Ruth Francken, Berlin 1964 Ruth Francken
CONNECTIONS, by Ruth Francken

Coh?rence: liason d’un unsemble d’id?es, de faits, formant un tout logique”  -  (Larousse)

The often seemingly obscure connections between the different phases of my work have been in need of clarification for some time now.

The Fifties

During the Fifties I received the support of art critics of international renown such as Michel Tapié and Herbert Read. Nevertheless I took heed neither of their criticism nor of their praise, the more I painted the more dissatisfied I became with my paintings. Indeed, I destroyed a great number of them.

In Paris at the start of the Fifties I was assigned to the group of the Informels. When, today, I look at the works which I painted at that time it is clear to me that they are in fact like painted sculptures. When Henri-Pierre Roché saw my first sculpture – La Fuite, a plaster work – which I had created in 1952 in Etienne Martin’s studio, he immediately took me to be a sculptor.

I was neither a painter nor a sculptor, neither Informel nor Tachiste and my work could not be assigned to any particular category, to any “ism”.

Since at that time I had just returned to Europe from the United States, where Abstract Expressionism was the prevailing tendency of the avant-garde, the experts in Paris where inclined to class my work as belonging to this movement. I realized then, in 1951 already, that fashion and trends were something that was necessary to defend oneself against as vigourously as possible.

At that time the Americans were determined to create their own form of painting. It was a kind of “painting only” movement, skimming off the coloured foam floating on the surface of European art. And the Americans did this in a grandly radical fashion by simply doing away with "contents". Content, they said, was something “literary”, and thus superfluous; one had to be content exclusively with painting of course. Adieu consistency of content, poetry, the world of thought and meaning.

The main controversy of the time – abstract art versus representative art – ignored, in my opinion, the real problem. Meaning, consistency, it was said, was an integral part of the vehemence of the pictorial gesture (a vehemence which nontheless seemed to me to be very affected). I was not convinced by all this. It is well possible that I owed my doubts to my Central European origin in spite of the strong American impregnation which I had undergone after ten years in USA.

Sam Francis, Rothko, Pollock, Still and the others who practised this admittedly very aesthetical “painting only” style where nontheless in certain respects my models, at least as regards the purely decorative splendour of their pictures. However, I was looking for something else, something which went beyond the “peinture rétinienne” (cf. Marcel Duchamp). Without consciously wanting to, I spoiled one picture after another by “repainting” it, until I had no choice but to destroy them. But this proved of no help. The conflict continued to rage within me.

How should one paint today?

The problem preyed on my mind incessantly: How to weave intrinsic meaning, the world of intellect and poetry back into my work. And when I think about the matter today, the words of Thomas Bernhard come to my mind: “We can only improve the world by doing away with it”. And while I was intensively concerned with escaping the then prevailing conformity of abstract painting, I was on the way to improve my own painting by actually putting it down for a time.

M. Moreni, Ruth Francken, Etienne Martin. Paris 1957.

In the years 1964-65 I found myself in Berlin and I turned once more to sculpture and made a series of bronzes. I did not paint again for twenty years. How can one flee the "déja" vu in painting?

In addition to my work on collages, on objects and drawings, I taught painting in Paris and Santa Barbara. Teaching contributed a great deal and kept alive my inner dispute with painting. The question “How to paint today?” plagued me. I was convinced then, as I am now, that painting a good picture also entails being able to draw. Drawing, it seemed to me, suffered less under the "déja vu" effect than the style of painting so predominant at that time, "abstract expressionism".

I had difficulties with the flat surface of the picture and did not want to nor was able to renounce the third dimension. That was the reason why I made my objects, my photometallic reliefs which I began to make at the end of the Sixties and continued during the Seventies. Content, poetry, and meaning became increasingly important to me and my question became all the more acute: “How the devil could I find a form of expression to satisfy my exigencies?” It was this that caused me to turn to photography as a means, as substitute for my brush and for oil paints but without my ever considering it to be an autonomous form of artistic expression. Did not photography rob representative painting of every “raison d’etre’?” Most of the time I used photographs of my own works and developed my own technique of reworking them within the framework of other works in dialog with metal, painting and drawing. The scissor-collages and the bread drawings produced around 1970 mark the beginning of this type of exploitation. The use of photography integrated in the work of art was intended to represent the encroachment of modern technology upon art which until the ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp had only been able to exist in “handmade” form in the visual arts. I was particularly impressed at that time by Walter Benjamin’s book “Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit”. The more I moved away from the brush and turned to other means of expression, the more the dissatisfaction with my own work grew: hence my creative frustration. The problem of intrinsic meaning continued to haunt me.

