The Collector

Cerha in his garden.

Moving freely in nature: This is one of Friedrich Cerha’s most basic needs. For Cerha, an artist at heart, stopping and closely observing his surroundings has always been an important part of directly and sensually becoming one with the world.

Photo: Hertha Hurnaus

In prehistoric times, collecting was essential to human survival; people of the Stone Age could not have existed without the gathering of berries, mushrooms, herbs, nuts, and other foods. In our industrialised world, labouring to gather food is no longer necessary. But collecting as an activity per se has not only remained, for many it has become an obsession. People collect things of monetary value such as art, postage stamps, and banknotes as well as items with only symbolic value. Some collecting passions are quite specialised indeed, ranging from stuffed animals to empty toothpaste tubes.

Society’s view of collecting has also changed over time. During the Baroque, it was considered “vain” to accumulate material things, even if in practice this was usually not the case. In the nineteenth century, an era of historicism, collectors amassed collections that were considered part of our cultural heritage. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a passionate collector of rocks and art, saw in collecting the potential to “model the world according to [one’s own] ideas” instead of “subordinating one’s ideas to material things”Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Der Sammler und die Seinigen, sixth letter, Amsterdam 1997, p. 74. Friedrich Cerha also subscribes to this creative understanding of collecting. However, his focus has less of a scientific bent (unlike Goethe, whose research into the natural world included an interest in minerals). For Cerha, it is the aesthetic properties of the material that are key; collecting is, for him, an artistic practice. Cerha kept (and still retains) things that he later integrated into his (sculptural) paintings. It is not uncommon for these items to be objects of seemingly little value, although for Cerha they have great worth.


A Mindful Artist’s Soul

During an interview at the Donaueschinger Musiktage 2014, Cerha noted: “Today, people have often lost ‘mindfulness’ (what an old-fashioned word!) for what is around them. They use a great many things without really paying attention to them. And when they are no longer needed, they are ‘mindlessly’ cast aside.”“Achtsam auf die kleinen Dinge”, How time flies! No longer is the word “mindfulness” considered old-fashioned, and in fact quite the contrary: Global trends such as the climate change movement have turned it into a buzzword that encompasses adopting alternatives to our consumer-oriented lifestyles. At second glance, the term’s political potential is revealed in current discourse regarding such topics as sustainability, awareness, the struggle against the all-threatening (and media-fuelled) culture of distraction. Cerha brings yet another component into play: an appreciation of overlooked objects. “Even as a child, I had a special relationship with the little things that are all around us,” says the artist, “and I collected the ones that I found particularly beautiful and attractive: stones, roots, old wood, metal parts, seeds, tree bark, coins … and I lived together with them.” “Debütant mit 90 Jahren… Dieter Ronte im Gespräch mit Friedrich Cerha”, in: Gundula Wilscher (ed.): Vernetztes Werk(en). Facetten des künstlerischen Schaffens von Friedrich Cerha, Innsbruck et. al. 2018, pp. 161–165, here p. 161 Over the years, collecting became not only a hobby, but a crucial foundation of Cerha’s artistic approach. His perception of the world intensified, and subtle nuances developed. “I have cultivated this mindfulness throughout my life, and I still enjoy observing the fringes of what is around me and what others may throw away,” he says. “My wife once cattily remarked that I’m more interested in things than in people.”“Debütant mit 90 Jahren… Dieter Ronte im Gespräch mit Friedrich Cerha”, in: Gundula Wilscher (ed.): Vernetztes Werk(en). Facetten des künstlerischen Schaffens von Friedrich Cerha, Innsbruck et. al. 2018, pp. 161–165, here p. 162
Cerha’s loving relationship to objects first manifested in his creative oeuvre. Object paintings have dominated his work since 1963, containing everything that falls into his hands: everyday items such as nails, screws, spark plugs, sawblades, razor blades, gloves, keys, and scraps of cloth, as well as natural materials like pieces of wood, bark, stones large and small, grass, and clumps of earth. A cross-section of all the things united in Cerha’s collections shows the world as it is.



