A singular sculpture created in 1990, Zuerst die Füße (Feet First) hails from one of Martin Kippenberger’s most important and controversial series. The image of this cartoonish, fairytale frog, submitted to martyrdom with its overtly religious connotations emerges as a highly provocative and crucially important extension of the artist’s own complex identity. Sculpted in Tirol, Austria, by a traditional carver of religious effigies, Feet First depicts a frog hanging from a cross that has been made from wooden elements that recall a traditional artist’s easel. Using his alter ego, Fred the Frog, Kippenberger crucifies himself before he can be crucified by his viewers. Distilling the views and reviews that his more conservative constituents had given him for a large part of his career—a reaction which he himself embraced, provoked and thrived upon—Kippenberger adopted himself as part of his own artistic arsenal. While at the same time violently dismantling the notion of cultural hierarchies, Kippenberger lampoons himself in order to criticize the social snobbery that often accords artists of a particular status. After all, as he himself often pointed out, Jeder Künstler ist ein Mensch—every artist is a human being.
By opening himself to the barbs and arrows of what he knew would be disapproving segments of society, Kippenberger was challenging those same segments, deliberately placing himself in the role of Jesus, elevating himself while gleefully degrading the traditional imagery of Christianity as well as toppling the pedestal upon which culture and the artist were, he felt, too often placed. With his tongue lolling out and his wonky eyes facing different directions, a beer mug in one hand and an egg attached to his pelvis, Feet First is a comical and profoundly irreverent apparition, a million miles from the images of Christ on the cross of religious art. Kippenberger has taken up the gauntlet thrown down by Paul Gauguin with his Yellow Christ and his self-portrait-like image of Jesus in the garden, and likewise of George Grosz with his gasmask-wearing crucified figure, and has pushed the envelope even further into the realms of controversy. Crucially, he has banished solemnity, creating instead a striking image that remains playful as well as profound in its palimpsest-like layers of meaning and implication.
Kippenberger’s inherent desire to not only test, but also push boundaries lies at the heart of Feet First, whose controversial nature has been seen as an insult to many. Garnering a vast amount of public attention a decade after its creation, Feet First was condemned by Pope Benedict XVI who in a letter to the Museion Museum in Bolzano, where one version of the work was displayed, stated that the sculpture “wounds the religious sentiments of so many people who see in the cross the symbol of God’s love” (Pope Benedict XVI quoted in, R. Hart, “Pope Angry Over Crucified Green Frog Sculpture,” Reuters, August 28, 2008, accessed uk.reuters.com [March 16, 2016]). Indeed, one government official who labeled the pop-eyed amphibian as “a disgusting piece of trash that upsets many people,” went on a hunger strike to demand its removal and was eventually taken to the hospital (F. Pahl quoted in, ibid.). As a result, the museum’s director was fired and the work was removed and returned to its owner in Innsbruck.
Never outspokenly criticizing the public church, Kippenberger, who as a child attended a Catholic boarding school, sought not to use religion as the subject of his work, but rather as a vehicle to impersonate the role of the artist as a martyr for a greater cause, in the sense that he, himself, devoted his entire life to art out of necessity. More than just a mere criticism of the church, by replacing the crucified body of Christ with a frog, Kippenberger appropriated the symbol for his own purpose: to emphasize the painful notion of self-sacrifice for the sake of art. In this way, Feet First emerges as an inverted self-portrait in which Kippenberger depicts himself as his alter ego, Fred the Frog, with the intention to mislead, provoke and irritate his viewer.
Part amphibian and part anthropoid human, this gleaming mauve apparition is a deliberately Earth-bound creature. Here, the head of the frog appears to be modeled after a stuffed animal depicted in the artist’s 1979 image of himself as a bandaged patient, Urban-Krankenhaus (Urban Hospital), where the large toy occupied the space next to the artist. However, in Feet First the “cuteness” of the original has been banished in favor of a monstrous, yet playful hybridization between stuffed toy and battered artist. The notion of the frog as a self-portrait is further emphasized by the presence of a beer tankard and egg, which seem to adopt the iconographic roles of the tools of martyrdom carried by Saints in Christian imagery. Deliberately prosaic, the mug clearly alludes to Kippenberger’s own battle with alcoholism, which he eventually lost in 1997, while the shape of the egg prefigures the artist’s later incarnation as the Eiermann, or “Eggman.” Trappings of the corporeal, rather than spiritual life, the relics that accompany Feet First are held as badges of honor.
A metaphor for the fundamentals of human life, Kippenberger’s use of the egg intentionally channeled the banal food items sustaining symbolism throughout the history of art. “With the egg motif Kippenberger was especially able to go through the to and fro between arbitrariness and meaning, cuteness and complexity, crassness and fragility—the egg as the epitome of ‘form with content,’”explained Manfred Hermes. “If the egg shape in itself is already almost a parody of ideals like circle and sphere, the implications for the content here are more than world-sweeping: the egg as the bearer of Christian refreshment and reproduction symbolism, as a memorial to Marcel Broodthaers and the pictures of petit-bourgeois comfort penetrating life. The egg also plays a role with Kippenberger in its gastronomic meaning, as the basis for complex dishes as well as children’s meals (fried eggs)” (M. Hermes, “Egg Pictures,” Nach Kippenberger, Eindhoven 2003, p. 205). Indeed, the link between the egg as a signifier of resurrection and the circle of life is perfectly united in Feet First, when Kippenberger links it so closely to another Christian symbol—the holy cross.
Of course, according to fairytale lore, a single kiss is said to reveal a frog’s true beauty, and yet Fred the Frog hangs, a semi-human chimera, with a look on his face that is miles from religious or fairytale salvation. Trapped within the process of transformation, Kippenberger implies that his own salvation had not yet arrived. A striking parallel for an artist whose relationship with the public was at best problematic—especially with his depictions of Fred—Feet First also provides a somewhat prophetic irony that, since the artist’s untimely death at the age of 43, Kippenberger’s reputation has grown immensely as he has become one of the artistic giants of the postwar era, his baffling and multifaceted output remaining hugely influential to a host of artists working today.