GERTIE FRÖHLICH: WHERE THERE’S SMOKE Retrospective at the MAK

 Gertie Fröhlich, Party 1954, © Estate Gertie Fröhlich  

 

GERTIE FRÖHLICH

(In)visible Pioneer
Retrospective at the MAK
Austrian Museum of Applied Arts

By STEVEN POLLOCK October, 2023

(Part 1)

Forty - one Dean Street, 24 University Place, 231 East 47th Street,172 Bd. Saint Germain, Kantsrasse 152 is a seemingly random list of addresses in London, NY, Paris, and Berlin, except to the art world, who will recognize Francis Bacon’s Colony Room, Jackson Pollock’s Cedar Tavern, Andy Warhol’s Factory, or Brasserie Lipp of Picasso, Dora Maar and Françoise Gilot fame, and Berlin’s Paris Bar, where Kippenberger, Polke, and Bazelitz drank.

Sonnenfelsgasse 11, Vienna would top off such a list, the 1st district apartment and studio/salon of polymath artist Gertie Fröhlich (b. Slovakia 1930-2020 Austria).

First District Venus (1984) is an allegorical sculptural portrait by her late partner, Neo-Dada Fluxus artist Al Hansen (US 1927-1995). Like some archaic relic from a pre-Hellenistic ritual — Hansen’s voluptuous and enigmatic Venus is made from snuffed-out cigarette butts. One can only wonder whose extinguished cigarettes he used of her numerous friends, who, since 1954, had been part of the legendary scenes in her home. Everyone from Arnulf Rainer, Hermann Nitsch, Al Hansen, Martha Jungwirth, Kiki Kogelnik, Peter Kubelka, Walter Pichler, Günter Brus, Raimund Abraham, Oswald & Ingrid Wiener, André Heller, Ernst Fuchs, VALIE EXPORT, Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage, Peter Weibel, Markus Prachensky, Wolfgang Hutter, Joseph Mikl, Martin Kippenberger, Guy Bourdin, Maria Lassnig, Franz West, Rudolf Polanszky, H.C.Artmann, Hans Hollein, Willy Holzbauer or the entire touring La MaMa theatre group was smoking, drinking and eating there while sowing the seeds of the most significant art, film, and architectural movements associated with the Austrian capital. 

“Sonnenfelsgasse was a harbour where shipwrecked artists found refuge. That’s where I first met the four crucial painters; Prachensky, Rainer, Mikl und Hollegha, the regular crew from Galerie Sankt Stephan.” 
 -John Sailer, art dealer, Galerie Ulysses interviewed by Marieli Fröhlich 2023

“Suddenly it was a party — before that it was Thursday.” 

- Peter Kubelka, filmmaker, philosopher

 

“I already know that everyone is an island. But some islands are quite close to each other. “

- Gertie Fröhlich

 Oedipus and the Sphinx, 1985, Egg Tempera on Canvas, Collection : Belvedere, Vienna

 

Who was GERTIE FRÖHLICH?

Historians would have difficulty finding another comparable individual who connected the critical vectors of this period in Austrian Modernism, yet there are scant publications of her artwork or her curatorial instigation of the seminal Galerie nächst St. Stephan. Fröhlich has been systematically overlooked by both the institutions of the Viennese art world and her progressive peers (of both sexes), who often benefited from her generosity. 

The MAK exhibition (In)visible Pioneer (12/9/2023-3/24) is not simply a retrospective-style survey of Fröhlich’s Gesamtkunstwerk but also the first step towards creating an accurate narrative of the life of this independent artist, who’s work is not easy to categorize.

In creative collaboration with MAK curator Kathrin Pokorny-Nagel, the artist’s daughter, filmmaker Marieli Fröhlich, has thematically organized Shadow Pioneer into five sections. 

For example, the group of works labeled Metamorphosis incorporate the archetypal imagery and reassigned roles of the female protagonists of Greek Mythology that the artist favored.