Collected items in Cerha’s workshop in Maria Langegg

Photos: Christoph Fuchs

Broadening the perspective, there seems to be an attitude behind Cerha’s love of objects that is significantly influenced by Far Eastern mentalities. As early as his student days, he was already preoccupied with the spiritual questions of Asian philosophy. Like his colleague John Cage, Cerha immersed himself intensively in the Chinese oracle I Ching, the “Book of Changes”. During the early 1960s, the two met several times in Vienna to present compositions together. “Making music with Cage, his devotion and accuracy in working with sound phenomena—which were, in his case, the result of random manipulation—and his underlying, not a priori, judgmental perception of different realities, was something that affected my approach,” Cerha recalls.Joachim Diederichs: Friedrich Cerha. Werkeinführungen, Quellen, Dokumente, Vienna 2018, p. 110 This resulted in the continued evolution of Cerha’s respect and sensitivity for materials of all origins—representational, tonal, or otherwise.


Taking the World In

Cerha’s thoughts and feelings have always been characterised by an irrepressible curiosity. This drove him along his path, dropping the things of this world into his collector’s bag. A peek into his home reveals true treasures: It is teeming with large and small objects that he has brought together over the decades, motivated by a wide variety of reasons.

Cerha, Vienna apartment, various views

Photo: Christoph Fuchs

Cerha’s living spaces reflect the fact that the world is a collection of heterogeneous things. Different cultures can be found circling around here, leaving their traces at every turn. The places and cities he visited inspired him not only intellectually, he also brought back memorabilia—treasures such as musical instruments, figurines, vases, reliefs, and stones both found in nature and worked by hand. A particularly large number of objects are from Arab countries, most of them from a trip to Morocco in 1989. Cerha visited the “ruins of an Arab palace” near the capital Rabat,Gertraud Cerha, correspondence for Cerha Online discovering two faience tiles that he took back to Vienna. He bought other things from street vendors, such as a kind of scarab acquired “on the way from the Atlas Mountains to the Sahara”.
Each of these unique pieces tells a tale of his love for alluring, often small objects that invite one to touch them. Cerha was also interested in the cultures of countries that he did not visit himself. He was fascinated by the oceanic islands northeast of Australia—a space as far away as possible from his own orbit, both geographically and culturally. He found the Iatmul, an indigenous people of Papua New Guinea, particularly fascinating. They were—or still are—the epitome of “foreign” from the European point of view. Ancient traditions and mythical rituals remain an important part of their way of life today. In the late 1980s, as Cerha was reflecting on his own musical culture through his Zweites Streichquartett, he purchased a richly decorated New Guinean skull trophy hook.Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 261 He did not stop with collecting this single item. There are several such artefacts in Cerha’s collection—flat wooden discs with ornate paintings, sculptural objects, and reliefs.


Skull trophy hook from Oceania, kept in Vienna

Ethnic art, in Maria Langegg

Photo: Christoph Fuchs

Cerha’s passion for collecting (cultic) art from distant cultures aligns with his appreciation of European-Christian sacred works. This should, however, be interpreted less as a sign of his personal identification than as an expression of his fundamental interest in religious phenomena. As early as the 1950s, Cerha encountered “medieval fine art in Italy”,Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 218 admiring painters like Piero della Francesca and Giotto di Bondone and finding himself fascinated by their depictions of Christian themes. Oil paintings of Christ in this style can be found frequently in both of Cerha’s domiciles. And larger sculptures are also evidence of his affinity for religious art—each piece with its own story. From his apartment on Salzgries in the first district to the music academy in the third district, Cerha’s preferred route was “through the city centre because it took him past several second-hand bookshops, the large Dorotheum, and [a] small auction house, providing him with the opportunity to discover all sorts of things.”Gertraud Cerha, correspondence for Cerha Online In the early 1960s, one of these was a wooden Christ Corpus that he saw through the window in a corner. Informed by the shopkeeper that the Jesus figurine was to be sold at an “unbelievably low” price before the next auction, Cerha immediately turned back, fetched the money, and brought the corpus home himself. Not much later, he bought an imposing Pietà (made at the turn of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries) using his “first substantial fee […] as the conductor of a concert in Paris”. He discovered the Pietà in an antique shop on the Rive Gauche and transported it to Vienna in his couchette, disguised as a pillow. “The choice of means of transport”, says Gertraud Cerha, “corresponded with our financial position after the purchase.”


