Rights Brother: Matthias Schaller

Palette of Marc Chagall from series ‘Das Meisterstück’ (The Masterpiece)


Photographic Artist


Matthias Schaller is a German born photographic artist producing abstract portraits of a variety of subjects, from individual figures to entire nations. His work is regularly shown across the world. Basic Rights caught up with Matthias to talk ideas, what makes punk attitude and why he sometimes “behaves like a fish.”


Hi Matthias

Hi, how are you?


Yes, good. Thanks. We wondered if you might be able to give us a picture of who you are? Maybe a little summary of your career so far?

This is going to be a short interview. There’s no career here…



OK. You’re an artist though am I right?

Yes. I photograph mainly. Objects and things that together form portraits, but portraits that don’t have the actual subject in them. They’re not there. Quite like when you’re in the apartment of someone else but you’re alone, you almost get a better sense of who they really are than if they’re there with you. The way things are laid out, the choices they make in their furniture and books and things around the house. They reveal themselves to you.

The label I give it is “Indirect Portrait”. I’ve always found this an interesting concept and I work to explore that.

I have a few of these going at any one time. All kinds of things.


Matthias Schaller, ‘Disportraits’ (2009)


Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re working on now?

Of course. There’s one series that I’ve been developing for a while now which is photographs of the palettes of great European painters. So far it’s up to 86 painters, which is more than 200 palettes.

It came to my ear that there’s a Schiele palette somewhere in Vienna, so that’s where I am right now. Arguing with people to get them to let me photograph the palette. They’re just being difficult. I’ll get my way somehow.

Anyway the project itself has been going for over ten years now. Wow. Ten years! That sounds like a long time when I say it out loud…


It does. Do you start a project like this knowing that it’ll go on for so long?

Well in this case no, it was just an idea that came to me and I’ve continued coming back to it. I was with Cy Twombly in his studio in South Italy, he was showing me some of his work and by chance I saw his palette and the idea just came to me. The thing I loved was that just like looking at the objects that form part of someone’s life, is that if the subject is a painter then seeing the way they lay out their palette tells you something about them, but also tells you about their work. I realised you can actually see their work right there on the palette!


Palette of Cy Twombly from series ‘Das Meisterstück’ (The Masterpiece)

Cy Twombly, ‘Pan II’ (1980)


I then came across a palette of Miro which had the same thing… Immediately you could see the artists work in his palette! It was amazing!


Palette of Joan Miró from series ‘Das Meisterstück’ (The Masterpiece)

Joan Miró, ‘The Smile of the Flamboyant Wings’ (1953)


It became a passion and like a drug and I just wanted to explore more and more this bridge. There’s no time limit on this, it’s like an addiction that I want to keep up.


Palettes of Wassily Kandinsky, Claude Monet, Éduoard Manet, J. M. W. Turner


This bridge, is this the thread that runs through your work? You’re asking the viewer to fill in the blanks?

Yes exactly, I find it so much more exciting when the portrait is indirect. That empty space makes the viewer create their own ideas and engages them. Show me your friends and I can tell you who you are, show me your record collection and I know what you’re about. That’s how we think a lot of the time. I find when you show the viewer that empty space, when the subject is not explicitly there in front of them, they have to look at the work with their own creativity. That’s the idea anyway.


The Pope filling in the blanks


And you actually did feature record collections in some of your work?

Yes. This series was showing vinyls that were highly collectable. The collection of a guy in Venice who was completely nuts. He’d been collecting punk records for nearly 40 years, full time.

There was something about the punk attitude that made these records so interesting to me. That obsession with distruction. ‘Pull-it-down, fuck-it-up’, you know? But when they’re photographed up close these records have a romantic look to them. Like you’re looking at the movement of water, or a sunset. The fact that they have this pure anger and hard message inside them seemed like a fun contrast, something worth exploring.


Sex Pistols, ‘God Save The Queen’, 1977.


Sex Pistols, ‘God Save The Queen’, 1977.


I think this might be my favourite series actually. I love the subversion and how it differs from my other work. When the idea struck me I knew I had to do it.


Can you talk to us about your process? About where your ideas come from?

It’s not like there’s a formula. Where does inspiration come from? It’s like luck isn’t it. If you want to be lucky you have to prepare. In the same way you need to put work in if inspiration is going to come. If you do that work then the ideas come to you.

It’s a cliché but it’s always in those places where your mind is in neutral. In the shower or something. Actually, I do love to be around water if ideas are going to come. Sometimes I say to myself “No Matthias, this weekend you will take yourself to a spa and just behave like a fish” and that way my thoughts will come out the way they should. You have to take your mind to something that isn’t your work, that way you get to look at your work fresh.


‘Disportraits’, Fondazione Giorgio Cini, Venezia (I), 2009


There’s this other thing too, the pressure of satisfying the public but it’s really about self-satisfaction first. If that’s not the starting point then you’re doomed. You have to be drawn to the thing you’re exploring, otherwise how will anyone else be?


2010 ASFO Exhibition, Hong Kong


It’s also linked to pushing yourself, leaving your comfort zone. I love this David Bowie quote. He said something like ‘if you ever feel like your head is too far above the water' - as in you feel too comfortable with your work - 'then it’s time to swim a little further out.’


That’s great.

Isn’t it! I wish I was clever enough to say that.


To find prints of Matthias’ work or to explore his photography visit http://www.matthiasschaller.com/