GERTIE FRÖHLICH (In)visible Pioneer
Austrian Museum of Applied Arts
By STEVEN POLLOCK October 2, 2023
Part 1 of this article explored how Sonnenfelsgasse 11, Vienna, the 1st district apartment and salon of polymath artist Gertie Fröhlich, played a crucial role in the formation of the Post-war Viennese Avant-garde, like London’s Colony Room, or NY’s Cedar Tavern.
The antics at number 11 never ended, but if an incident demonstrated they were unsustainable, there was the evening of August 26, 1969. The infamous Udo Proksch was the first husband of actress Daphne Wagner, the composer Richard Wagner’s great-granddaughter and Franz Liszt’s great-great-granddaughter.
“My explanation for everything I’ve heard about him is, he imagined he could be a spy for both the Russians and the Americans, but Udo was also a guest at Gertie’s.”
John Sailer, filmed interview, What is Happening? 2023 a documentary film directed by Mariel Fröhlich
Impatiently waiting for her ninth birthday celebration to begin, the artist’s daughter, Marieli, suddenly heard gunshots ring out from the next room. The scene that unfolded resembled a rugby match, with Proksch tackled to the floor wriggling under the weight of a pile of drunken guests who had taken his revolver away. Dressed in camouflage, Proksch had aimed wildly at a bookcase. Gertie showed no reaction and even later returned the gun; unsurprisingly her young daughter was disappointed as the gathering picked up where it had left, further delaying her birthday party.
Thanks to Proksch’s bullet-hole, what had once been a traditional Monarchist cookbook was now a Dadaist prop for the multi-hyphened artist Gertie Fröhlich’s dramatic domestic lifestyle — which, at number 11 Sonnenfelsgasse, could not have been further from the familial expectations of her strict Catholic upbringing in Slovakia, especially at the hands of her abusive Austrian father.
What is Happening? is the title of a Gertie Fröhlich painting dated 1986 and a documentary by the artist’s daughter, filmmaker, Marieli Fröhlich, which premiered at the opening of (In)visible Pioneer, at the Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna. The painting shows a running woman, her back turned towards the viewer, fleeing her bourgeois interior. She has knocked over a chair and abandoned an unfinished book beneath a painting of a bucking horse. The horse is too wild for the constraints of its frame, a picture within the painting’s horizon, which also lines up with an unseen vanishing point beyond the painted window. Is this exterior landscape an infinite stage where the vicissitudes of the protagonist’s daily life disappear, making way for lasting freedom in Fröhlich’s Arcadia?
“I was assigned a role that did not suit me, that overwhelmed me.”
Gertie Fröhlich, undated diary entry
During filming, Gertie recalled another rage episode when she was eight, in her childhood home of Klastor in the lower Tatra Mountains of Slovakia, her pious father discovered she had attended a local traditional girl’s festival weeks before Easter, which includes the ritual burning of a crude effigy or a Morena — for which he beat her. (1)
The girl had run away into the forbidden woods. The Austrian family and their household staff enlisted their Slovak neighbors to search for young Gertie. She remained hidden overnight, having taken shelter by a wild raspberry patch. At dawn she woke to the round-eyed stare of a brown bear, seated across the thorny bush. As the young Gertie calmly watched the bear suck the berries across its mouth, it held up the skeletal twig dotted with red traces of the fruit. Unafraid, she returned home.
FAITH NO MORE
Against her parent’s wishes and her father’s punitive lack of financial support, she entered the Academy in Graz — the only female in her class. This ratio was not unusual as women could not enroll in art school in Austria until 1921, or participate in any of the essential societies that led to a career as a professional artist.
The years of National Socialist rule were the most repressive for woman — as subjects, the Nazis favored nudes emphasizing purity, or when clothed only idealized peasant style with plated hair and no make-up was acceptable. As far as woman considering an art career, Joseph Geobbels made it clear.
“… the mission of woman is to be beautiful and bring children into the world.”
In theory, the war-time virus had ended while other strains had survived. As Fröhlich’s friend VALIE EXPORT put it.
“I came to Vienna when I was twenty; there was a depressing atmosphere in the city because the former Nazis were still present… That specter was everywhere, and you could sense it; also, the culture was narrow-minded because of Catholicism...”