What to express? And how?

On 9th April 1917 Wittgenstein wrote in a letter to Engelmann: “… if only you abstain from attempting to express the inexpressible … the inexpressible will then in an inexplicable manner, find itself contained in what you have expressed.” I was fascinated by this thought and I still am today. The older I become, the more Adorno’s “Can one still write poetry after Auschwitz?” – this famous yet biting question, which for some had become but a bit of a cliché – has taken on importance for me, both thoughts contributed to the demands I made on painting, on the artistic statement, on art in general; they even caused me at times to question the continuation of my activity as an artist. What is painting? How can one paint today? Can one paint at all today? These questions will not cease to occupy me until the end of my days.

Magma of a Spiritual Sort "GEISTIGE MASSE"

The word painting evokes for me examples such as Rembrandt, Goya, Seurat and Turner among others. But it is also connected to a very personal and downright traumatic experience: my first encounter with a portrait by Munch, in Oslo in 1965. It depicts the painter’s sister, standing in the middle of the painting. The lower two-thirds of the painting are filled by the depiction of her skirt, painted in grayish blue and lilac tones. The treatment of this skirt, the way in which it was seen, bowled me over and like a stroke of lightning the thought struck me: “That is painting!”

I wrote the following comment in my diary: The dress painted by Munch seemed to me to be spiritual mass. The kind of painting I aspire to is sheer quantity of magma of a spiritual sort. – When I saw Arnold Schönberg’s paintings for the first time, a similar feeling overcame me. Scarcely was I appeased by this discovery when the torment began again: How can one create a work today which in some way involves “a magma of spirituality”? And that in a world which is everything but spiritual. Or rather: How can one depict in a spiritual fashion the lack of spirituality that prevails in today’s world? It was the problem of the Americans and of the Americans alone to transform tomato soup cans into icons of the 20th century and thus contribute to the socio-cultural analysis of our time. As always, their energy, their vitality, and their talent are far superior to the Europeans in the field of visual art and what they did, they did in excellent fashion. But where was spirituality? Where was that which I would term the “arch-European” element, that which the Americans got rid of, in order to surpass the Europeans in the domain of painting. And have they succeeded in their plan? Perhaps it is still too soon to tell.

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Simone de Beauvoir, Ruth Francken, Helene de Beauvoir, Paris 1980's
Photo by Alain Thomas



The definition of aura has changed in a relatively short space of time and with it the spiritual level of artistic production all over the world as well as the ethical standards the artist sets in relation to his own work. The difference becomes clear when one compares the following statements made by Walter Benjamin and Andy Warhol. It marks the decline from subtle, deepened perception to the cynical, pragmatic mentality of the consumer society: “The definition of aura as a unique phenomenon of a distance, however near it may seem, represents nothing but the formulation of the artistic value of the work of art in categories of spatio-temporal perception. Distance is the opposite of proximity. That which is essentially distant is the unapproachable. In effect, unapproachibility is one of the principle qualities of the cult picture. It remains by nature distant, however near it may be. The proximity which one can gain from its material nature does not in the slightest diminish the sense of distance which it preserves in its appearance.” Thus Benjamin. Warhol on the other hand: “A society recently proposed to buy my aura. They did not want my works, but my aura. I never really understood what they really wanted. But they were prepared to pay a lot for it. And so I said to myself in the end: if someone is willing to pay such a lot to have my "It", then I had better find out what "It" is…”. The aura as Benjamin depicts it, the unapproachibility of the cult picture is exactly the opposite of what one achieves through mass production in art. Warhol produces on a mass scale; he therefore calls his place of creation “the factory”. What is unapproachable is and will always remain an “inhabited” entity and what is "inhabited" can only arise out of inner necessity. The “inhabited” work is not something which as a result of masterful juggling leads so-to-speak to a substitute for ejaculation in order to then be described as a forceful work of art. What is inhabited, is authentic. And authenticity cannot result from the unremittingly repetitive, refined lust for production which has only the dollar in mind.

