Lot 35
  • 35

MARTIN KIPPENBERGER | Zuerst die Füße (Feet First)

700,000 - 1,000,000 GBP
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  • Martin Kippenberger
  • Zuerst die Füße (Feet First)
  • signed and numbered 4/5 on the reverse of the support
  • carved wood, car lacquer and steel nails on wooden support
  • 129.5 by 106.6 by 22.8 cm. 51 by 42 by 9 in.
  • Executed in 1991, this work is number 4 from an edition of 5 unique variants, plus 2 artist's proofs.


Jänner Galerie, Vienna
Private Collection, Germany 
Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne
Acquired from the above by the present owner in October 1999


Vienna, Jänner Galerie, Hotel Hotel zum Letzten, November - December 1990 (present work exhibited) 
Ystad, Konstmuseum Ystad, Martin Kippenberger in Tirol. Sammlung Widauer, September - November 2000, p. 99, illustrated in colour (two other versions); pp. 116-17, illustrated in colour (two other versions in installation) 
New York, Luhring Augustine, Martin Kippenberger: Self-Portraits, March - April 2005, p. 51, illustrated in colour (other version) 
Bolzano, Museion Museum für zeitgenössische Kunst, Peripherer Blick und kollektiver Körper, May - September 2008, p. 200, illustrated in colour (other version) 
Berlin, Museum für Gegenwart, Hamburger Bahnhof, Die Kunst ist super, September 2009 - February 2010 (other version)
Berlin, Museum für Gegenwart, Hamburger Bahnhof, Martin Kippenberger: Sehr gut!, February - August 2013 (present work exhibited)  
Vienna, Bank Austria Kunstforum Wien, Martin Kippenberger: XYZ, September - November 2016 (present work exhibited) 


Exh. Cat., (and catalogue raisonné), Braunschweig, Kunstverein Braunschweig, Multiples, 2003, p. 74, illustrated in colour (the present work)
Manfred Hermes, Ed., Martin Kippenberger, Cologne 2005, p. 111, illustrated in colour (other version) 
Peter Popham, ‘The frog stays, whatever Pope thinks’, The International Independent, 29 August 2008, p. 25, illustrated in colour, (other version) 
Julie Bloom, ‘Crucified-Frog Sculpture Troubles the Pope’, The New York Times, 28 August 2008, p. E2 (text)
Tim Ackermann, ‘Frosch sei Dank: Kunst kann doch noch provozieren’, Welt am Sonntag, 31 August 2008, online (text)
Exh. Cat., Los Angeles, The Museum of Contemporary Art, The Problem Perspective, 2008 - 2009, p. 350, illustrated in colour (other version)
Exh. Cat., New York, Skarstedt Gallery, Martin Kippenberger Eggman II, 2011, p. 3, illustrated in colour (the present work)   


Colour: The colours in the catalogue illustration are fairly accurate, although they are brighter and more vibrant in the original. Condition: Please refer to the department for a professional condition report.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

Zuerst die Füße (Feet First) is a work of ebullient impact, ham-fisted humour, and exaggerated bellicose melancholy. It exemplifies Martin Kippenberger’s persona and oeuvre, typifying the paradoxical manner in which he ridiculed and lambasted the art world whilst playing a central role within it. Kippenberger relished his enfant terrible reputation and, along with collaborators like Albert Oehlen, styled himself as the naughty boy of the German art world in the 1980s. He made this work to shock. Indeed, even a decade after his death, when another example from its concise edition was exhibited at the Museion in Bolzano in 2008, it caused a national incident. The president of the regional government in that predominantly Catholic area went on hunger strike in response to the sculpture and declared: “Surely this is not a work of art but a blasphemy and a disgusting piece of trash that upsets many people” (Franz Pahl cited in: Philip Puellella, ‘Pope angry over crucified green frog sculpture’, Reuters, 28 August 2008, online). He even received a letter of support from Pope Benedict XVI who said that this work “wounds the religious sentiments of so many people who see in the cross the symbol of God’s love” (Pope Benedict XVI cited in: ibid.). One can only assume that Kippenberger would have been thrilled at the furore that his work caused and delighted that his bathetic concetto could rouse such outrage. However, to view Feet First as a work of pure shock value is to miscomprehend its pointed critique of the cult of the artist, its valid contribution to the course of the contemporaneous avant-garde, and the real pathos at the heart of its poetic message. 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.