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"You have such arrogant eyes"
An interview 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

Koerner 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 French "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.

Koerner von Gustorf: In the television film On the Move, you made fun of Emil Nolde. You're standing there in the village of Nolde, saying: "Sonderborg, that's sixty kilometers away from here, and it's much nicer there!"

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 painted, too.

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 the job.

K.R.H. Sonderborg with
the Washington Post,
Hamburg 1941

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 arrested?

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 these people!

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, Stuttgart

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, to Sicily, 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.

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