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Para-Phrase: Erik Kessels / Francesco Zanot

Sep 19, 2018 - Gita Cooper-van Ingen

Margarete Schweinsteiger was born in 1942 in Niederkrüchten; a small town in West Germany close the Dutch border, near Roermond. The Schweinsteigers were wealthy, and well known throughout the local area. Her mother owned a popular local restaurant called The Altes Zollhaus. The restaurant was famous for its Schnippelbohnensuppe – green bean soup with mint, while Margarete’s mother was famous for stubbornly refusing to share the recipe with anyone, ever. Margarete’s father owned a pharmacy on Goethestraße, in the centre of town. Coincidentally Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s literature works were one of his greatest passions, so much so that Margarete’s name comes from the young woman who falls hopelessly in love with Faust, unaware that the outburst which inspires him is nothing but the pursuit of pleasure.

Margarete’s early months were happy, but otherwise unremarkable. As the only daughter of the Schweinsteigers, all the attention was focused on her. She spent most of the time outdoors, in the area where the Brachter Wald Park stands today. Margarete’s parents bought her one of the best record players available, produced by the Swiss company Thorens. She grew up listening to timeless classics like Lili Marleen and Die Moritat von Mackie Messer. Her room, the biggest one in the house, is entirely covered with wallpaper depicting a pattern of small bears on a pink background. But something was not right. 10 months past, then 15, 20, and at two years Margarete had not uttered a single word. There were no other problems, she ate, slept, played, smiled, ran and learnt, but she does not speak. They began a relay from one specialist to the next. They took Margarete to hospitals, private clinics and universities, but at ten years old Margarete had still has not pronounced even one syllable. Nor at fourteen. Professor Valentin Grziwok, head of paediatrics at the Bürger hospital in Frankfurt, confirmed that there were no physical problems and filed the case as a serious form of agnosia. According to him, there were no solutions. He certainly didn’t intend to stain his brilliant career by admitting any indecision on the matter. Siébel Bacak, the luminary of neurology and neuropsychiatry, based in Kiel, committed himself to the curious case for four years. He spent his nights reading hundreds of volumes, from ancient incunabula to the latest articles published in scientific journals. He even learned French in order to access the valuable studies of  Thomas Carrot on the quasi-language of bonobos (Pan papiscus) in Congo. But there seemed to be no answer – none of the countless mnemonic exercises, drug therapies and hypnotherapy sessions had any effect at all on Margarete’s condition. Until one morning when Doctor Heinrich Hinderyckx entered the pharmacy in Goethestraße…

It is now February 23rd, 1956. Doctor Hinderyckx was driving through Niederkrüchten for a symposium in Düsseldorf on the “mirror stage as a formatter of the ego function” (based on Prof. Lacan’s innovative theories). The doctor has a terrible cold. It is the most severe winter since the end of the war. Margarete’s father gives him some pills containing Echinacea and strawberry tree flowers that he had prepared for many years. In his opinion this concoction kept the entire Viersen district in shape. It takes only a few minutes, including pleasantries, for the dialogue to turn to his daughter’s inexplicable disorder. Dr. Hinderyckx was a man who welcomed a challenge, only two years earlier he had been the first man to climb Mount Elbrus in the company of an animal, his faithful shepherd Mephistopheles. The doctor was drawn to the case immediately and volunteered to treat Margarete. He had never dealt with any such case, but thought perhaps his method based on the principles of Art Therapy may prove to be effective. They scheduled an appointment two days later. On February 25th at 7:00 am Hinderyckx showed up in his mustard Citroën DS in front of the Schweinsteigers’ house, loaded the entire family into his car and headed at lightning speed back to his studio in Brussels. He couldn’t wait to start the therapy and drive faster than his idol, Tazio Nuvolari. The only stop allowed is near Hasselt, for a slice of tarte au riz in the legendary Stuckens pastry shop. They arrived in record time of one hour and forty-six minutes. An entire month of non-stop therapies then followed, but without any positive results. The paintings by Rubens, Ensor and Magritte, the theatre pieces of Suzanne Lilar and Herman Teirlinck, Jacques Brel’s songs, are all useless. No sound of any meaning comes out of Margarete’s mouth. The evening before she is set to travel back to Germany, Hinderyckx takes Margarete to the circus, as a treat after so many days of hard and frustrating work. The famous Moscow Circus is in Europe for the first time and its two-year tour starts in Brussels. The program included the performances by acrobats, jugglers and clowns, but Margarete was captivated by the bears trained by Valentin Filatov. Her eyes lit up as she watched the fourteen animals perform. The bears rode bikes, skated, danced, boxed and pretended to be firemen. At the end of the show, Hinderyckx bought her a teddy bear. He paid 8 francs and delivered the toy into the hands of the girl, who exclaimed enthusiastically: “I’ll call you Werther!”

