Martin Kippenberger began work on the Fred the Frog project whilst living in Los Angeles in late 1989 and early 1990. He made twenty five large paintings – each of which also featured a frog, a crucified figure, and an egg, and published a book entitled Fred the frog rings the bell once a penny two a penny hot cross burns. In the book, reproductions of his paintings were juxtaposed with English nursery rhymes and their German translations. The artist selected the nursery rhymes for their macabre content and the way that they juxtaposed morbid images of death with a playful fanciful tone. The Feet First sculptures were created in exactly the same vein.
The present work is from an edition of five sculptures, each completed in a different fluorescent hue in the kind of lacquer ordinarily used to paint cars. Kippenberger also created an edition of seven works modelled in plain wood. Whilst the works were designed and conceived by the artist from his studio in Venice, California, they were fabricated by a craftsman of traditional Christian icons and altars based in the Tyrol region of western Austria. The Feet First sculptures are self-portraits, identifiable as such by several characteristics: the frog is always shown with an egg. The egg was Kippenberger’s visual calling card – his cherished parody of the artistic motif; on one level a mundane object from everyday life, and yet on another a beguiling ovoid object, almost classical in form, replete with implications of fertility and life and – quite literally – filled with content. Kippenberger was a voracious drinker. He was infamous all across the European art world for his massive benders and even hosted a Germany vs. Austria vodka drinking competition in Vienna. The frothing beer tankard that the frog clutches in this work is an allusion to this well-known character trait as well as a prop for the stereotypical German. Indeed, close examination even reveals that the frog is wearing a sort of lederhosen, with thick cloth braces. Kippenberger was overtly patriotic when it was still deeply frowned upon to show any sort of nationalist spirit in Germany. He was even wrongly accused of having neo-Nazi tendencies in a particularly scathing article by a German art critic which led to his famous sculpture Martin, Into the Corner, You Should Be Ashamed of Yourself. This later sculpture built on the acerbic bathos and exaggerated melancholy of Feet First. One of its editions is now in the permanent collection at MoMA.
With Feet First, Kippenberger appropriated the long-standing art historical tradition of comparing the artist with Christ, in order to subvert, undermine, and ridicule it. Since the Nineteenth Century, commentators had propagated the cult of the artist-genius mired in the dual role of victim and redeemer. Tortured painters like Gustave Courbet and Edouard Manet were touted as Messianic: just like Christ, they were consumed by their underlying message and, in many cases, like Christ, they had to die in order for it to take hold: “The artist – like Jesus – follows his vocation and, like Jesus, knows that he will have to pay a high price for fulfilling it; but he also knows that he will be raised on high for his work as redeemer” (Stefan Borchardt, Heldendarstella, Gustave Courbet, Eduard Manet, und ie Legende vom modernen Kunstler, Berlin 2007, p. 117). Beyond the Nineteenth Century, we are particularly led to think of Albrecht Dürer who, in 1500, painted himself in the manner of Christ, with long hair and beard, and right hand raised in pseudo-benediction. In this particularly German context, we can understand Kippenberger’s proxy frog as a sort of artistic anti-Christ: nailed not to a cross but to a pair of stretcher bars usually used as a canvas support. Like Christ he was the propagator of his own message, but also the one who suffered most from the scathing self-loathing of its content, and, in a parodic send up of Christ’s miracles, he pulled increasingly outlandish stunts in order to ensure that his voice was heard. Kippenberger spent his career demonstrating that artists did not need to be intellectuals, mired in the careful study of academic draughtsmanship, nor shamans of deep conceptual gravitas; he was at pains to demonstrate that art did not need to be a reverent pursuit reserved for the respectful viewer. He ridiculed that long-held notion that geniuses suffer for their art by showing himself in mock tragedy, clutching at his beloved booze with egg on his face: rather than a brooding tortured artist with a cross to bear, a boggle-eyed frog borne forth on a cross of his own making.
Kippenberger occasionally used an alternative title for the present work: Was ist der Unterschied zwischen Jesus und Casanova: Der Gesichtsausdruuck beim Nagein, which translates to “What is the difference between Jesus and Casanova: the expression on their face as they’re nailed”. This telling use of pseudo-blasphemous witticism provokes a comparison with Jeff Koons’s contemporaneous work, particularly his Made in Heaven series, for which Koons made extremely explicit art works that depicted his sexual relationship with his wife – the Italian pornstar Ilona Staller – alongside carved wooden sculptures of dogs and flowers notably crafted by the very same Tyrolean altar makers used by Kippenberger to fabricate the present work. Feet First can also be seen to prefigure the work of Maurizio Cattelan whose La Nona Ora from 1999 shows a lifelike effigy of Pope John Paul II having been struck down by a meteor. Koons and Cattelan are both regularly touted for the way that they use referents to popular culture in their work in a manner that builds on the precedent of Andy Warhol’s generation. The present work, to a certain extent, shows Kippenberger adopting a similar approach: the frog in Feet First bears more than a passing resemblance to Kermit the Frog from Sesame Street the popular children’s TV show.
This leads us to the real pathos at the core of the present work. Whilst Kippenberger was of course at pains to mock those tortured geniuses who welcomed comparisons with Christ, he was also consumed by the ridiculous excess of his lifestyle: he too suffered for his art. In 1997, he died tragically early from from liver cancer aged only 43. Even by 1990, he was trapped in a perennial cycle of moving between cities, imprisoned within his own debauchery and unable or unwilling to stop. Feet First is at once a layered critique of a nineteenth-century art theory and a raw confession laid bare: Kippenberger shows himself as a drunken cartoon character, the ultimate self-saboteur, and the punchline to his own joke. Bathos gives way to pathos in full comprehension of this electrically powerful art work. We are reminded of the Raft of the Medusa series that the artist would complete at the very end of his life in which he showed himself grotesque and obese, already in the grip of cancer, on a mattress in his studio imitating poses from Théodore Géricault’s great masterpiece. In that series of works, as in Feet First, he was caught between imitation and parody; adrift in the grey area between the extremes of comedy and despair.
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