We met Alfred Hagemann to discuss the four Black sculptures in Park Sanssouci. Hagemann studied History of Art, English and American Studies as well as History at Humboldt University, TU Berlin and Halle (Saale) University. From 2001 onwards he worked in the UK in preservation of historical monuments. In 2005, he finished his PhD thesis titled Wilhelmine von Lichtenau – zur Rolle der Auftraggeberschaft im Berliner Frühklassizismus. Now, he is a research assistant at the Foundation for Prussian Palaces and Gardens Berlin-Brandenburg.
The debate about the re-naming of the rotary with black figures was held without the Foundation Prussian Palaces and Gardens, whose function it is to preserve cultural possessions, but also to make them publicly accessible.
Even if the foundation was not included in the debate, they see it as an impulse to position themselves and as a chance to explain the park.
In doing so, it is important to make the visitors understand that a park is not just a garden, or a mere part of nature, but an artificially arranged thing, which serves as a place of remembrance, and in this case represents a symbol of civilisation and productivity.
The said rotary is situated in Park Sanssouci on an axis which depicts a timeline of civilisation. Starting with the Egyptian obelisk, which represents the Egyptian civilisation, via the ancient statues, which stand for the ancient Roman and Greek civilisation. Up next is the rotary with the four black figures, who look up to busts of Roman emperors. They portray the human who has ‘fallen back’ into the natural state. Going ahead, the rotary of the Orange follows. Thus the way from the Egyptian obelisk to the New Palace, illustrates that civilisation is not only a process, which distinctly moves ahead, but also proceeds as an undulation. Civilisations go down, before new ones emerge.
No other ways branch off from the rotary with the black figures. One can only go back or forth, both times in the direction of Western civilisation, to antiquity or to the Oranges.
The sculptures were probably chosen because at that time Africa as a continent was considered uncivilised and backward. But for Frederick the citizens of Brandenburg were definitely not on a higher level than the people in Africa. For this reason he did not have colonial possessions, because he thought that Brandenburg had to become civilised, before it was possible to go to other countries preaching civilisation and progress. So the position of the black sculptures is connected to a different perspective on the world and its peoples than the one which should ideally exist today. The figures are not examples of ‘uncivilised people’ based on their biological race, but because of the alleged stage of development of their culture. So the kind of racism differs from that arising in 19th century. The figures, however, were not produced for this rotary, but were acquired approximately 100 years earlier by Fredericks´s great grandfather. He, on the contrary, was involved in colonisation and had the sculptures produced in Italy. The exact incurrence of the figures, however, is unknown.
So Frederick tried to some degree to demonstrate his power and his political ideas with this park. Hence, the park today has a completely different meaning and function than during the 18th century. This shows that historical background and an answer to the question why it still makes sense to exhibit these figures, are important.
In the course of this, the foundation asks itself the question how they could explain the park without destroying it with a forest of signs. The debate illustrates that it is not enough to say that it is just art und thus it is acceptable to exhibit it. But the themes of power and violence do not necessarily draw the visitors in the park.
The colonial past of Prussia, in comparison to its military history is discussed to a lesser extent. Prussia is almost only associated with beautiful things like palaces and parks. But art can also have political meanings. Therefore the task remains to explain this to the visitors in an appropriate way. Only then there is the possibility for the foundation to distance itself from what is displayed and to explain how art should be read in a historical context.