Magazine article Artforum International

Friedrich Schroder-Sonnenstern

Magazine article Artforum International

Friedrich Schroder-Sonnenstern

Article excerpt

Friedrich Schroder-Sonnenstcrn'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, Schroder-Sonnenstern reemcrged in 1 944, 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 Duhuffet and Mans Bellmer were among his admirers, and a few drawings were included in Marcel Duchamp and Andre Breton's 1959 "Exposition inteRnatiOnale du Surrealism?" 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: Schroder-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 Schroder-Sonnenstern was not, in fact, schizophrenic.)

In some cases Schroder-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. …

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