EA universal world unfolds in a tiny picture. Frank Walter took the simplest materials and transformed them into art. If he did not paint, he wrote, if he did not write, he recorded tapes. Walter lived, maybe in his own world, maybe only in art.
It is probably no coincidence that the name Frank Walter – born in 1926, died in 2009 – is known to very few art connoisseurs in this country. Walter never really exhibited his whole life, at least not in the big museums or internationally known art halls. His art was carefully packed in boxes in his studio, on a hill on the Caribbean island of Antigua, as if she were just waiting to finally travel.
As early as the 1970s, Walter had repeatedly tried to exhibit his paintings, objects and carved sculptures. He wrote letters, contacted ministries and designed the right programs with readings and jazz concerts. But his efforts were unsuccessful. The stacked boxes were never picked up. In 2009, Walter, the son of a white plantation owner and a black slave, died on Antigua.
Walter spent the last years of his life away from the city of Liberta. He had built his own house and studio, corrugated iron wall for corrugated iron wall. He lived alone, without water or electricity. But in loneliness where the warm Caribbean wind never stops blowing forcefully, Walter designed an image world beyond all genre boundaries with incredible intensity. He especially painted at night, referring to the memories he had experienced and his artistic imagination.
This is the only way to explain that with Walter a single fine brush stroke turns into a whole cloud trail on the horizon. A few swabs are enough to form a green meadow. A thick, moist pink dries, then tears open and a petal is formulated. Frank Walter didn’t trust any style. Abstraction, figuration, imagination, all of these unite and at the same time dissolve in his work. But it was precisely because of his open motifs and stylistic complexity that he managed to transport the ideas of romanticism into modernity.
Today Walter is considered one of the greatest artists in the Caribbean. It was not for nothing that the Antigua and Barbuda inaugural pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2017 was dedicated to him. His work, which has survived eleven hurricanes, transcends borders. Now the Frankfurt Museum of Modern Art (MMK) is showing an extensive show in its airy, winding galleries (until November 15). 400 paintings, numerous sculptures, objects, drawings, photographs and 6,000 densely filled pages with autobiographical material have finally embarked on their long-awaited journey.
“A museum is always a place to show, but also not to show.” These are the first thoughtful words of the director Susanne Pfeffer. The sentence sounds like a mantra that floats gently through Walter’s entire retrospective. If one thinks of the international discourse about the history and future of museums, then the sentence affirms the critical self-reflection of the institutional. But in Frank Walter’s work and life he stands for so much more.
Not only did the artist remain undiscovered throughout his life, in his work he repeatedly addressed the invisible, unconscious, even the cosmological. And one more thing: Walter painted on everything he could get his hands on, on the empty cardboard sleeves of a photo film, on the back of exposed photographs or on a piece of found linoleum. Each of his pictures has a visible front and an invisible back.
Making the context and the colonial unconscious visible is also the focus of the exhibition. You move not only between white free-standing screens on which Walter’s pictures hang in front and behind, stroll past orange and blue-washed walls, but also through rooms in which the works of younger artists of the black diaspora are shown.
There is, for example, a room installation by Kapwani Kiwanga made of rough-grain paper rolls that hang gently from the ceiling. The paper is made from sugar cane, is considered to be wood-free and wants to satisfy the scratched environmental awareness when it is used for the production of coffee-to-go cups. In order for sugar cane plantations to be cultivated at all, Kiwanga’s installation recalls, the natural tree population had to give way, that is to say, be cleared.
It is these interwovennesses and contradictions, the layers of history, that Carolyn Lazard also addresses in her work that was created especially for the exhibition. She dealt with the specific imagery of Frank Walter. “Recto Verso” shows the scanned prints of the back of Walter’s paintings. They are faded family portraits where too much chemical developer threatens to dissolve the picture. Or yellowed group photos of nurses, over which Walter’s signature, his fingerprints and colorful splashes of paint are generously drawn. What does it actually take to recognize a picture?
Perhaps Walter’s biography is an essential key to his work. As a child, he learned Latin, Greek and history. He was valued for his extraordinary intellect and elegant manner of expression. At the age of 22, he inherited his father’s plantation and became Antigua’s first non-white landowner. Walter modernized sugar cane cultivation, tried to reduce racial inequality and was soon to take over the management of the entire “Antiguan Sugar Syndicate”.
But Walter decided to go on an educational trip to Europe. With Eileen Gallwey, his white cousin, he moved to London in 1953. Outcast by his white uncle, he stayed afloat in industry as a day laborer, but also attended college courses, attended libraries, wrote, painted, and drew.
At some point, he left for Germany disappointed to find another branch of his family, for which his German name also stands. He found work in a coal mine at Mannesmann in Gelsenkirchen, learned German and visited Frankfurt, Cologne and Düsseldorf. At night he undertook long hikes along the Rhine, which should remain in his memory forever and today are the reason why his night pictures are so close to the masterpieces of Caspar David Friedrich.
But Walter had little money on his travels, sometimes so little that he couldn’t even afford to eat. Famine led him to hallucinations. He was picked up, woke up in clinics and psychiatric institutions. In the thirteen years that Walter threw himself across Europe, he was also exposed to racist attacks, especially in his colonial motherland, Great Britain.
In his works, he also negotiates the attributions that were brought to him from outside, which, due to his ethnicity, which was not clearly identifiable, were accompanied by a racist devaluation. An undated self-portrait shows Walter with a pale face. The background is black. If you take a closer look, the first layer of paint on his face was black. He painted it over with a white mask.
In 1961, Walter finally went back to the Caribbean. In Dominica he was allocated ten hectares of state land. He cleared wood, produced charcoal and sold the valuable gold pieces to the local community. He carved numerous sculptures from acacia and mahogany wood, figures on small bases with chubby faces. An imaginary series of portraits was created that is reminiscent of August Sander’s photographs.
It was not until 1967 that Walter moved back to an autonomous Antigua. He lived in his family’s house, ran his uncle’s hardware store, even ran as prime minister. Later he lived from hand to mouth with his own photo shop. He portrayed children, photographed weddings, built frames, sold toys or small hand-colored photocopies. Only his small works of art, he always kept to himself. They were organized and sorted in the boxes.
Something is now happening in the MMK in Frankfurt that Frank Walter so dearly wanted. His works can be seen and viewed in brightly lit rooms. There they can take us to a reality, sweep us away and open closed doors. Because when he looks at his pictures, something wonderful is achieved: Walter does not stop us with narratives of identity politics, but conveys a world that we share with him.
They show the life of an aristocrat, intellectual, large landowner, artist and day laborer. Walter’s identity was of a complex structure, he saw himself in noble genealogy, at the same time lived in poor conditions. Foreign identifications like skin color have always irritated him. Perhaps he fled to isolation from these patterns, foreign attributions and colonizations. But he was free. In art, he united old Europe with the new world. In his pictures, his story becomes our story.
Frank Walter. A retrospective. MMK Frankfurt, until November 15th