Christian artwork, in Vienna

Photo: Christoph Fuchs

When strolling through Cerha’s various living spaces, one comes across art in all shapes, colours, and sizes. And on occasion, Cerha the composer has been known to ally himself with Cerha the collector. An apt example of this is a painting by Arnold Schönberg, bequeathed by Josef Polnauer, which is significantly titled Nachtstück. The piece, created in 1911, is an indication of Cerha’s appreciation of the Viennese School on the one hand, and of his admiration for expressive painting on the other. The subject likely cast a spell over him as well: Cerha is not only an avowed “night worker”, but was and still is very excited by the phenomena of night-time. Once again, the collected object and a sensual, creativity-stimulating experience merged with one another.



Arnold Schönberg, Nachtstück, 1911, gouache on paper, 18.4 x 15.5 cm

Photo: Christoph Fuchs

A Natural Collecting Passion

In addition to gathering inanimate objects and materials of the most varied colours, Cerha’s collecting is characterised by another obsession: seeking out and preserving living things. Even as a child, he was almost mystically drawn to vegetation. An early photo from the 1930s shows Cerha picking mushrooms with his mother—an archaic food-gathering activity since time immemorial. If you take a closer look at the photograph, you can see something like loving affection in the boy’s face, part of the essence of the quintessential collector. But first, a collector has to find the mushrooms. This requires a focussed joy of discovery, but also foresight: The usual paths must be abandoned, and looking along the edges can be helpful. Lothar Knessl uses these characteristics to describe not only the mushroom picker, but also Cerha as a composer.Lothar Knessl, “Versuch, sich Friedrich Cerha zu nähern”, in: Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 261 Mushroom hunting is also about the intellectual and sensual palpation of nature. Button mushrooms grow in meadows, orange boletes are found under birches, beeches, or poplars, other species thrive only in very exclusive places, such as the larch boletes that only grow under larches. Mindfulness is an absolute requirement: A mushroom hunter must have precise knowledge about what they find, their surroundings, the mushrooms’ shapes and colours, their structure and texture. It is essential to be practiced in their identification; after all, certain poisonous mushrooms look irritatingly similar to their edible relatives. A delicate approach to harvesting is equally important. The mushroom must be carefully twisted out of the soil, or judiciously cut to avoid damaging the network, the mycelium, growing in the earth beneath. Cerha was particularly interested in these underground networks.


Cerha collecting mushrooms, private photo, ca. 1930s, AdZ, KRIT0006/112

Cerha has remained a dedicated mushroom hunter even into his later years. He is in good company: John Cage, his composer colleague, was also a passionate mushroom hunter and a knowledgeable mycologist. As with Cerha, this passion aligns with the mindfulness he practiced in life and art. Cage’s gathering also corresponds to his need to lead a simple, natural life. Just as Cerha settled at the edge of the Maria Langegg forest in his late thirties, starting in the 1950s Cage lived in a commune in Stony Point, a small town in the nature of upstate New York. Cage would go on long hikes, devoting himself entirely to mushroom hunting. When he taught at the New School for Social Research in 1956, he offered courses not only on experimental music, but also on fungus identification. The coexistence of these two passions speaks volumes.
After all, one finds traces of Cerha’s interest in mushrooms and mycelium in his compositions. He also expressed enthusiasm about the “green plant world”. His special love for one particular genus, the euphorbia, must be highlighted. In the 1960s he began to discover the highly different-looking species that grows scattered across the globe. The experiences that resulted from this discovery also shaped his music, for example in his ensemble work Exercises. In keeping with his blossoming botanical interest, he ultimately began to not only study plants, but also to collect them. The large garden at his Lower Austrian home testifies to this close connection between his collecting and creating. “In the fantastic wilderness of Maria Langegg, he was able to be particularly close to the secret life of plants and animals.”Monika Mertl, “Träumen, atmen, tun”, His Vienna property provides a counterpart: There is a large greenhouse next to the house, filled with the euphorbias (often very cactus-like) and many other species that inspired his compositions. For decades, Cerha brought offshoots of various plants of different origins to Vienna, transplanting and breeding them. An impressive array of diverse greenery emerged. Here, Cerha’s explorations of the world and his careful collecting intersect in a deeply moving way.


Cerha’s greenhouse, Vienna Hietzing, impressions

Photo: Christoph Fuchs