VALIE EXPORT interview with the author, WM August 2023
What was it like in 1953 for a beautiful 23-year-old female artist who had arrived in Austria as a Displaced Person? (2) EXPORT had described Vienna in 1960; the same antagonistic forces were unchallenged the decade before. Of her female peers, only Maria Lassnig was older, but as researcher and author Julia Jarret points out;
“After 1945, women again had to play second fiddle to returning soldiers and a new generation of male artists. In a documentary about the Art Club, Lassnig described her treatment in the male-dominated group as “a nice girl” rather than an “artist.” Although 11 years Lassnig’s junior, Fröhlich belonged to the same generation of female artists, subject to the same biased treatment. (3)
Fröhlich’s parents had used Catholicism to manage her expectations towards her role in life — as a wife, mother, or a spinster/teacher. In Graz it had become an open secret, that her teacher Rudolf Szyszkowitz was offering to leave his wife and children and begging her to run away to Brazil with him. It took all of her strength to start anew in Vienna without feeling stigmatized.
“The male professors immediately welcomed me and flirted heavily with me. What should I do with the old guys?”
Gertie Fröhlich, diary entry
Her experience of her abusive father and the echoes of a potential scandal in Graz, doomed her historical interaction with the ‘progressive’ priest Otto Mauer. Fröhlich’s experience with Mauer and the artists she promoted were like a dull thud against the glass ceiling — she realized any money, fame, or credit for her endeavors were being grabbed by others.
Fröhlich was remarkably generous to Otto Mauer, providing him with the opportunity for a second act as an art dealer just as he fell out of favor with the Church Fathers. She paved the way for the Galerie St. Stephan painters and her husband, Markus Prachensky, as well as her partners, numerous friends & acquaintances of both genders. As far away as NY, by Gertie’s introduction, advertising guru Mariusz Demner met Milton Glaser, thus inspiring him to found the Creative Club Austria in 1972.
The lack of reciprocity may have been a problem of perception— a confused kindness for weakness signaling, or was Gertie testing others and her evolving matrilineal faith? Like phantom reigns controlling a wild horse her subconscious patterns were another factor.
“I have been prevented for so long that I sometimes prevent myself.”
“I have made 200 good posters so far, and yet all these “works” seem to me to be a fraud. Why? Often these “works” were created… under pressure bordering on despair and madness.”
GF, diary entries
ALONG CAME KIPPY
After producing award-winning posters for over 20 years, Fröhlich’s work for The Austrian Film Museum had run its course. Her painting had matured by developing her archetypal story-telling, and re-mixing Greek Myths from the unexplored perspective of empowered female protagonists. Retrospect comparisons with Female Surrealism are broadly accurate — however, her image-making was more akin to the alchemy of Leonora Carrington or Agnès Varda, who were also probing the female psyche and mystic animism.
Part of a new generation, Peter Pakesch was at the helm of Vienna’s hottest new gallery, which he founded after his return to Austria from NY in 1981. The program included John Baldessari, Herbert Brandl, Ilya Kabakow, Mike Kelly, Martin Kippenberger, Sol LeWitt, Albert Oehlen, Heimo Zobernig and Franz West. Pakesch’s Graz roots were in the non-verbal theatre, having organized several performances there, including the Kipper Kids; thus, his admiration for the unpredictable Kippenberger (a former actor). When watching his interview for the documentary, one senses that Pakesch was still surprised by his 1985 exhibition of Gertie Fröhlich. Although the exhibition sold out and was reviewed, there was never a further discussion of representation.
“Gertie was an outsider in the center of the action; that had to interest Kippenberger and he stood up for her and suggested that I should exhibit her work, which was a kind of breach of my principle.” (showing only artists of his generation). and “…it was a completely unexpected position, which especially caught Martin Kippenberger’s attention. It wasn’t just unexpected but also went against the grain. “
Peter Pakesch, filmed interview (a)
“I saw the exhibition at Galerie Peter Pakesch, and some idiots were upset. Yes, that is Pakesch, the avant-garde gallery, Gertie’s not avant-garde. I said, yes but she is a good artist — those two things do not have to belong together.”
Rudolf Polanszky, filmed interview (a)
“When I first heard about Luna Luna I was blown away,” Drake said in a statement. “It’s such a unique and special way to experience art. This is a big idea and opportunity that centers around what we love most: bringing people together.”
How Drake’s $100 Million Bet Saved the Long-Lost Art Carnival Luna Luna. In 1987, the Austrian multi-media artist André Heller debuted an avant-garde amusement park in Hamburg with works by Basquiat, Dalí, and Haring. Its disappearance was a winding tale. Its return is even more bizarre.