Gertie Fröhlich Smoking, 1969, photo ©Cora Pongracz

 

Premiering with the exhibition will be a new film by Marieli Fröhlich, What is Happening? The Art in the Life of Gertie Fröhlich features over 24 interviews with the artist’s surviving friends, art historians & curators with rare archival footage. The director felt the need to set the record straight with an exhibition and a film as early as 2012, but the work was interrupted several times due to a variety of circumstances. 

The film sets out to contextualize Gertie Fröhlich’s multi-hyphened contributions to art history and documents the complex modern history of the Austrian capital.  

As the film unfolds, contradictions lead to further examination. Is the existence of the most important Austrian post-war gallery indebted to Gertie Fröhlich, or was she merely its good spirit and secretary? Was her retelling of Greek myths an analogy for her vision of a refreshed matriarchal psyche and a position of equal significance to manifestations and deterritorialization of the body by Austria’s feminist artists? 

A stand-out interviewee is Julia Jarrett, a tenacious American writer whose chosen topic for her master’s thesis was The Cultural Work of Artist Gertie Fröhlich: (In)Visibility in Viennese Post-war Histories, published by the University of Vienna in 2022.

 Al Hansen, First District Venus, Cigarette Butts and Wood, 1988, © Estate Gertie Fröhlich

 

Jarrett: 

“I wondered how Otto Mauer, a Catholic priest, opened THE seminal avant-garde gallery, Galerie nächst St. Stephan, in 1954, showing the likes of Arnulf Rainer, Markus Prachensky, Wolfgang Hollegha, Joseph Mikl and their radical abstract style of Viennese Art Informel, seemingly out of nowhere. I was planning as the topic of my thesis Monsignore Otto Mauer, but once I arrived in Vienna and began my interviews, all roads led back to Gertie, convincing me to change my thesis from Mauer to Fröhlich. 

“With so many period witnesses corroborating that not only had Gertie Fröhlich, officially Mauer’s ‘secretary’ initiated the gallery, introduced the artists, and curated the first exhibition of the Gruppe Four (Prachensky, Rainer, Miki & Hollegha) Christmas exhibition, December 1954, but also introduced Mauer to the current trends of the time – “

“what began as critical research of Otto Mauer and his Gallery St. Stephan grew into an in-depth analysis of the art and life of Gertie Fröhlich.”

“When I broached the subject of Otto Mauer and his Galerie nächst St Stephan in my interview with Fröhlich, she asserted:

“You ask if I invented Galerie Sankt Stephan, I did not. I invented Otto Mauer.” 

It was only after further research that Jarrett understood what she’d meant.

Against the wishes of her strict Catholic father who punished her decision by cutting her off financially, Fröhlich attended the academy in Graz and was the only female of her class. After graduating, she moved to Vienna, where she got a job at the Catholic Action as secretary to the director Otto Mauer, a Roman-Catholic priest. There she befriended a co-worker named Eva Maria Kallir, the daughter of Schiele expert and founder of the Viennese Neue Galerie, Otto Kallir-Nirenstein (1923). 

Eva was expected to take over her father’s once-thriving gallery, which, as a Jewish-owned business, had been forced to close by the Nazis. Confiding in Fröhlich, Eva admitted she did not want the responsibility, whereas Gertie suggested they do it together, with Kallir handling the clients while Fröhlich curated the artist’s program. Kallir’s father rejected the idea, siting that the 23-year-old artist was too young for the role. 

Un-deterred, Fröhlich returned to Vienna and cajoled Otto Mauer into participating in a second proposal to Kallir. She translated from a French art magazine to Mauer about the Catholic priest Père Couturier, who worked with artists and architects to restore faith in the French post-war Republic. Reluctantly, Mauer agreed and accompanied Fröhlich to visit Kallir and pitch their plan. This time, Kallir capitulated, resigned to his daughter not wanting the gallery.