The miracle took place on March 28th at exactly 17:42. Margarete speaks! Her language is sharp and fluid, with a clear regional accent. Yet not all is as it should be. The teddy bear was the only subject she would address. She refused to speak to anyone else. Werther was the only interlocutor of monologues, which could last whole days. Dr. Hinderyckx discovered that Margarete never had plush toys or dolls because of her father’s obsession with hygiene; Pencils and pastels had to be washed in a solution of water and vinegar after each use. Until then, Dr. Hinderyckx had been unable to formulate a convincing hypothesis as to the origins of Margarete’s silence, although he was sure that the bears on the wallpaper played a crucial role. He believed that she started speaking following what he called an “Immaculate Conception Shock (ICS)”. At the time of her transition from childhood to puberty Margarete has an unexpected surprise thrust into her arms. Not only did she consider the bear her child, but having been raised in a deeply Christian family, she perceived herself as the Virgin Mary. In the following years the offspring expanded to include 12 toys with which Margarete entertained with endless conversations on every subject, from human relations to Murano glass. Her favourites are Hermann, a stuffed dog, and Dorothea, a dark-haired doll with a bow on her head. Things went on like this for 14 years, with Dr. Hinderyckx recording every sentence and every significant behaviour in notebooks, which provided all of the information you read in these pages. During this period he also took many photographs that served as additional materials for study and comparison.



Then, suddenly, on May 14th, 1970 Margarete stopped talking. To this day we do not know why. Dr. Hinderyckx spent the following years of his life trying to understand it. But for a twist of fate, or more likely following the thread of a mysterious design, Margarete’s last words which were to Werther, were the same as those pronounced by Goethe’s Margaret before she died tragically: “The world is all silent, like a sepulchre “.




Erik Kessels is a Dutch artist, designer and curator and is since 1996 Creative Director of international communications agency KesselsKramer. Worked for clients such as Nike, Diesel, The Standard, J&B, Oxfam, Ben, Vitra, Citizen M and The Hans Brinker Budget Hotel. As an artist and photography curator Kessels has published over 50 books of his ‘re-appropriated’ images, is editor of the alternative photography magazine Useful Photography and has written the international bestseller Failed It! Kessels made and curated exhibitions such as Loving Your Pictures, Use me Abuse me, 24HRS of Photos, Album Beauty, From Here On and Unfinished Father. In 2010 Kessels was awarded with the Amsterdam Prize of the Arts, in 2016 nominated for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize. In 2017 his mid-career retrospective was shown in Turin and Düsseldorf. He was called “a visual sorcerer” by Time Magazine and a “Modern Anthropologist” by Vogue (Italia).


Curator of Camera – the Italian Centre for Photography, Turin, from 2015 to 2017, Francesco Zanot has edited books dedicated to artists such as Boris Mikhailov (Diary, Walther König, Cologne), Mark Cohen (Italian Riviera, Punctum, Rome), Francesco Jodice (Panorama, Mousse, Milan), Takashi Homma (Widows, Fantombooks, Milan), Linda Fregni Nagler (The Hidden Mother, MACK, London), Domingo Milella (Steidl, Gottingen). His essays have been published in books on the work of Erik Kessels, Ettore Sottsass, Luigi Ghirri, Guido Guidi, Joel Meyerowitz, and, together with Alec Soth, he is the author of the book Ping Pong Conversations (Contrasto, Rome). Director of the Master in Photography organised by NABA in Milan, he gave lectures and seminars in various institutions worldwide, such as the Columbia University in New York, ECAL in Lausanne, IUAV in Venice. Associate editor of curatorial platform Fantom ever since its foundation, he curated the inaugural exhibitions Give Me Yesterday, and Stefano Graziani: Questioning Pictures at Fondazione Prada Osservatorio in Milan.


Para-phrase is an online project that commissions pairings of images and text, where a photographer is invited to submit images and a writer is invited to respond to the selection. It offers a platform for exchanges and responses between artists, writers, and curators whose work produces and promotes the discipline of lens-based media. Para-phrase draws on the multiplicity of artistic processes and aims to encourage their exchange. It supports a wide range of voices from an expanding network of practitioners open to collaboration and exchange and shows that the outcome reflects the many, varied approaches of how to interpret both image and text. Both the acts of writing and photographing attempt to interpret the world, to decipher the symbols, figures, data, complexities of our respective realities.