The painter, graphic artist and sculptor Ruth Schmidt Stockhausen has passed away, at the age of 92. The following lines—written at the end of December 2014—are a first attempt at an obituary of this multi-facetted, and even wise, personality. .
Ruth Schmidt Stockhausen (* 4 Apr. 1922 Norderney, † 22 Dec. 2014 Dornum)
Author: Prof. Klaus Hentschel (Stuttgart), her only son
Translated by Ann M. Hentschel
Family Background and Early Years – Norderney, Wilhelmshaven, Stockhausen
Ruth Schmidt Stockhausen was the daughter of a fortification engineer, Albert Schmidt (1877–1940), who was decommissioned from the German military as a ranking officer in 1918. At the time of his daughter’s birth, he was employed in the civil service (later promoted to government inspector) on the Island of Norderney. His forefathers had been farmers from the Lahn region (between Wetzlar and Weilburg) in the principality of Solms-Braunfels. The property inherited from Johann Heinrich Schmidt is located in Stockhausen-on-the-Lahn. After her father’s death in December 1940 under mysterious circumstances (in a possibly rigged traffic accident while traveling on government business), Ruth and her family moved back to their countryside “Solmser Hof” in Stockhausen. Apart from Ruth there was an elder brother Albert (1919–96) and two others about a decade her juniors, Horst (*1930) and Dieter (*1938); another brother, Helmut, died at the age of seven—run over by the trailer of a horse-drawn beer cart. Ruth assumed much of her asthmatic mother‘s household duties at home, becoming a kind of surrogate mother to her younger brothers.
Her early childhood had been spent on Norderney in the North Sea. That’s where she made her first acquaince with a professional painter. Hans Trimborn (1891–1979) was an admirer of her mother Annemarie, née Vollenbruch (1896–1968) from Wuppertal, who herself was an amateur paintress, ever attracted by the art world. “Uncle Trimborn” had an engaging sense of humor and left a lasting impression on the little girl. Ruth’s schooling was in Wilhelmshaven where her father had been transferred during the late 1930s to supervise the coastal fortification of the entire East Frisian coast. At the age of seven Ruth contracted tuberculosis with the consequence that her left hip became rigid. That ruined her childhood dream of becoming an equestrian circus acrobat. But it did encourage her artistic interests. She could always paint and draw, even while reclining, and she quickly developed great skill in both techniques. Her elder brother Albert was artistically gifted as well and his visiting cards later introduce him as an artist. He, however, lacked the consistency necessary to develop his talent to its full potential. After his first family (the medical practitioner Edith Simon and their daughter Sibylle) fell apart, he remarried and emigrated to Canada.
In those days and within the context of her own family it was completely unthinkable for Ruth to choose freelance painting and sculpting as a career. So she opted for teacher training in arts and crafts, which she completed in 1941 in Hildesheim. Consequently, Ruth’s familiarity with disparate materials such as wood and wool, and techniques such as turning, carving, weaving, decorative painting and pasting, goes back to day-one, so to speak. Some of her puppets, woven rugs and carvings from this period have been preserved. She entered and won a “professional contest for all creative Germans” held by the Reich Youth Leadership. Against considerable competition, “Girls Group Leader Ruth Schmidt” proved to be “extraordinarily artistically gifted” and was selected to participate in a camp for 25 young talents near Lake Constance in Southern Germany on a grant by the national Begabtenförderungswerk (now known as the Studienstiftung). From April to September 1944 she took part in this summer-academy-style intensive course in Heudorf near Riedlingen. Prof. Berger trained his students in classical drawing, portraiture and clay modeling. This laid the technical foundations of her later expertise as an artist.
Theme I – Nature Studies and Portraits
Prof. Berger and Prof. Kranz guided their students through all areas of the fine arts and schooled them particularly intensely in the depiction of complex natural subjects. Ruth’s earliest studies include numerous sketches of cows and other animals in characteristic poses, partly from unusual points of view. There are also some carefully perfected naturalistic flower portraits in the manner of Dürer, manifesting a subtle mastery of hue in watercolors. Kunst kommt von Können—art comes from skill—, as they say, and these early pieces reveal that Ruth Schmidt Stockhausen possessed such skill in drawing and material manipulation in many areas of the fine arts.—This is something rarely transmitted to modernday art students anymore. Intense training in watercolor painting was part of the program. A number of landscapes from this period form part of her younger brothers’ collections. Others are in the Keutz Collection in Bonn. She was later to revisit naturalistic drawing. Her drawing of the singed tree trunk from the 1970s, for instance, is presently available in her atelier, also in draft form. Her frottages of weathered planks are other examples. A favorite exercise she later assigned to her more advanced pupils was to draw a crumpled-up piece of paper, reflecting the intricate, subtle shades of white in its interior. Drawing is hence the schooling of the eye in perception of structure, transitions between light and shadow; it is also an exercise in picture composition.
Following Captain Schmidt’s questionable fatal accident, Annemarie struggled to support her four surviving children. There were virtually no jobs available in that rural region of Stockhausen by the Lahn River. To make ends meet, segments of the family estate were sold, one by one. Ruth drew portraits of American soldiers, occasionally also of their families, for a few packs of cigarettes, which her enterprising brothers bartered at the market for other things—which, often enough, ended up being a raw deal for their elder sister. She also made toys, puppets and other objects, with loving care for detail. In 1946 she became a member of the artists association Oberhessischer Künstlerbund (OKB) and made her first entrance into the postwar art scene of North Hessen. That region was still under Allied Control, but exhibitions were encouraged and grants were being made available to promote the arts. Together with her relative, the sculptor Giselher Neuhaus (1916–94), Ruth participated in her first group exhibitions in Dillenburg, Giessen, Marburg and Wetzlar. Drawings by her on exhibit attracted the attention of a construction and steel industrialist Hermann Lindemann (+1954) from the Ruhr region. He arranged for her first illustration commissions by his publishing house, Dikreiter-Verlag. Illustrations by Ruth appear in the novel by Kurt Ziesel: Die goldenen Tage. Roman der Insel Rhodos (1954).
