Published 20/05/2024 | 10:17

Exhibition at the Mikkel Museum tells the story of the Kügelgen family through items and artworks

Karl Otto Gerhard von Kügelgen. The Artist with His Family in Vinni Manor. 1835. Art Museum of Estonia

On 25 May, the Mikkel Museum will open the exhibition The Kügelgens: The Story of One Baltic-German Family, introducing the most prominent members of the family through their artworks and related objects. The exhibition traces a journey that began in Estonia in 1798, when twin brothers, the portraitist and history painter Gerhard (1772–1820) and the landscape painter Carl (1772–1832) Kügelgen arrived from Germany.

The rather peaceful years of the 19th century were followed by a turbulent period in the family’s history, when, in the chaos of revolution and the two world wars, they lost their property, status and homeland and began to build a new life in Germany. At the heart of the exhibition are objects, photographs and works of art from the Kügelgen family collections, which are being shown in Estonia for the first time. They are complemented by works from the Art Museum of Estonia and other Estonian museums. The exhibition tells the story of a single family, but it also reflects Baltic-German culture in the 19th and 20th centuries in general.

“The oeuvre of the famous Kügelgen twin brothers is well known in Estonia, as in 2015 the Kadriorg Art Museum hosted a major exhibition of the two masters, which also saw the publication of a comprehensive catalogue. The art of the next generation of Kügelgens is represented in the Kumu Art Museum’s permanent collection by a few examples, but the artistic careers of Wilhelm and Sally, and especially the symbolist Erich von Kügelgen, still await dedicated researchers, and this exhibition is a good impetus for that. At a seminar on the opening day of the exhibition, 25 May, there will be a series of presentations by German and Estonian researchers, who will discuss new aspects of the Kügelgen story,” said Aleksandra Murre, Director of the Mikkel Museum.

Six Kügelgen artists have left a deep mark on Estonian art history and their works reflect the changes in styles from classicism to symbolism. Following in the footsteps of the twin brothers Gerhard and Carl, the founders of the Estonian branch of the family, their sons Wilhelm (1802–1867) and Constantin (1810–1880) and grandchildren Sally (1860–1928) and Erich (1870–1945) also became artists.

The Kügelgen family has many other notable figures. One of the best-known Kügelgens in Germany is the anthroposophical educator Helmut von Kügelgen (1916–1998), who contributed greatly to the development of Waldorf education. Of great importance for Estonia are Ernst von Kügelgen (1871–1948), the head of the Seewald mental hospital and a psychiatrist, and Leo von Kügelgen (1880–1931), who worked at the same hospital and is known above all as a patron, collector and critic of art.

Besides medicine, members of the aristocratic family were also involved in writing. Paul von Kügelgen (1843–1904) was the editor-in-chief of the St. Petersburger Zeitung, the most influential German-language publication in Russia, a post inherited by his son Siegwart (1875–1952). In the second half of the 20th century, the communist Bernt von Kügelgen played an important role in the East German propaganda press. The artist Wilhelm von Kügelgen’s (1802–1867) memoirs, An Old Man’s Reminiscences of His Youth, were so popular in Germany that they became compulsory school literature. Wilhelm’s bestseller has been reprinted dozens, if not hundreds, of times, and is now also available in Estonian: a thoroughly annotated translation by the exhibition curator Anne Untera was published last year.

“Compiling an exhibition based on family materials is a big challenge. Different objects have to be combined into one coherent whole: for example, the travelling chest with which Gerhard and Helene Marie von Kügelgen set off from Ojasoo Manor for Germany in 1804, the travel chess set owned by Wilhelm and the academic drawings made by Sally in St Petersburg, not to mention the book by the “model communist” Bernt and an oval steering wheel designed by Hartmut,” said Anne Untera, the exhibition’s Estonian curator. She added that the rich and complex history of a large family has been transformed into an exhibition thanks to the stories associated with each artwork and object, which the designers Mari Kurismaa and Mari Kaljuste have harmoniously woven together in the exhibition design, including the Kügelgen family tree.

Many members of the Kügelgen family are coming to Estonia for the opening of the exhibition, including the chairman of the family association, Dr Tobias von Kügelgen, and his art historian wife Dorothee von Kügelgen.

The exhibition will remain open until 29 September 2024.

Curators: Anne Untera, Matthias Donath, Eike Eckert and Anu Allikvee (1960 – 2024)
Exhibition design: Mari Kurismaa
Graphic design: Mari Kaljuste
Coordinator: Aleksandra Murre

Partners: Kügelgenhaus – Museum of Dresden Romanticism and Ostpreussisches Landesmuseum, Lüneburg