20 March 2017, text, photos and video: Katrin Meier
Carefully packed and protected from light and decay, the 160 sketch books by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner are well cared for in the archive of the Kirchner Museum Davos. If at all, visitors are only permitted to hold the old oilcloth sketch books while wearing gloves. They are exhibited rarely – and even then only in a display case. At the same time, the unprepossessing sketch books harbour a treasure of great art-historical importance: the approximately 11,000 sketches and notes represent the basis for the oeuvre of the artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. This treasure is now being brought to light: since the summer of 2016 the museum has been working on a digitisation project, with the aim of making the sketches available to a broad public and also, of course, to academic circles.
Responsibility for the digitisation lies with registrar Annick Haldemann. She is convinced that the digitised oeuvre offers substantial added value for the art-loving public: “This way we are able to reveal what actually was the basis of Kirchner’s creativity. His paintings, printed graphics and sculptures were often preceded by a sketch that simply evolved.”
Thanks to support from Helvetia Art Sponsoring, the Kirchner Museum Davos has been able to purchase a high-performance scanner for the digitisation project. The “mistress of the scanner” is the research assistant Julia-Sophie Syperreck. The 27-year-old took over the digitisation project directly after completing her degree at the University of Oldenburg in north Germany. “The scans have to be carried out very gently”, Syperreck explains. She unwraps the acid-resistant protective paper, takes a sketch book from the box and places the first double page on the scanner. Saving the image is not where the task ends, however: “In the second step we need to give the files metadata and index them academically. Deciphering the notes is sometimes quite a challenge with Kirchner’s illegible handwriting!”
Once the works have been completely digitised, anyone can “flick” through them – for example on a tablet. Julia-Sophie Syperreck has to put in a lot of hard work to make it that way – but it’s worthwhile: “The digitisation makes academic research possible in the first place and offers an entirely new insight into the works of Kirchner”. It will take a total of two years until all the sketches are scanned, each image file is numbered and correctly categorised and all the references and descriptions are logged in the system. “And all of a sudden you can establish links between works of art that were not at all evident before”, says Syperreck. “That’s what I like most about it.”
Alongside the Kirchner Museum Davos, with its Art Sponsoring initiative Helvetia is also supporting digitisation projects at art museums in Bern and Luzern. At the Kunstmuseum Bern the entire legacy of Swiss artist Meret Oppenheim is being digitised, whilst at the Kunstmuseum Luzern they are digitising now unplayable videos from the 1960s and 70s. As a conclusion to each of the digitisation projects, each of the three museums is hosting an exhibition focusing on the digitised works.