Talent is only a precondition; the ability to create good works or bad works, sublime works or works destined for the scrap-heap, the valuable quality of curiosity in connection with the trying out of new means instead of just always playing it safe are and will always remain the foundations of authenticity.

Both these quotes from Benjamin and Warhol are representative, in my view, of the Euro-American syndrome, which also reflected at that time my own particular unrest. Richard Lindner, Whose work is of enormous importance for me, has apprehended this syndrome and unmasked it in his painting. He has been wrongly assigned to the Pop Art scene. Did no one notice that he was reacting to American society in his capacity as German Post-Expressionist and that he did not in any way attempt to reconcile himself to Pop Art? His style demonstrates the absurdity of any attempt to class his work in an “ism”. Richard Lindner understood in a most subtle fashion how to place America and Europe in relation to each other, by either linking them or opposing them. That alone seems to me to be a masterly achievement. Richard Lindner spent part of his life in the United States, like myself, before I felt the urge to return to Europe. We were both uprooted. That brought us together.


Peter Handke once wrote: “Uprooting others is a crime, uprooting oneself is a victory.”

Seen in this light, I consider my own uprooting to have enriched my life. It is founded in the nostalgia which results out of loosing a precise cultural universe. It is not a matter for me of Vienna as the scene of my childhood, it is not a matter of sentimental memories but of Wittgensteins’s Vienna, Vienna as the crucible of a unique European culture whose protagonists I did not even know. It is matter of a heritage which never ceases to surprise me. I live in the field of tension between this epoch which I have never personally experienced and the present.

The realization of this uprootal was of decisive importance for me. One day it became clear to me that I could only make an independent, personal contribution to the art of my time if the point of departure for my work was founded on the very complex concept of uprootal. The clearer insight became to me, the more the question: “How should one paint today”, which had oppressed me so much up to then, retreated into the background. The awareness of my own specific marginality which I also looked upon at the same time as a state of grace led me directly to conceive and realize – full of great inner tension – my photometallic scissor-reliefs. It was for me the logical accession to a new stage of development and it thus demanded an equally logical development in my form of expression.

Of scissors and faces

These photomettalic scissor-reliefs were often the object of misunderstanding probably resulting from the fact that the observers of our age do not like to be reminded of the uprooting of others, so correctly denounced by Handke as a crime. Scissors are therefore looked upon as something threatening.

Ruth Francken in the Atelier. Paris 1958

My scissors are, above all, those that were capable of rupturing a whole spiritual world, of cutting it off, and then to a large extent directing the further development of the art of the 20th century onto faraway tracks.

For years now I have sensed a certain curiosity, a playful urge to attempt to imagine the art which would have developed out of this particular spiritual world-Wittgenstein’s Vienna – had it “not been cut off by the big scissors”.

This urge led me to venture the creation of such art myself. Whithin this utopian realm reside ideas, meaning and form particular to my work. Only from this vantage point can it be understood.

The spiritual world was based of course on a cultural elite. Today it is frequent to be reproached for producing elitist art. I am, however, not the only one who believes that man can only save himself through knowledge and culture and not, as some seem to believe, by the use of weapons. I dream of a society in which each individual member is a member of an elite, each on the same level. This way, the term “elite”, as it is understood today, would become superfluous and be banned from the dictionaries.

To what is still today looked upon as a so-called elite, there inevitably belong the personalities depicted in my double cycle "Mirrorical Return" & "Hostages", also known as “Antiportraits”: Sartre, Beckett, Butor, de Beauvoir, Cage, Beuys, Kagel… Why this selection? I was searching for creative personalities whom I could photograph. And it was also necessary that the faces involved were not just able to put up with the treatment entailed by my drawing but that they should also be suitable to function as the visual means of conveying the role which I wanted to impart on them, a role, a statement, I myself was not aware of beforehand. The personalities depicted had therefore as a result to be people who I could photograph.

During the ten years in which I worked on these faces (1977-1987) it was neither my ambition nor my intention to create portraits like those of Andy Warhol for example – my concern was a different one.


Wittgenstein declared that there is no truth because no one can know what the other person means. I make anti-portraits in order to say that it is impossible today to make portraits because there is no truth. Mirrors and reflections play an important role here. Perhaps I paint today in order to say that it is impossible to paint today. I take man as a subject, the face, in order to say how inhumanly he can act. I take scissors as a symbol to say that we humans should not cut away, take away, castrate. I choose the telephone to say that we humans do not communicate enough with each other; the loaf of bread to say that we do not share enough. I have borrowed the water taps from Marcel Duchamp whose “ revolutionary water tap stopped dripping when one turned one’s back to it”. This mystery put me on the way to my considerations of these last few years. I do not create to produce a product which can be sold but to acquire by my own efforts my view of the world.

