"You have such arrogant eyes"
with the painter K.R.H. Sonderborg
Recently, the Kunsthalle in Emden dedicated a broad
retrospective to the artist
K.R.H. Sonderborg: born April 5, 1923 on the Danish island of Als, the
painter and draftsman played a prominent role in European post-war art. As
one of the most important proponents of the German
Art Informel, Sonderborg began incorporating mechanical structures as
early as the fifties, translating them into a painting marked by
spontaneous painterly gesture, vibrating line, and the rhythms of jazz.
K.R.H. Sonderborg is also represented in the
Deutsche Bank Collection with numerous works. On the occasion of his
eightieth birthday, Oliver Koerner von Gustorf and the Berlin
painter Norbert Bisky met the artist in his Hamburg studio for an
interview: in the conversation that ensued, K.R.H. Sonderborg looks back
over the fascinating and unconventional life he led between Stuttgart,
Hamburg, Berlin, Paris, and New York, and recalls his youth in the shadow
of National Socialism and the Second World War.
K. R. H. Sonderborg and Norbert Bisky
von Gustorf: Can you still remember your first encounter with art?
Sonderborg: I have my father to thank for that. He was often in Stockholm
and Holland for professional reasons. He showed me the
Expressionists. As a child, I couldn't stand them. On the other hand, the
"Fauves" – that's a completely different kind of color, oh,
is that color! Just by chance, I recently saw something about them on
television. The things they did with color: very special, sensitive,
unknown, and surprising color combinations. The German
expressionists picked a lot of this up. When I see them now – there are
all these extraordinary things I only realized later.
von Gustorf: In the television film On the Move, you made fun
Nolde. You're standing there in the village of Nolde, saying:
"Sonderborg, that's sixty kilometers away from here, and it's much nicer
Sonderborg: I only said that as a joke. My real
name is Hoffmann, and Nolde's name was Hansen. That's exactly the point
I'm referring to in the film: I stole my name here in Sonderborg, and he
stole his name there. Nolde, of course, is very interesting, even if he's
a bit one-sided…
Actually, I never really wanted to paint, I wanted to write. For my first
painting, my father stretched a canvas for me and handed me a box of
paints. And then I set out: I took the train to the last station, changed
to the Walldorf line, which I also took to the last station, and boarded a
bus. When I got off, I was in the middle of the forest. And so I painted a
green painting there. That was perhaps the only
Tachist painting I ever painted.
Bisky: Do you still have it?
Sonderborg: No, unfortunately not, it's all been burned. My father
Bisky: What did he paint? Did you like it?
Sonderborg: I really admired my father. But I never applied his painting
to myself. People have their own ideas, today's children do, too, and
that's how it should be. I never wanted to paint. It took years before I
decided to become an artist. My father took me out of school in Hamburg.
He always said: "Hard times are coming." And they did.
Koerner von Gustorf: He already sensed what was coming?
Sonderborg: That's right. He took me out of school and said: "You have
to get a job. That's much more important." I started an apprenticeship in
the office of a coal syndicate based in Niederlausitz, in their
distribution office here in Hamburg. We took care of where the wagons were
supposed to go. My co-workers were all very nice. At some point I wanted
to work in a better company; ambition, I guess. I dreamed of far-away
places. In Hamburg, there are all kinds of trading connections to Africa.
I wanted to travel, and so I applied to another company and was hired for
K.R.H. Sonderborg with
But then I was arrested by the Gestapo in 1941. Because of
my anglophile leanings and who knows what else: state terrorism,
instigation. Dragged away from work in broad daylight. It was a Saturday,
of all days. Actually, I was a very well-behaved young man, but I liked
jazz, wore English clothes, and walked down the Jungfernstieg with a
Washington Post in my pocket. We were a kind of club (
Swing Kids) back in those days. And then most of us were recruited – and
sent somewhere where we could get picked off. Many of my friends,
including the ones I met in prison, had to go to the front.
Bisky: The fact that you dressed differently,
listened to different music, and had a different taste must have seemed
pretty insurgent during the Nazi time. Things like that aren't as harmless
as they appear. Maybe it was much more political than you were conscious
of at the time.
Hamburger Hafen, (17.II.50), © Walter Bischoff Galerie, Stuttgart
Sonderborg: Think about it: when jazz reached the Soviet Union, the
dictatorship came to an end. Today's youth culture, all of it comes from
jazz, it's all on the same track. Today, young people are the avant-garde.
They do completely modern things when they're still very small. My
grandchildren are eight years old. They make children's drawings and
combine them with comic strips – and they're great. They also like
"happenings" and things like that, it's all completely normal for them. I
have nothing more to say in this respect. They're doing exactly what we
did or wanted to do.
Koerner von Gustorf: How did you get
Sonderborg: Somebody probably denounced me. I
couldn't appear for work at my new job because I was sitting in a
camp in Fuhlsbüttel. The procurator kept asking my mother where I was. She
finally gave in to his pressure and answered that I was in "Florida" –
that's what we called the camp here in Hamburg. And then he said: "Boy, my
son's there, too." In this respect, I was incredibly lucky with this
company; of course, I still wanted to go to Africa, to Nigeria. But when I
was freed in 1942, Africa was over with. I continued working in Hamburg.
It was during this time that I first thought about making art. The firm
established contact with the general government in Poland. After that, we
transferred the whole lot of depreciated wares to the East.
Koerner von Gustorf: What are "depreciated wares"?
Sonderborg: "Depreciated export articles" are wares that can't be sent
to their original destination during times of war and have to be
redistributed. They couldn't ship anything to Africa anymore, and so it
went to the East. I was very worried that the Gestapo would arrest me
again. And so I asked if I couldn't go to the Ukraine for the company.
They agreed, and afterwards I worked there. But even in the Ukraine,
everyone knew that I'd been arrested. Sometimes it was really dangerous.
There was a German there, for instance, who was pretty crazy and wanted to
shoot me. He was always saying: "You have such arrogant eyes – they should
be extinguished." I didn't know what to do, and so I went to the regional
commissioner. He was a Nazi too, but he helped me, and the nut was
deported within the next twenty-four hours.
Peacemaker, 1981, © Walter Bischoff Galerie, Stuttgart
Bisky: What are your memories of this time like?
Sonderborg: It was a terrible time. Jews were getting shot in the
Ukraine. The people in Germany didn't know that back then. It's really
true, I have no reason to defend anyone, believe me. My mother didn't
know, either. A lot of Jewish families lived in our building: Oppenheimer,
Stern. When I got out of prison in 1942, they were all gone.
Koerner von Gustorf: But somebody must have asked what happened to all
Sonderborg: Yes, of course! They said they
were being reeducated. Reeducated! I only found out the truth when I was
in the East. I saw the piles of corpses myself. I talked to the people who
shot them. I was 18 or 20 back then, an enemy of the state. Although I was
completely harmless, I didn't do a thing. I was only living the way young
people today want to live, too: in freedom.
Koerner von Gustorf:
What was it like for you to return to Germany, to live with this burden while
wanting to do something new?
Nautisch entschwindend (7.VIII.53), 1953
©Walter Bischoff Galerie,
Sonderborg: After the war
ended, I wound up in Hamburg (
image) again. It was an interesting atmosphere, as though a new wind were
blowing… I even had better food stamps, because I'd been persecuted by the
Nazis. I always traded my cigarettes for money to buy food. Everything was
open. First I traveled to Italy with my bicycle. I wanted to go way down,
Stromboli. Geologists told me that it looked like the moon there. There
weren't any tourists on the island in those days, and I was alone with the
natives. The beach was black and looked like a coal stock.