworks or restoring existing artworks or improving the infrastructure of the museum like translations or head-phones etcetera. But regrettably, the money coming in from sponsors is not significant for the overall budget which is beyond 6 million euros.
Diethard Leopold. Design: Nikolay Karabinovych

What is the main function of the collection? Is it to preserve or to actualize? Or is it to research and reflect on contemporary context maybe?

The Leopold Museum is in its core a historical art museum, therefore its function encompasses the formulation and the presentation of something like the cultural identity of Austria and the modern movements starting from the city of that period around 1900. The collection was successful because, when the museum opened, it was immediately understood as a natural, constituent part of Austria’s cultural identity. Something that was lacking has come in by the means of this museum. Other museums in Vienna were centered mostly on the explicit esthetique part, like Klimt or late Schieles in the Belvedere. But if you think of the expressionist tendencies, of experimentation in the direction of the future, you will go to the Leopold Museum. 

Let me also say that the function of museums has also changed recently. It's not only about presenting the historical cultural identity but also about being a meeting ground where you address contemporary urgent topics. In this field, the Leopold Museum can still expand. For example, what stance in the immigration issue can one have if seen from Vienna 1900? Or even more currently: what stance in the issue of health versus economic issues can one take if seen from the life expectancy of Viennese artists and their respective works around 1900? There are in fact numerous other questions which can be dealt by and within the museum.

I also want to ask about your perception of the relationship between government and private collections. How do you think private collections should collaborate with the government in a perfect world? How would a perfect state for the development of independent art look like?

Well, it's a very large question. Speaking on finances and rather simply put, some art like Schiele’s or Klimt’s have become extremely expensive nowadays, so the state doesn't have the funds to enrich museum collections in a grand style. I think here is a necessity for collaboration between private collectors and institutions. For sure there are critics of such collaborations, but I think nobody should be afraid of this. In America, this is much more natural.

In addition, private collectors do not only sometimes have more financial power, but also a better taste than state’s officials. The reason being that they collect on their own risk and with their own existential interests. This risky life-style is much nearer to the lives of artists than the life of curators and directors at art institutions paid for by the state. 

Therefore it should be made easier for private collectors to build a collection. This refers to the question of tax legislation or import-export customs. For example, if you export something to the USA, you don't have to pay any custom for importing art into the US, which is an advantage for the American collections and art institutions. If you import art into Austria, you have to pay 13% of the price for customs (if it comes from outside the EU). This is a disadvantage, and it is neither reasonable nor logical, and it should be simply abolished. Secondly, if you buy an artwork within Austria, you should be able to deduct its price from your income so that your general tax becomes lower. Of course, these are complicated questions, and they have to be solved in a uniform way within the EU.

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