 

 Arnulf Rainer and Gertie Fröhlich, in the Galerie St. Stephan, 1955, Photograph, © Estate Gertie Fröhlich 

 

Even if Mauer did not arrive at the idea himself, he did have a specific vision for the gallery: a non-commercial art space along the lines of the progressive dogma he espoused at the Catholic Action, the same ideas that would precipitate his dismissal there. To reinforce his intention to create a devout Catholic space, Mauer christened the new gallery Galerie St. Stephan due to its proximity to the Cathedral and his new position as its preacher, granted by the Cardinal to compensate for his dismissal from the Catholic Action. Eventually, even the name received the ire of the Church, and in 1964 the gallery was obliged to change the name to Galerie nächst (next) St. Stephan, severing all connections to Mauer’s initial vision.

Under Fröhlich’s influence, the gallery would be regarded as Vienna’s most experimental, progressive exhibition space of the 1950s and 1960s, a similar program that continues today. Ironically, the early transformation would result in Mauer’s further alienation from conservative circles in the Church; thus, Gertie Fröhlich, officially the gallery secretary, had single-handedly established a new chapter in post-war Austrian art history fully credited to Otto Mauer, which also rescued the Monsignor’s uncertain future with the Church.

 

 

Gertie Fröhlich, Family Portrait 1985, Egg Tempera on Canvas, © Estate Gertie Fröhlich
 

Mauer was a formidable persona whose oratory skills and charm made him a strong figurehead for the gallery, but his taste in art in 1954 was reactionary. To inaugurate the gallery, he arranged an exhibition of his old friend Herbert Boeckl, an artist formerly associated with Kokoschka & later the Nazi party, which had made him rector of the Academy of Fine Arts. Confronted by the war’s end, Boeckl claimed his party membership had been out of necessity and was reinstated as rector. He switched the focus of his art to religious themes, making his work the ideal choice to launch Mauer’s vision of a Catholic-oriented art gallery. 

Like Mauer’s concept for a Catholic gallery, the Boeckl episode was on the wrong side of history. Luckily, Fröhlich saw her opportunity by introducing the likes of Arnulf Rainer & the abstract painters to Otto Mauer, who agreed that the next show would consist exclusively of Arnulf Rainer’s revolutionary blacked-out paintings and photographs. Boeckl and Rainer could not have been further apart, but luckily for Mauer, art historians ignore Boeckl’s ‘spiritual’ show.

“You have no idea today what that meant then; abstract art was like a pact with the devil, it was so hated.” Gertie Fröhlich

Fröhlich launched the gallery, giving her friends Markus Prachensky, Arnulf Rainer, Wolfgang Hollegha, and Josef Miki a platform and the controversial attention that often sparks art movements. They became known as the Galerie St. Stephen Painters, shown collectively for the first time in Fröhlich’s curated Christmas show in 1954, along with her work.

Over time and with the prospects of critical success in site, the painters and Mauer squeezed out Fröhlich. Fröhlich, like Lee Miller, was a great beauty who had attracted attention from most of the men mentioned, but Prachensky prevailed. They were married for two years, and she gave birth to a son, Nikolaus, in 1956.

Gertie Fröhlich was a 26-year-old artist and mother at the helm of Vienna’s seminal post-war gallery for its first two years. Yet, her patriarchal boss was taking credit for her work, and her presence at the gallery was suddenly discouraged. In a pattern that was repeated with alternating scenes of domestic rebellion and emancipation, she left Prachensky for Peter Kubelka, the iconoclast filmmaker who was laying out the film strips of his infamous work Schwechater across the floor at Sonnenfelsgasse 11. 

 Gertie Fröhlich, I am far from blaming you, but you are a Monster, 1972, Watercolor, © Estate Gertie Fröhlich
 

 Kubelka’s structuralist films were an even greater affront to narrative content than Rainer’s blackened works. Surrounded by iconoclastic mavericks, one would expect Gertie Fröhlich to have been influenced by the nascent reductivism.

Like other art historical anomalies, such as William Blake, Paul Klee, or Méret Oppenheim, her work requires intimate reading and quiet contemplation. By contrast, Post-War Austrian art was headed on a collision course with society, the most glaring examples being the transgressions of the Actionists. 

