Reading Rainbows, Hearts, and Snakes

The Moralistic Moon Dualism (1955). Artist: Friedrich Schröder-Sonnenstern. Colored pencil on cardboard.

In lucid daylight, some art jostle no matter the sunshine.  Upper East Side Michael Werner Gallery (4 E. 77, 2nd Floor, NY, NY) closed a visually nightmarish exhibit of Friedrich Schröder-Sonnenstern’s work.  This is the first solo exhibition of this artist in the United States.  To hint at Schröder-Sonnenstern’s shaman showmanship, the curators entitled the exhibit Schroder-Sonnenstern: From Barefoot Prophet to Avant-Garde Artist.  This inventive, bold pick should occur more often.  Safe artistic selections dominate the uptown landscape.  A sense of humor resonates with Werner’s curated enterprises.

Birthed in Kaukehmen (East Prussia) in 1892, Friedrich Schröder-Sonnenstern was the second child in a line of thirteen offspring to a dipsomaniac father.  Friedrich’s latent entry into the artworld was not due to tedium.  His rambunctious behavior received a diagnosis of schizophrenia incorrectly, but there was mental disturbia not qualified succinctly.  His biography is unorthodox.  Before drawing at the age of 57, Schröder-Sonnenstern practiced quackery medicine across Europe employing the moniker Dr. Eliot Gnass von Sonnenstern.  Unlike snake oil salesmen, “Gnass” donated his profits to the poor.  No matter where the proceeds went, authorities still clamored for his capture.  He fled to Berlin in 1944, which is an odd choice given WWII’s thrashing of Berlin.  He resold debris from the ruins as his next career.  Upon request from his companion Martha Möller, he began drawing in 1949.  Aggressively dragging the colored pencils unto paper, his illustrations haunt and heckle.  Symbols repeat of snake specifically uroboros (snake eating itself), mesmerizing breast proportions, phallic imagery, and reliance on symmetry describe his style.  He makes no pretense about volume; his figures and background are flat and without shading.  If made with tiles, this art would easily be mosaics for the sanatorium.  Once his mistress died n 1964, he succumbed to his family disease of alcoholism and stopped producing art.  His popular flash with the l’Exposition inteRnatiOnale du Surrealism, organized by André Breton and Marcel Duchamp to another exhibition, The Surrealist Intrusion in the Enchanters’ Domain at the D’Arcy Galleries in New York City petered in his drunken despair.  He died in 1982 living in overlap with Salvador Dalí’s years in the opposite realm of ethos.  Schröder-Sonnenstern pushed gleeful nightmares into his work whereas Dalí played with less harrowing dreamscapes.  Plus, Dalí understood the marketing of loony personas; however, Schröder-Sonnenstern was that madman without needing to act.

An exhibition catalogue Friedrich Schröder-Sonnenstern: From Barefoot Prophet to Avant-Garde Artist includes a lengthy essay by Dr. Pamela Kort.  She reveals much more than any diligent google hunting would unearth.  For fans or curious individuals, the $55 cost is negligible.  There will probably be only one printing.

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