Sculptor Fritz Koenig Turns 90 Showing So We Can Understand

Portrait Fritz Koenig
Portrait Fritz Koenig | Photo: Dr. Karl-Heinz Rothenberger

Form language may have changed over the years and decades, but sculptor Fritz Koenig has always dedicated himself to the big existential themes and questions. Whereas his sculptures are installed worldwide, the artist himself remained deeply rooted in his homeland of Lower Bavaria.

When you enter the Landshut Sculpture Museum in Hofberg, a museum devoted to showing Fritz Koenig’s work and collection since 1998, you notice a handprint on one of the bricks of the exposed wall. This is by no means the signature of the artist-donor. Rather, we could interpret it as a greeting and gesture by the artist. The artifact refers to the so-called “Feierabendziegel” (‘closing-time brick’) which was an unbaked clay brick with a handprint, a tradition formerly used to mark the last piece of the workday. Even when such literally tangible cues in Koenig’s work are not within easy grasp of the viewer, trace elements from ethnology, liturgical pieces or African sculpture infuse his oeuvre, as well as observations of human and animal and of his own life. Life-forms and experience are rendered visually – not in a narrative, but rather in a reductionist way. His abstractions remove the subjective and individual character of things in order to ultimately make a universally valid statement. His focus is on the great themes of life: the inevitable cycle of coming-into-being and passing away, of love and death, emerges in his sculptures, preparatory drawings and cardboard reliefs with a severity of content and form. The horse – with and without a rider, as well as a mixture of both – is an important motif in Koenig’s work. For the artist, who also breeds thoroughbred Arabians, sculptures of horses are by far the most beautiful.

Between Landshut and elsewhere

Koenig was born in Würzburg in 1924 and at the age of five moved to Landshut with his mother. He studied with Professor Anton Hiller at the Munich Academy of the Arts and subsequently became a tenured professor of sculpture at the Technical University in Munich. He can look back on a busy career of extensive travel and international shows. Landshut, however, has always been his home. The museum of this city, a former ducal residence, provides a glimpse on a small scale of the larger works that are admired all over the world. At the entrance we are greeted by Golgatha, the multi-figured sculpture from 1956 where bodies unite and blend into one another and become a whole without losing their shape. The work shows multiplicity subdued into unity. In his sculptures, Koenig makes do with the geometrical forms of a sphere, a cube and a cylinder – the forms to which Paul Cézanne felt all of nature could be reduced. Koenig’s 1982 Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the former Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria is the most poignant example of this reduction of form. Placed at the very angle where two monumental rusted surfaces meet, a sphere and rods join to form a single reclining figure that finds its final resting place here. Seen within the context of the mass murders that took place, it is as though this unique creature gave back each and every victim their dignity.
 
Slideshow: Sculptures by Fritz Koenig
 

The drawings as accompanying medium

Koenig’s drawings support the sculptural work and yet remain a separate medium in their own right. The draftsmanship here seems to be free from the gravity of the topics as well as from the sheer weight of the material. White raised surfaces shape the contours into sculpted bodies on the paper. Nuanced thoughts about figuration, movement and the universal theme of mating flow into the pictographic script, and become annotations of an idea.

A reluctant memorial

In hindsight, a dark premonition hovers over the series of paper cuts entitled “Beben” that was created in the 1990s. The paper is crinkled, as are the two stylized twin towers. What must Koenig have thought when he saw images of the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks? He was very familiar with the site: in 1967 he had been commissioned to create a three-dimensional piece to be placed against the monumental towers in the World Trade Center but the size of the work was not to tower over a human being. The result was a 7.60 meter (25 feet) high ‘spheral caryatide” that turned on its own axis every half-hour and, set in a fountain, seemed to emerge from the water. When “The Sphere” – as the bronze sculpture is known in the U.S. – was recovered from the rubble, it was damaged but not destroyed. Now in a fragile condition, the sculpture has been installed, contrary to its original location, as an exhibit at the memorial site in the nearby Battery Park.