Friedrich Schröder-Sonnenstern's biography is almost as fantastical as his art. Born in 1892 in East Prussia, he muddled through life until, at the age of twenty-six, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and committed to a sanatorium. One year later he showed up in Berlin, where he soon found considerable renown as a "naturopath"'a quack doctor, magnetist, and "prophet of the street." This career path was cut off by the Nazis' interdiction of occult practices, and after being confined in psychiatric institutes and in a penal camp, Schröder-Sonnenstern reemerged in 1944, scavenging firewood in the bombed-out German capital. Only in his late fifties, in 1949, did he begin to draw, using colored pencils to create allegorical grotesques stocked with a personal iconography of round breasts and equally round buttocks, snakes, horses, small smiling suns, angel wings, free-floating eyes, rainbows, and spirals. Although his art was rarely shown, he was championed in Surrealist and art brut circles; Jean Dubuffet and Hans Bellmer were among his admirers, and a few drawings were included in Marcel Duchamp and André Breton's 1959 "Exposition inteRnatiOnale du Surréalisme" in Paris. This recent presentation of some thirty works was the artist's first major exhibition in the United States.
The subtitle of the show''From Barefoot Prophet to Avant-Garde Artist"'implies a kind of radical transformation, but there are also continuities; Schröder-Sonnenstern's art suggests a total conviction in a self-made mythology similar to that which must have inspired people to believe in his capacity as a healer. The works' metaphysically loaded titles'Der moralische Mondualismus (The Moralistic Moon Dualism), 1955; Trilogie der Wahrheitsucherei (Trilogy of the Search for Truth), 1953; Meta-(Physik) mit dem Hahn (Meta-[Physics] with the Cock), 1952'imply mystical revelation while floating far from sense. Each is realized, moreover, with perfect graphic clarity, no matter how esoteric or incomprehensible its message. (An essay by Pamela Kort in the exhibition catalogue includes a fascinating discussion of the widely propagated connection between artists and lunatics, concluding that Schröder-Sonnenstern was not, in fact, schizophrenic.)
In some cases Schröder-Sonnenstern seems to have deployed his mock-heraldic imagery and cod moralizing to address, at least tangentially, the social and political issues of his time. It is tempting to see Der Massendämon (The Mass Demon), 1954'a fire-breathing mermaid, whose body is an undulating rainbow of fish scales, and who has hooked a fish with her one strand of hair'as an oblique comment on the manipulations of mass politics in Nazi Germany. The woman with spherical buttocks in Vitanovaseturine, 1951-52, meanwhile, parodies consumer culture. A large brown sausage enters and exits her alimentary canal unchanged in color, size, and shape. The drawing is funny, scathing, and lucid: The text along the side reads DIE G?TTIN DER GUTEN VERDAUUNG! (the goddess of good digestion). Yet other aspects remain unimpeachably enigmatic: Why, for instance, is she defecating into a beaker containing a heart? And what are we to make of the mumbo jumbo in the longer text underneath?
I'd agree with Kort that you might need to be gifted with a rich imagination rather than borderline schizophrenia to think up images such as Der moralische Kulturguetertransport (The Moralistic Cultural Commodities Transport), 1961, in which a skeleton horse pulls a carriage filled with a Moomin-like figure playing a violin, a smiling tuxedoed coachman, and a medley of birds, animals, and insects, all traveling under the canopy of an exuberant rainbow sheltering the entire scene from the dark night sky beyond. More puzzling is her call for "a few plucky young artists willing to take the explosive power of [Schröder-Sonnenstern's] art to a new level." The comment overlooks the fact that the art world's low tolerance for this kind of figurative surrealism has pushed all but a handful of its proponents into the "outsider" realms of comics, illustration, tattoo parlors, etc. Nota bene that under the towering, stockinged-and-stilettoed horse in Der Mondamtsschimmelreiter (The Moon Rider Official on a White Horse), 1956, there is a small, solitary man lying on his front examining a worm. The exhibition at Werner was symptomatic of the slow evolution of the art world's mechanisms of exclusion, and it reminded us, once again, that the categories of "outsider" and "avantgarde" at times overlap in a way that exposes the hollowness of the implicit value judgments of each.