Der Schlüssel zum Leben

The key to life. 500 years of mechanical amusement

Automatons, androids, and robots – they are all expressions of the human desire to create artificial life, and they have an ever-growing impact on our working and private lives.

  • DATES 03/06/2022—25/09/2022

Figurenautomaten und mechanische Theater

The holdings of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden are a true treasure trove of mechanical objects from the 16th century to the present day. Its breadth is nearly unique. This is the first time that these objects are presented in a joint exhibition. The exhibition focuses on mechanical figural automatons, automated tools and typewriters, drinking games and kinetic art, toys and music machines. It shows how a new technology – mechanics – was made popular: popular at the courts (as an instrument of power), popular in philosophy (control over life and the influencing of processes), popular in production (optimising work processes and increasing efficiency), popular in theatre, music and film (illusion and mass spectacle), popular in medicine (prostheses and voice synthesizers, right up to the artificial heart).

© Mathematisch-Physikalischer Salon, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Foto: Michael Lange
Figurenautomat "Krebs", Augsburg, um 1590 Unterseite, Hans Schlottheim(?), Gehäuse: Kupfer und Messing, rotbraun bemalt; Werk: Vertikal stehendes ovales Vollplatinenwerk aus Eisen und Messing, Federantrieb mit Schnecke und Darmsaite

Ausstellung und Katalog

In five chapters, the exhibition and accompanying catalogue trace their history from courtly collectors’ items, which were initially only accessible to a select audience, out into the festival halls and fairs, and eventually into children’s bedrooms and art galleries. The aim has always been to impress and inspire.


I. And then they began to move …Automatons from around 1600

Around 1600, more mechanical automatons were gathered in the Kunstkammer of Dresden’s Royal Palace than in any other place in the world.

Mehrere Vitrinen in einem Raum
© SKD, Foto: David Pinzer

II. The artificial human. Androids of the 18th century

Whether it was a duck that could eat and digest food, a mechanical musician who played a real instrument, or a machine that could say »Mama« – attempts at recreating life knew almost no bounds in the eighteenth century.

Ein künstliches Herz
© SKD, Foto: David Pinzer

III. The dramaturgy of the camshaft. Mechanical theatre in the 19th century

Mechanical theatres fascinated visitors at fairs, theatres, and taverns. Audiences loved the perfect illusion, made unforgettable with the help of changing lighting scenes and dramatic storytelling by an impresario.

Detailaufnahme des Theatrum mundi "Das Leiden Christi"
© SKD, Foto: David Pinzer

IV. Coin-operated machines and robots. Mechanical automatons in the 20th century

For us, coin-operated machines and robots are probably the most familiar forms of mechanical automatons. They help us to get from A to B, and keep us fed and entertained on the way.

© David Pinzer Fotografie

V. And they are still moving ... Kinetic art and its digital siblings

To this day, people continue to be amazed by movements generated from unknown sources. Many contemporary artists like Ion Sur therefore utilise the possibilities presented by mechanics in order to achieve their objectives.

zwei Personen betrachten zwei an der Wand hängende Kunstwerke
© SKD, Foto: David Pinzer


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Der Schlüssel zum Leben. 500 Jahre mechanische Figurenautomaten | Kunsthalle im Lipsiusbau


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Der Schlüssel zum Leben. 500 Jahre mechanische Figurenautomaten

Publication accompanying the exhibition

Der Schlüssel zum Leben. 500 Jahre mechanische Figurenautomaten

editor: Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden; Peter Plaßmeyer; Igor Jenzen; Hagen Schönrich, 224 Seiten, 213 meist farbige Abb., 28 x 23 cm, Klappenbroschur, Erscheinungsdatum 3.6.2022, ISBN 978-3-95498-682-8, 38,00 €

flyer accompanying the exhibition

The key to life

The flyer accompanying the exhibition.

Der Schlüssel zum Leben
Information for journalists


High-resolution press images and further information can be found in our newsroom.

Figurenautomat "Krebs"
© SKD, Foto: Michael Lange

Sponsors of the exhibition:


Animation of Theatrum Mundis created as part of:

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