By KEN JOHNSON Published: March 31, 2011
Was Friedrich Schröder-Sonnenstern crazy? Or was he crazy like a fox? Either way, he was certainly some kind of crackpot genius, and his cartoonish, sexually charged, mystically suggestive colored-pencil drawings from the 1950s, on view in “From Barefoot Prophet to Avant-Garde Artist” at Michael Werner Gallery, are as compelling for their beautiful draftsmanship as they are for their bizarre metaphysics and gleefully fierce satire.
Well known to fans of outsider art, Schröder-Sonnenstern’s drawings seem the products of a mind unmoored from the foundations of normal psychology and attuned to an eccentric, paranoid system conjured by its own obsessions. He was born in 1892 near Tilsit, in East Prussia, and schizophrenia
was dubiously diagnosed when he was a youth. He spent time in mental hospitals, as well as in prisons for minor crimes. As the art historian Pamela Kort recounts in a fascinating catalog essay, when he was in his 20s and 30s and living in Berlin, he posed as Prof. Dr. Eliot Gnass von Sonnenstern, offering palmistry readings, natural health remedies and general quackery. He was one of many “barefoot prophets” selling mystical hope to a confused population during the Weimar years.
Instead of keeping his earnings, he gave away his money to the poor and hungry. It was not until after World War II, when he was in his late 50s, that Schröder-Sonnenstern, who never had any formal art training, began to draw. He did so at the behest of his companion, Marthe Möller, who was annoyed by her underemployed mate hanging around the house. Very quickly, Schröder-Sonnenstern’s art evolved from sketchy drawings of mysteriously symbolic emblems — mixing disembodied eyes, stars, hearts and lines of radiation — to fully realized allegories rendered in rich colors on poster-size sheets of artist’s paper. Abounding in rotund, improbably buxom nude women; grinning devils; resplendently costumed magi; snakes and other anthropomorphized creatures, and willfully animated by a comical, polymorphous perversity, his images look as if they’d been made by a member of a satanic, Orientalist sex cult. Aleister Crowley surely would have approved. Portentous titles add to the oracular vibe and tell you something about what Schröder-Sonnenstern thought he was doing. “The People’s Joyful Miraculous Shirt, or the Moralistic Scarecrow,” one of his less provocative but more formally lovely images, depicts a kimonolike, priestly vestment hanging with spread arms on crossed spears. Its lush red fabric decorated with finely drawn symbols — an anchor, an upside-down heart, a skull and bones within a compass rose, and multiple eyes — it has a collar resembling a bear trap. At the bottom of the drawing, peering up over a low mound, is the upper half of the face of a person with great curving horns and hypnotic eyes. The title and the cruciform composition suggest a terrific tension between desire (the horned demon) and social prohibition (the pontifical garment). Or between erotic freedom and ecclesiastic law. Schröder-Sonnenstern certainly was on the side of libidinal expression, but just as clearly he had his own issues about control, as the exacting, razor-sharp linearity of his draftsmanship suggests, along with much of his imagery. “The Jealousy Tragedy” invokes the age-old symbol of the uroboros — the snake eating its own tail — as an image of the endless circularity of time. In this case, however, one of the artist’s typically zaftig nude heroines rides a giant serpent whose tail plunges into her long, blond tresses in back as it turns its head up to bite her melon-size breasts with sharklike white teeth. Lust turns in on itself in endless cycles of titillation and frustration. One of his most puzzling images depicts a totemlike figure with a body in the form of a wavy rainbow topped by a big, moon-shaped head. Something resembling fire issues from its gaping maw, which is rimmed by pointy teeth. It has one arm holding a slender cane, and from the back its head drags a fish on a hook at the end of a long line as it progresses up a lumpy green hill. Its title, “The Mass Demon,” suggests a connection to worldly politics, and the tendency of gullible crowds to be taken in by the colorful hokum of charismatic Machiavellians. While Schröder-Sonnenstern’s art was strongly satiric, “Mass Demon” and other works also give the impression of an esoteric, cultish mysticism. This was a problem. As Ms. Kort explains in her essay, postwar Germans were highly sensitive to any form of social or cultural expression involving folksy superstition and religiosity. The Nazis used a rhetoric of holistic fantasy — catering, as Ms. Kort observes, quoting the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, to “the masses’ ‘unsatisfied orgasmic longing’ ” — to galvanize the population around Hitler’s hysterical, millenarian leadership. A fearful conservatism gripped the German art world in the 1950s, and, Ms. Kort writes, “the shocking figurative aesthetic Schröder-Sonnenstern cultivated was completely out of step with the French Tachiste painting so eagerly emulated by German artists at the time.” (A similar anxiety, animated by fear of Communism, favored apolitical abstraction in the United States.) Artists like Jean Dubuffet and Hans Bellmer championed Schröder-Sonnenstern in the 1950s, and he was included in major Surrealist exhibitions in Paris, New York and Milan. He was one of the first artists to emerge from postwar Germany to achieve international recognition. But in Berlin his attempts to exhibit his work were frustrated by lack of interest and mismanagement by art dealers. After the death of Möller, his companion, in 1964, Schröder-Sonnenstern took to drink, his art deteriorated, and he was relegated to the margins of art history and into the outsider canon. This wonderful exhibition, the first major survey of his work in the United States, reveals an artist of far greater complexity and historical interest than his niche status has heretofore allowed. Put it on your not-to-be-missed list. “Friedrich Schröder-Sonnenstern: From Barefoot Prophet to Avant-Garde Artist” runs through April 30 at Michael Werner Gallery, 4 East 77 Street, Manhattan; (212) 988-1623, michaelwerner.com.