'One just tries to do justice to everything. One wants to reach the people. In fact, one is a small priest, isn't one? So, somehow, parson - parson? Pastor - I'm a pastor. And pastor means translated... Shepherd. Yeah. And somehow I have something like it, haven't I? I'm the holy Saint Martin.' (The artist quoted in 'Interview with the Artist', Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Perspective, exh. cat., Los Angeles, 2008, p. 320)
Fred the Frog Rings the Bell is a unique sculpture created in 1990 and forming a part of one of Martin Kippenberger's most important and controversial series. In this group of works, the titular character of the frog appeared again and again, usually crucified, in paintings and in sculptures alike. The image of the cartoonish, fairytale frog, submitted to this martyrdom with its overt, indeed emphatic, religious connotations was highly provocative, and crucially was also an extension of Kippenberger's complex exploration of identity. This was made explicit at the inception of the Fred the Frog series in an untitled 1988 painting showing the crucified figure in which the artist's name was emblazoned across the canvas near the cross-bar. Using a range of alter egos and personas, Kippenberger created many works which are essentially adaptations and variations of the self-portrait genre, albeit a genre pushed through the grinder of his iconoclastic, punk practice.
Fred the Frog Rings the Bell shows a frog hanging from a cross that has been made from wooden elements that recall the easels that are such a traditional attribute of the artist. The frog-man is displayed on this crucifix, visible to a public bound to object to some aspect of his artistic practice. In a sense, the crucifix serves as cross-hairs, singling out Kippenberger/Fred as a target for antipathy and even violence. The artist, by creating and most importantly by showing his or her works, is placed in a position of exposure and vulnerability, an act of bravery and self-sacrifice. Here, Kipenberger has used that process as the basis for his sculpture. He is creating something on behalf of mankind, celebrating the act of transformation. However, here Kippenberger is already crucifying himself before he can be crucified by his viewers. He has distilled the views and reviews of the more conservative segments of the public that had given him short shrift during a large part of his career - a reaction which he himself embraced, provoked and thrived upon - and has adopted it himself, as a part of his arsenal. At the same time, he is violently dismantling the entire notion of cultural hierarchies, lampooning himself in order to lambast the snobbery that so often accords artists a special status. After all, as he himself 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 a monstrous clowning 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. The process of deliberate debasement of the crucifixion extended to the title of another 1990 sculpture of a crucified Fred: Was ist der Unterschied zwischen Casanova und Jesus: Der Gesichtausdruck beim Nageln, or 'What Is the Difference between Casanova and Jesus: The Facial Expression when Being Nailed.' With his tongue lolling out and his wonky eyes facing different directions, a beer mug in one hand and an egg attached to his chest, Fred the Frog Rings the Bell is clearly 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.
The gleaming green apparition, with part-amphibious and part-anthropoid body, is a deliberately Earth-bound creature. In one of the many slippages of identity that make his work so fascinating, the head of the frog appears to be based on a stuffed toy shown in Kippenberger's 1979 image of himself as a bandaged patient, Urban-Krankenhaus ('Urban Hospital'), where it sat on the windowsill. Here, its cuteness has been banished in favour of a monstrous yet playful hybridisation. The figure of Fred the Frog is made all the more earthen by the presence of the beer tankard and the egg, which itself prefigures Kippenberger's later incarnation as the Eiermann, or 'Eggman'. Those clutched objects adopt the iconographic roles of the tools of martyrdom carried by saints in Christian imagery; however, they are also deliberately prosaic, hinting at the hedonism, and love of food, of Kippenberger himself. These are the trappings of corporeal, rather than spiritual, life, yet are here held as badges of honour. Kippenberger was a notorious Selbstdarsteller, or 'self-promoter'. His every act was an extension of his artistic practice, which itself was notoriously un-pin-downable, encompassing posters, punk music, poetry, drawings, installations, sculptures, paintings, paintings by other people and even the purchase, in the same year that Fred the Frog Rings the Bell was created, of a restaurant in Venice, California, where he spent a great deal of the period from 1988 to 1990 - the Fred the Frog works were essentially Kippenberger's American offspring.
Even Kippenberger's drunken antics were one of the facets of his exploration of the status of the artist in the contemporary world, and this dedication to his cause - a relentless assault on the hierarchies and limitations of artistic expression - remains a huge influence on artists to this day. Kippenberger was a Protean artist, ever-shifting, ever-changing, his identity in deliberate flux, all the more so as he collaborated with and commissioned other artists to create some of his works. In this, he undermined not only the modernist's, and modern era's, fascination with the artist's touch, with such concepts as the brushstroke and authenticity, but he also played with the entire notion of identity. For this reason, the image of the frog on the cross was a perfect vehicle for Kippenberger. According to fairytales, this frog should need only a kiss to be revealed as some charming prince. Instead, he hangs, a semi-human chimera, the look on his face a million miles from salvation, be it fairytale or religious. Fred the Frog is shown trapped within the process of transformation that might have revealed his true beauty - implying that he was due some appreciation (or salvation) that had not yet come. This was an apt parallel for Kippenberger, an artist whose relationship with the public was at best problematic - especially when it came to the Fred the Frog works, which several times have provoked scandal. It is a fitting irony that, since his untimely death at the age of only 43, Kippenberger's reputation has grown and grown and he has been recognised as one of the artistic giants of the post-war era, his baffling and multifaceted, even multifarious output remaining hugely influential to a host of artists working today.