At the beginning of my work on the Anti-portraits I wanted to try the experiment of showing the triptychs of the double cycle Mirrorical Return & Hostages, which, together, group a dozen personalities in about 75 separate pictures, in a labyrinth of mirrors constructed according to my design. All the triptychs together were to form one single work; the twelve personalities depicted were to be understood as a part of this ideal society. As a result of the reflections in the mirrors their number was to be multiplied.

As I said, it is not at all the “portrait” which interests me but rather the expression of something inexpressible, something unknown to me, the evocation of something conveying a message on the subject of (im-)mortality. When the onlooker walked through the labyrinth this would become “audiovisible” to him, not just by means of the mirrors integrated in the pictures but by their reflections in the labyrinth mixed with the din, the racket, the jumble of languages, all this opening up a new sphere of consciousness for the onlooker, changing him and his relation to others.

The idea will remain utopian. The triptychs are in the meantime scattered all over the world. The anti-portraits are looked upon as portraits, something which, to my great regret, I was not able to prevent.

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Peggy Guggenheim, Herbert Read, Ruth Francken, Venice 1953


Wittgenstein Variations

One of the exhibitions dedicated to my double cycle Mirrorical Return & Hostagesled led me back to Vienna after over fifty years of absence, Vienna where I had spent my childhood days, the city out of which I had been chased as a young girl.

This return made it possible for me to tap completely new creative reserves. I t suddenly became clear to me that my ten-year enterprise with this double cycle was based not just on my concern with depicting a cross-section of an idealized, utopian society but also with embodying the descendants of this “cut off spiritual world” – as their replacement figures so-to-speak. Their ancestors had after all already attracted attention to themselves in 1964-65 I was on a scholarship in Berlin; namely in the pictures and bronzes of the Head series.

The Heads are countenances of a state of consciousness. I attempted here to convey to the onlooker what the person has seen, what is expressed through his face, and what I have projected into the countenance in order to create a dialogue between the onlooker and the depicted mysterious state of “the other”.

Yet at that time, in the year 1965, I had no idea that the series Heads would be followed by faces in the Eighties, just as I did not then know their coded significance for my work. The Heads like the faces of the double cycle and today the Wittgenstein Variations have accompanied me like shadows all my life, even if I did not always know those of whom they are projection.

These works were born out of a desire to re-find something unknown that existed before me, an anachronism perhaps, but at the same time the source of high inner tension. The Scissors, the double cycle of the faces, the Wittgenstein Variations all led me to the Brûlure du silence (“Sear of silence”) as Jean-François Lyotard has called my more recent works.

Flames, volcanoes

Fire and flames run through my entire work like a network of fuses. From the 44 aquarelles of the cycle In the Flames through the photos of the burning Vietnamese monks in my etchings of 1967 and collages of 1970 in the form of eggs with the burnt edges representing the world, up until the smoke drawings of the Eighties and finally Sear of silence and the object-paintings with the burnt wooden parts. Since then there has also been a new mutation: in my imagination, fire and flames developed to become a volcanic landscape. At any rate, I did not wish to indefinitely pursue the faces, such as in the anti-portraits and I agree more and more with Marcel Duchamp when he says: “The idea of repetition gives me the creeps” (1958). He had written as early as 1915: “My last work is radically different from everything that preceded it”.

Volcanoes produce eruptions. After the eruption, the volcano becomes extinct, ash remains. Likewise starts come and go like the people of this spiritual world who are now each depicted in the form of a volcano and replaced by it.


These are the linking connections which I perceive in retrospect to constitute my creative fertile soil, in obedience to an inner necessity. It is these connections which have determined in each new phase the style and the material of the given form of expression.

My playful urge of not just imagining the art which would have developed in Europe if "the great scissors had not done their cutting" but more so to try and shape my work according to it.

I see the only possibility of creating something deeply rooted in the present by placing it in relation to and as against the highlights of the particular spiritual world I refer to earlier and not to feed illusions about what is fallaciously called “contemporary” and/or modern.

Translated by Ronnie Halligan

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