Human-kind has a longing for storytellers and aesthetes. Fröhlich first promoted the avant-garde, and like de Chirico and Picabia whom she admired, turned to archaic imagery. Anticipating a return to the figure, decades before the market salivations for female figurative painters, it’s Fröhlich’s ease with poetic syntax that makes her work stand out.

“…an examination of the female psyche, with dreams and visions, a connection to female Surrealism.”

Barbara Steffen, art historian, former curator Guggenheim Museum, The Broad Foundation, & the Albertina.

Steffen and others acutely point out, Fröhlich’s work would have fit perfectly for the 2022 Venice Biennale, The Milk of Dreams.

She put the Ur back in Surrealism. Its not that she was a Surrealist, it’s how her work showed that in essence all women are Surreal, as demonstrated from Salem to DC.

  Gertie Fröhlich, Ariadne Ties the Minotaur 1996, Collection Albertina, © Estate Gertie Fröhlich
 

ZYPHIUS PRINCIPAL

Fröhlich film posters for the Austrian Film Museum were her Trojan Horse, each one a unique work of fine art. From hand-made prototypes, she produced over 100 published posters between 1960 and 1980.

 The constraints of deadline and assignment were the only way they resembled commercial art. They have been exhibited in London at the British Film Institute & National Film Theatre, won 1st prize in the Hollywood Reporters’ Annual Key Art Award in 1980 and 1981, and were the subject of an exhibition at Galerie Ulysses, Vienna 2005.

 Gertie Fröhlich & Peter Kubelka, Paul Kruntorad, Madame Malthête-Méliès, Helga & Peter Konlechner, Carlos Vertis, (clockwise), 1964, © Austrian Film Museum

 

Zyphius Poster for the Austrian Film Museum, (10th Anniversary) 1974

 Marieli Fröhlich, film still from What is Happening? 2023, ©Marieli Fröhlich

“It amazed me that Gertie chose the Zyphius as a logo for the Film Museum. She found it in a treatise on mythical creatures from 1558, where out of unicorns, phoenixes, sphinxes, sirens and others, it was clearly the ugliest animal.” 

- John Sailer, art dealer, Galerie Ulysses 2005

“For 20 years, 1964 to 1984, Gertie Fröhlich designed the posters for the Austrian Film Museum, and created a small work of art which occasionally resorted to the Zyphius principle: to create the greatest possible contrast between poster and the announced film program and thus create an aesthetic stumbling block that cannot be overlooked.”

- Peter Huemer, In the Sign of the Zyphius, Die Presse 2014

“I immediately liked the Zyphius because it will never sink and is armed with sharp teeth.” 

- Peter Kubelka, filmmaker, interviewed by Marieli Fröhlich 2023 
 

In 2022, the Austrian Post issued a new stamp that features Gertie Fröhlich’s mythical creature “Zyphius,” the logo for the Austrian Film Museum founded by Peter Kubelka and Peter Konlechner in 1964. The Zyphius was chosen because of its ability to live on land and in the water — a fitting symbol for the Film Museum and the artist herself, whose work has shown remarkable resilience. WM

(end of Part 1)

 

Steven Pollock

American-born Steven Pollock is a writer, curator and music producer living in Vienna. While still an arts major at SVA he became active as a curator at the Mudd Club, NY—followed by a museum show in Tokyo of Kenny Scharf & Club 57 (1985). In 1990 he was instrumental in realizing an immersive installation for Hiroshi Teshigahara at Leo Castelli & Larry Gagosian (65 Thompson St) and in 1996 invited David Byrne, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Asha Putli to participate in a pioneering online curatorial project. After a move to London, he staged an installation by Bjarne Melgaard (2003) curated Warhol vs Banksy (2006) and in Paris an homage to Hokusai (2021). He is an Andy Warhol specialist and has curated 5 exhibitions of his work in London, Oslo & Australia. He is currently writing and recording a musical docudrama, set in 1980’s NY, with director Marieli Fröhlich.

 

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