Joe Coscarelli, NYT, 2022
By 1987, something new had been cooking in Fröhlich’s kitchen: she was selling unique hand-made gingerbread cookies, edible sculptures that were especially coveted. She considered them part of an influential performative movement referred to as EAT ART (4), Fröhlich’s new work was developing by her interactive concept which fit perfectly for Heller’s vision.
“to create a traveling terrain of modern art, in the centuries-old principal of the fairground.” André Heller, Luna Luna website
For the cover of the accompanying Luna Luna book, published by Phaidon Press, each artist was to interpret the crescent moon logo of the project. Besides the motifs of Hockney, Haring, Basquiat, Dali, Scharf, Lichtenstein, Sonia Delaunay and others — Gertie’s Janus-like drawing was of a single Sun Goddess, fused in profile by a shared set of red lips to a horned and bearded crescent moon. Heller’s Dionysian project suited Fröhlich’s sweet shop temple, where she planned to paint a Rebis, the hermaphrodite power symbol of alchemists.
Unlike her drawing for the book cover, the mural facade of the booth depicts the crescent moon with no face. In contrast, as bright as any sun a female face in profile seems to have turned a bearded minotaur to stone. He is crumbling into the Doric debris of a once great empire, colliding with fractured Griffins and other stone deities. Everything of the mural painted in color is restorative, from a genderless sun on the upper left, nurturing a fantastical kingdom with creatures ranging from a red-hot Sphynx, a Nubian Ishtar Centaur, and a wild panther roaming across the base. Dominating the left side is Athena, who has an owl on her shoulder that reveals the truth of the world to her.
Gertie’s contribution to Luna Luna was like a psychedelic stage set, with edible suns, moons, and unicorns. The crowds were delighted to consume or collect the artist’s impermanent sculptures. The work was an interactive tour de force, a Pagen Eucharist extending beyond her legendary hospitality. Cooking for Gertie Fröhlich had been central to her life, an openness that had its source in the village life of her childhood, integrated as an aspect of her immersive art.
The next three years were that of mixed success for the artist, with an invitation to show her Eat-Art-Objects at Tiffany’s in Chicago and a fraught exhibition at the Branca Gallery also in Chicago, as well as a painting show in Berlin. At the same time, the American Craft Museum invited Fröhlich for “The Confectioner’s Art” exhibition, composed of only edible artworks, covered by the NY Times.
In 1990, Gertie Fröhlich suffered a stroke. Although she continued to live in her apartment 27 more years and her final 3 years in the Austrian Artist’s Nursing Home, she never painted again. She might have been erased from art history altogether, if not for the efforts of her director daughter Marieli Fröhlich’s documentary film and curation, as well as the published master thesis of art historian/ researcher Julia Jarrett.
Like Daphne, one of Fröhlich’s favored Goddesses from her Ovid series, who sought protection from the earth goddess Gaia by transforming her into a laurel tree, Fröhlich has earned her laurel crown. Her oeuvre symbolically aligns with unrecorded generations of women finding solace in a mythic world protected by a powerful Goddess cosmology. Gertie Fröhlich’s story keeps growing outwardly from re-surfaced roots, a visible legacy with her magical visions intact. WM
1. What is Happening? Art in the Life or Gertie Fröhlich, a documentary by the artist’s daughter, award-winning filmmaker Marieli Fröhlich, which premiered at the opening of (In)visible Pioneer, Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna. Link to Trailer
2. Morena is an ancient Slavic goddess associated with winter's death, rebirth and dreams celebrated with seasonal rites, where singing girls dance to her effigy before setting it on fire, and throwing it into the nearest river as a symbolic celebration of Spring and fertility.
3. DP or Displaced Person Fröhlich’s family had escaped by train in the middle of the night without possessions, from Slovakia to Austria under life-threatening Slovakian Partisan violence aimed at the German-speaking minority, thus her status as a Displaced Person.
4. Julia Jarrett, The Cultural Work of Artist Gertie Fröhlich (In)visibility in Viennese Post-war Histories. Austrian Journal of Historical Studies, 2022
5. EAT ART Daniel Spoerri is credited with inventing the term Eat Art in 1961, which was to be understood as a still but interactive performance. Artist’s ranging from Miralda, Méret Oppenheim to Rirkit Tiravanija have used food as a central performative material. In Austria the distinction between art and food via social integration was blurred for artist’s like Fröhlich and her former partner Peter Kubelka, or their friend Oswald Wiener, who opened his legendary restaurant Exil in Berlin, and enlisted Gertie to join in the kitchen.
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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