A visit with Franziska Becker
By TITUS BILLINGS
The short train ride from the airport to this ancient Rhineland city was speedy and comfortable. The problems began when I reached the center of town. Everything was torn up for a new subway line, including the steps of the massive cathedral.
Stumbling over the rubble and dodging earthmovers, I finally located the streetcar I needed to take. It’s tracks wound through yet more excavations, piles of dirt, frantic traffic, and grim pedestrians whose facial expressions just screamed out, “I’ve had it!” After about twenty minutes, I arrived at my stop (also torn up), and walked toward the address I’d been given.
I found the house easily enough, but had to run a gauntlet of aggressively begging homeless men who, I learned later, are kicked out of their shelter up the street at 6:00AM daily, and spend the day making life unpleasant for the neighborhood.
Five storey walkups had pretty much disappeared from the States by the time I was born, so the climb up the (steep) stairs had me utterly winded by the time I reached the top floor and an oak door with an enamel nameplate that read, “Franziska Becker.”
Frau Becker greeted me, insisted on using first names, and invited me into her apartment. Had it not been for the garments scattered about the place, and the telltale aroma of a pie baking in the oven, I would have assumed this was a workplace only. No, I was assured, the artist also lived here. She lived elsewhere, too, but I was to hear more of this later.
Some regular readers of this column might recall my review of 7 Reece Mews, Percy Ogden’s photo essay of Francis Bacon’s South Kensington studio. Except for some homey touches and the cozy kitchen, this place was pretty much in the same league. Canvases, some blank, some complete, some tiny, others huge, lay about the place in every corner and against every wall. A big laptop gained access to power and the Internet through a menacing portion of cable spaghetti that I have seldom seen equaled. A vintage black telephone’s marathon-length wire criss-crossed the studio to enhance the obstacle-course ambience.
At the worktable, bottles of vitamins, jars of moisturizer, tubes of eye cream, a canister of face powder, and a squad of lipsticks competed for space with oils, acrylics, charcoals, brushes, sponges, and a really impressive collection of colored pencils. Four high-intensity lamps were fastened to the table. Only one worked, sort of.
TEA AND MOLDING WALNUTS
Franziska’s apartment was right under the roof; this was where the servants lived in the old days. The low ceiling and bulging dormers really cut down on the square footage, so the competition between bookshelves and paintings was acute. Besides Franziska’s own work, there are paintings by Papan, the Munich cartoonist. Also plenty of stone Pharaonic museum replicas, and a few Old Master drawings, and a small, early Pechstein landscape. But books dominate. The shelves are three deep with them. The tables sag under their weight. Stacks of them sway on the uneven wood plank floor. I manage to decipher some of the titles: Hogarth to Cruickshank: Social Change in Graphic Satire; Saul Steinberg: All in Line; Meret Oppenheim: Life and Work; Goya: The Sketchbooks. Also seemingly dozens of books on symbols alphabets, signs, and ancient Egypt, one of which, Animal Worlds in Ancient Egypt, I can’t resist impolitely thumbing through for a few seconds. There are scores of novels, too. Among these I spotted Toni Morrison, Love, Herta Müller, The Fox was always the Hunter, Dezsö Kostolány, A Hero of his Time.
In the space used to entertain guests there was a shelf on which rested at least a dozen silver, pewter, and copper teapots in varying states of repair and convalescence. Although I wasn’t counting, I would say that Franziska drained no fewer than a half dozen oversized cups of steaming black tea in a few hours’ time.
Franziska could be described as Junoesque. She is over fifty, but looks a lot younger. Long locks of auburn hair frame a smile that warms up the whole room. The day we met, she wore an elegantly cut black dress, designed by Christa de Carouge. She is also a fan of Yamamoto and Dries van Noten. I shortly learned that she drew, painted, cooked, and cleaned house in these garments. Sure enough, there were streaks of dried paint, ink stains, and traces of what may have been a spinach quiche on the fabric. She said, “Clothing should look and feel good, and should be worn. I don’t like to hide nice clothes in closets.” No danger of that, because her home had no closets, but I did see a pile of dresses with high-end labels atop a Biedermeier secretary that looked to be on its way to the furniture hospital. Sticking out of one of its little open drawers was a wad of crumpled, banknotes denominated in now quaintly obsolete marks, francs, lire, and guilders. In another open drawer reposed a (vacant) bird’s nest.
Among the garage sale furnishings that filled the place, there were a few easy to spot things of value. When Franziska noticed me eyeballing some of these, she supplied the provenance of each with the air of an informed, if somewhat breezy antiquarian. I learned in short order that the carved oak chest in the corner, the one with the 13-inch black-and-white TV on it, had belonged to the Landgrave of Hesse three hundred years ago. The bulbous commode, currently supporting a laundry basket, was Louis XV. The sofa, which I occupied, or, rather, shared, with a wicker basket of molding walnuts, was Empire. Family heirlooms? Hardly. Like millions of others, Franziska’s parents emerged from World War II starving and desperate. Whatever they had of value was acquired later, as presents from grateful patients whom her father treated without payment during the first grim postwar years.
