The strange, satiric drawings of German artist Friedrich Schröder-Sonnenstern (1892-1982), long a favorite of Outsider Art fans, seem to be making the cross-over into the mainstream -- again. Here’s hoping that his disturbing images are more successful this time around than in the 1950s, when he was hailed, first by the Jean Dubuffet and then by the Surrealists, as a major Art Brut find. . . and then forgotten.
Born in Tilsit, East Prussia (now Lithuania), Schröder-Sonnenstern was self-taught, beginning his career late in life, at age 57, like many other Outsiders. Although the Germans mostly ignored his work -- his scabrous erotic and religious drawings were hard for people to take after the war -- they found an audience with Jean Dubuffet and the Surrealists, who included him in major exhibitions of their work in Paris and New York.
His fame was short-lived, as he turned to alcohol after the death of his long-time companion, Martha Möller, in 1964. His works declined in number and, according to an excellent essay by Pamela Kort in the exhibition catalogue, he soon took to employing other people to produce his work.
Schröder-Sonnenstern was equipped with all the necessary credentials for designation as an Outsider Artist: mental problems and a hard life. The second of 13 children born to an alcoholic father, he was unruly from an early age, put in an insane asylum the first of three times in his life at age 20 (usually schizophrenia shows up in the late teens or 20s), and he had numerous run-ins with the law for swindling, blackmail and theft that landed him in prison on several occasions.
Born Emil Friedrich Schröder, he dubbed himself Professor Dr. Eliot Gnass von Sonnenstern around age 24, and quickly became an effective con artist, practicing as a quack “natural health” doctor. In 1944, he surfaced in Berlin, where he lived with his companion after having escaped a penal colony and a number of stays in mental hospitals. He survived by selling firewood for five years before willing himself to become an artist, without formal training, in 1949.
In her essay, Kort makes a case that his experiences defrauding affluent and influential people, while pretending to be a natural doctor, led to his ferocious cynicism about practically everything. That said, he presented himself as a Christ-like figure during his quack-doctor phase, gaining a reputation for generosity by frequently donating his ill-gotten gains to children and the hungry.
Later, in Berlin, after he spent time amid a burgeoning artistic community in which he may have been exposed to Expressionism and Surrealism, he played up having been psychotic. Kort asserts that he was not truly mentally ill in his later years, but simply exaggerated his mental problems in order to get his work noticed by other artists.
Whether you believe Schröder-Sonnenstern was seriously weird or weirdly serious, there is no denying the power of his work. Once he started, he was quite prolific. He began by using only graphite, and a few years later took up colored pencils, his preferred medium.
His drawings are loaded with unsettling sexual, religious and scatological imagery, yet their plush colors and beautiful palette are impressively seductive. His early Uschastelynore of 1951, an adaptation of the Adam and Eve theme, morphed by 1955 into the more self-assured and gorgeously colored The Snake Seduction.
Schröder-Sonnenstern was happy to recycle motifs as his work developed, perhaps overdoing it as he fell into decline in the 1960s and beyond. But here, in these two works, the ability to witness his development of the theme is exciting. We watch as one visible hand and a single foot morph into animalistic claws on the female figure, and we see that an upside-down skull stands in for the male’s feet in the later drawing. Not that the man lacks his own animalistic body part: the top of his head looks like another snake.
Angel-like creatures abound, like Pocholinchen the Unknown Angel of Peace (1950-53), who sports two snakes for arms. One of them balances a sword on its nose, and the other balances a feather. The creature’s bizarre face stares straight ahead at the viewer, adopting a confrontational stance favored by the artist. The drawing is subtly colored in pastel shades, conjuring a light-filled aura that lends this leering heavenly messenger even more power.
Turn-of-the century Germans worshipped the sun for their health and spiritual well-being, as had Goethe. This is likely the reason behind the artist’s use of Sonnenstern (literally “sun” + “star”) for his name.
By the time Schröder-Sonnenstern unleashed his unconscious on the art world, however, he had perversely given many of his works titles relating to the moon, which underscores his intent upon creating an alternate universe all his own.
The subject of The Moon Rider Official on a White Horse (1956) is seen in profile, a common figural motif. The work pictures a horse with high heels on its two feet, breasts, and an eye on its backside, and a hybrid animal-human rider wearing a crown. The tight framing of the horse and rider on the sheet is uncomfortable and oppressive.
The Moon-Moralistic Veneration of the Artist’s Bones (1957) depicts the artist as a skeleton, surrounded by fawning demonic figures, one of whom is trying paint the skeleton’s leg in an effort to render him more human. Yet, as in all of Schröder-Sonnenstern’s meticulously drawn and sensuously hued drawings, “more human” is only a relative term and rarely a compliment.
Salvador Dali described his own Surrealist work as “hand-painted dream photographs.” In that case, Friedrich Schröder-Sonnenstern’s surreal artworks are most certainly nightmares -- but they’re uncannily alluring nonetheless.
“Friedrich Schröder-Sonnenstern: From Barefoot Prophet to Avant-Garde Artist,” Mar. 16-Apr. 30, 2011, at Michael Werner New York, 4 East 77th Street, New York, N.Y., 10075.
N.F. Karlins is a New York art historian and critic.