Born in Prussia in 1892, Friedrich Schröder-Sonnenstern lived a peripatetic life marked in large part by ineptitude, indecency and insanity. He was a dairy farmer, a circus performer, a cigar seller, a horse thief, a blackmailer, a cult leader, a penal camp prisoner and a habitual asylum internee. Yet it was only after World War II, when Schröder-Sonnenstern was in his 50s and living amidst the hardships and deprivations of a splintered Germany, that he finally sank to his lowest level and became an artist.
In the drawings that suddenly poured out of him, exhibited recently at Michael Werner in a show titled ‘From Barefoot Prophet to Avant-Garde Artist’, Schröder-Sonnenstern finally seemed to chime with the chaos of his times. Depicting scenes of torture, grotesquery, scatology and deformity, all drawn in sickly crayon and coloured pencil, Schröder-Sonnenstern’s pictures speak of a world gone to hell.
A grimacing woman with a heart over her groin whips a couple’s screaming and cracked faces. A devil sucks at an angel’s teat. Snakes crawl through buttocks. Horses wear stockings. Jesters whip sobbing donkeys. In The Jealousy Tragedy (1956) the vibrating tongue of a serpent quivers over a woman’s nipple as its teeth bite deep into her breast. While in The Mass Demon (1954) a moon-faced, double-jawed, rainbow-bodied creature, with scissors for ears and eyes in its hands, walks uphill with a stick, hooking a dead-eyed fish with a thin strand of its hair. Such is the cavalcade of monstrous and bizarre beings that it at times seems as if Schröder-Sonnenstern has wandered through a Hieronymus Bosch painting and offered to paint individual portraits of each demon he met.
Each picture bursts with opaque symbols – hearts, anchors, stars, skulls, crossbones, medals and rainbows seem to infuse his work, creating a kind of iconography of icons. Similarly in the many repeated gestures – the smiling suns, the huge buttocks/hearts, and the oft-repeated stabbed and bleeding breasts – there is a sense of bubbling mania.
When impenetrable signs and tortured bodies are combined with dense, obsessive cross-hatching it is hard not to categorize this as the work of someone with a mental illness. Indeed Schröder-Sonnenstern had been diagnosed as a schizophrenic as a child, and at 23 was declared by a doctor as ‘a phantasmic, eccentric dreamer’ suffering from ‘degenerate insanity’. Yet Schröder-Sonnenstern always denied he was mad. Instead he explained that he had learned his style from an insane painter he had met while in an asylum.
Not a madman, then, but taught by a madman while consigned to a mad house. The paradox is entirely fitting for the work, for there is as much method in his madness, as there is madness in his method. In Zynus Theory – whether Demon of Dessication and Withering (1953) a mustachioed military figure in filthy purple tailcoat seems to expel his nervous system like branches from his body. In its counterpart, the Edenic Praxis (1959), a headless Eve acts as the trunk to a beautiful tree of knowledge, its apples luminscent, its branches delicately bifurcating off her legs. (The tree is, of course, surmounted by a penis.)
These figures seem part satires, part visions. They flirt with comprehensibility like nightmares half-remembered. Neither is linked closely enough to the world to be readily identifiable, nor far enough adrift to be dismissed as fantasies. Like Tarot cards, they hold an indistinct iconic power with the present.
Schröder-Sonnenstern’s work was ignored by a postwar German art scene concerned with abstraction. But it was lauded by the Surrealists, who, like Schröder-Sonnenstern, had, for years, been accused of being psychotics themselves. It is fitting that that the first photograph of Schröder-Sonnenstern that appears in the accompanying catalogue of this, the largest ever retrospective of his work in the United States, depicts him wincing in pain as he touches a hot stove. Walking into this maelstrom of the misshapen gave the viewer a similar sharp shock.