In 1949, at age 57, Friedrich Schroder-Sonnenstern reinvented himself as an artist after more than 40 years spent in and out of psychiatric hospitals, prisons and penal camps, and a profitable run as a naturopathic healer, fortune teller and graphologist. His life up to that point reads as a history of opportunism, exploitation and fraud, and yet the images he turned out for the next two decades feel like the real thing—authentically idiosyncratic and genuinely compelling.
The 32 pieces in this show, billed as the most comprehensive presentation of the German artist's work to date in the United States, were drawn in pencil, colored pencil and oil crayon on paper or cardboard between 1950 and 1961. In the shallow tableaux and rainbow-crowned landscapes, men and women perform contortions, feats and violations of all sorts. Their composite bodies borrow parts from other creatures—scales, wings, beaks, talons and especially the sinuous curves and threatening tongues of serpents. Sex and sin thread through the work, most explicitly in Praxis (1959), one of the largest pieces, at 38 by 26 inches. A scarlet snake slithers down the middle of the sheet, stretching from a disembodied phallus at the top into the crotch of a headless nude woman on her back, tilted impossibly upward. To either side of the snake spread espaliered branches, heavy with apples dangling at regular intervals. The tree's frontality and flatness lend the scene an ornamental quality entirely at odds with its perverse reimagining of the mythic Fall.
As with the work of many other self-taught artists, Schroder-Sonnenstern's reads as a tight transcription of an internally coherent world, complete with neologism-laced captions. His drawings are populated by a menacing menagerie of hybrids described in vivid gold, purple, aqua, lime. The characters smile with the false ease and exaggerated verve of sideshow performers, exposing too many teeth. Schröder-Sonnenstern seems to have been just such a performer, an impresario who orchestrated his art career to capitalize on his purported mental illness. He saw himself as a medium, a master of unchecked impulses, and was championed by Breton and Duchamp in the late 1950s. However complex and strategically contrived his persona, Schroder-Sonnenstern could draw like a demon in stunning command of line, pattern and color. He was aware enough of convention to shun it, embracing instead an outsider's role as satiric, irreverent social critic, inclined, like Ensor, toward the vulgar and carnivalesque. He died in Berlin in 1982, his reputation obscure but ready as ever to be reinvented.
Friedrich Schröder-Sonnenstern: Praxis, 1959, colored pencil on paper on cardboard, 38 1/2 by 26 3/4 inches. Courtesy Michael Werner.