Both of Franziska’s parents are dead, her mother recently. She said she owed a lot to her folks. Her Mom had a legendary wit and fertile imagination; Franziska believes she inherited her caricaturist’s temperament from her. Her Dad was in a way the guardian of the old classical tradition. After long days at his medical practice, he would relax by reading the Greek and Roman authors. And he was fascinated by Egypt. She credits her father for her sensibility to and appreciation of the ancient world. She said she enjoys fond memories of her childhood, but the grim atmosphere of their ruined hometown, Mannheim, which had been leveled by bombs, was eerily abetted by her parent’s horrific wartime tales.
SAFETYPINS AMONG THE RUINS
“Paradoxically”, she says, ruminating on some prewar photos of her parents, “Mannheim’s desolation was an inspiration to me. My playground was the surreal ruins, the shell craters, the tortured skyline of an annihilated town. And in stark contrast were the occupying troops, American GIs, blacks and whites, healthy, well-dressed, confident, relaxed, and friendly. What a contrast to those cadaverous disabled veterans, limping along begging for scraps! And of course the wandering legions of refugees, so-called displaced persons, Poles, Jews, Russians, earlier liberated from forced labor and death camps, and many of them still homeless and desperate. Goya would have felt right at home. I was the accidental witness of scenes that likely fueled my imagination and sensibility. I was also lucky that as a child my family owned no television. And all the cinemas in town had been destroyed. I credit these deprivations in large part with developing my graphic awareness.”
Franziska said that the postwar period fostered feelings of guilt, humility, and caution; also, after years of chronic shortages and loss, a talent for improvisation. “I was a young girl when I discovered what must be man’s greatest invention”, she states with a smile and a categorical tone. “The safety pin has a thousand uses, I always keep several handy.” This proved, on further examination, to be an understatement. Her home was a safety pin warehouse. At times, I had the impression the place was fastened together with these things. Franziska also wears an elaborate safety pin brooch on her favorite Comme des Garçons jacket.
Sounds like you were surrounded by the aftermath of war and its miseries. But did you ever see anyone killed? “Yes, in a railway accident when I was maybe ten. I was on a school trip. In one of those episodes you see only in films, our train collided head-on with another one. We emerged unhurt from the rear of the train, but those unlucky enough to be seated toward the front were horribly mutilated. This image I can never forget.”
Were the ‘sixties a pivotal time for her, full of playful antics and revolutionary fervor? It seems not. Franziska told me that she missed a lot of the high jinks: “I was married too young and left home too late. So I was terminally unhip. And, no, I never received any inspiration from LSD or Mescaline. Anyway, most of the art I’ve seen of this type is deadly dull.”
WORLD'S LAZIEST MAN
Franziska glances anxiously at the pile of incomplete drawings on her worktable. I fear I’m taking up too much of her time. No, she says, one of the frightening downsides to art is isolation: “One gets so involved with the pictures, that social instincts can atrophy. One forms unlovely habits and keeps odd hours.”
I suggested to Franziska that I was unfairly obliging her to dwell on grim memories. She mentioned having no movie theater nearby in her childhood. Does she enjoy film now? What about favorite actors? She said Lukas Moodysson’s Lilya 4-ever was the most impressive film she’d seen in years. As for on-screen favorites, Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant. Un-favorites, Doris Day and John Wayne. Had she ever thought of a career in film? Yes. A cartoon feature of hers was produced some years back, but never released. Her filmic hopes never got any further than that.
Cinema aside, Franziska has won recognition enough. Apart from a half-dozen best-selling books, her work is shown at the prestigious Galerie Jöllenbeck, she was awarded the coveted Max und Moritz Prize for Cartoonists, and she appears in Bettina Flitner’s magisterial photo essay of prominent European women (L’Europe au féminin, Paris: Éditions de la Martinière; Frauen mit Visionen, Munich: KnesebeckVerlag, 2004). Franziska told me that she is proud of these laurels, but prefers not to dwell on them. She plans to publish a new children’s book this year, and has been feverishly at work on it for weeks.
By now I do feel its time to excuse myself. Besides, Franziska is leaving today for her second home in the hills to the east of Cologne. It’s a small, ancient tile-roofed, half-timbered house in the middle of a remote village. It’s a place where she can really relax and spread out. I wonder, nearly aloud, how much more spread out things can get. She cordially invites me to see the place, but I have to decline.
Just a few more questions before I leave: You have a boyfriend in the States. What’s he like, and what impresses you most about the USA?
“He’s the laziest man I’ve ever met, and probably contributes to my sanity. Americans are friendly, polite, and a have a real joie de vivre. In Germany, happiness is always suspect. Also, in the USA, people seem capable of genuine relaxation. Here, it simply doesn’t exist. But Americans are politically naïve. Your President is an ignoramus, and a dangerous one! People are too isolated in your country. Everyone drives everywhere. I walked downtown in a small city once, and a policeman stopped me and asked if my car had broken down. Americans are in a rut. Life is too easy; they need a little discomfort to realize they’re alive. And there’s a fetish of privacy there…Oh, maybe you could answer a question for me? Most everyone in your country seems to have huge back and front yards. But I never see anyone outside. Why is that?”
TITUS BILLINGS writes the syndicated column, Arts Abroad. He is arts and entertainment editor for the St. Louis, MO Intelligencer, and makes his home in St. Louis with his wife and four children. This interview originally appeared on July 12, 2004