Bonn – Bad Godesberg
It was thanks to this first patron that Ruth was able to leave the small town of Stockhausen and move into a basement apartment at Meisengarten no. 23 in Bad Godesberg, a suburb of Bonn. It was situated in the residential quarter reserved for diplomats from around the world. The family of future Federal President Karl Carstens (1914–92) was in her immediate neighborhood. In 1954 she joined the GEDOK Bonn and the Künstlergruppe Bonn. A year later she was also welcomed into the Soroptimist Club, an international association of professionally active women, with regional chapters analogous to the Rotary Club. She remained a loyal member up to the last and assumed important functions at various locations (first in Bonn, later also in Frankfurt, and Norden). In Frankfurt she was once elected president of the club, and after her return to East Frisia (see below), she became patroness of Soroptimist International Ostfriesland, a local chapter in the town of Norden whose foundation she had originally instigated (see Clubchronik 1994–2014).
Contacts with Other Representatives of I’art informel
An important phase of artistic development started for Ruth during her Bonn period. Her artist colleagues, such as Willy Stucke, left a lasting impression on her, besides other members farther afield, most importantly Tapiès, Soulages, Emil Schumacher, Fritz Winter, as well as Max Ernst and Santomaso, each of whom she had occasion to meet personally. In 1956 she started offering courses at the adult education center Volkshochschule Bonn. Trips to Italy, France (particularly Paris) and later also to Athens and Rome, additionally broadened her horizons. 1955/57 the first exhibits were dispatched for display at GEDOK exhibitions as far away as Bombay, New Delhi and Calcutta. Appreciation of her artwork grew toward the end of the 1950s. Ruth was invited by the Deutscher Künstlerbund to participate in exhibitions in Essen 1958 and Wiesbaden 1959—a third invitation would have meant membership in this most important of Germany’s artists’ associations; yet this was not to be (see below).
Theme II – Abstraction
The very cautious trend in her development as an artist away from naturalism toward increasing abstraction took full shape during the Bonn period. Around 1960 the first works that could be assigned the general designation of ‘abstract’ appeared, even though this label does not really quite fit pieces by Ruth Schmidt Stockhausen. Trees become well-composed groups of lines, and faces turn into graphically effective arrangements of black bars.—Painting becomes the planning and distribution of areas, color weighting and accentuation. In Ruth’s case this was always carried out with a sense for peinture, e.g., nuances of color and effects generated by multiple layerings of paint, superposed layer upon layer, some perhaps crumbling or peeling off again, others partially scratched away again or providing smoother color transitions. During the Bonn period Ruth found her own, unmistakable style. She still continued to experiment with new materials, types of color binders and techniques, but she remained true to her style, which lies somewhere between Wols (Wolfgang Schulze 1913–51), Emil Schumacher (1912–99), Anselm Kiefer (*1945) and Pierre Soulages (*1919). She would have deserved the same recognition as these four famous figures, had her career in professional art not been abruptly aborted by the circumstances described below.
Marriage and Move to Bad Nauheim
In 1959 Ruth Schmidt Stockhausen suffered a nervous breakdown and physical collapse when an ill-fated relationship came to a head. She left for a cure in Bad Wörishofen. It was on the homeward trip to Bonn that she made the acquaintance of the physician Hans-Dieter Hentschel. They were married in May 1960. Ruth gave up her Meisengarten lodgings, which had been offered to her indefinitely by the generosity of her patron Lindemann, and moved into the elevated setting of Bad Nauheim, a spa town between Frankfurt and Giessen in the Wetterau region of Northern Hesse. Her husband was part of the medical staff in the ornate Jugendstil thermal spa facilities. The couple lived in rented apartments, first in Parkstraße at the upper limit of the rambling Kurpark, later lower down, closer to her spouse’s workplace. Both were fourth-story accommodations, which was physically extremely taxing on the young mother. It soon turned out that the father left something to be desired as far as trustworthiness as a partner for life was concerned. The official at the marriage registry was the first person to break the news to Ruth that her groom had already been married and divorced a number of times beforehand—nor would this be the last instance, either. It certainly was the first—and the last time for Ruth, though. Never again could she develop such deep trust in a man.
Klaus and the Career Hiatus
The birth of Klaus on 4 April 1961 in Bad Nauheim and the subsequent serious thrombosis (which arose as a result of the inattention of the father as well as of the clinical staff in the hours right after giving birth) prevented Ruth from even thinking about continuing her work as an artist for a few years. From then on, any longer period on her feet, either walking or standing, always tired her out and was only feasible at all if a bandage had been tightly wrapped around each leg, a remedy that would be necessary for the rest of her life. Her stiff hip and the limb-length discrepancy made her very unstable on her feet, and whenever she fell down, there were more bruises that wouldn’t go away a few days later, as would normally be the case. Some continued to throb for years, ever threatening to develop into leg ulcers.
Although it soon became evident that her marriage with Doctor Hentschel had been the greatest mistake of her life, and the drawn-out alimony suits following the divorce that eventually took place in 1970 continued to plague her for years, she took heart in raising her child on her own. She was a wonderfully loving, self-sacrificing mother as well as stern father in one for the boy. Only now has it become clear to this son how much he is indebted to her. Besides providing him with a solid education and a general sense of ethics, she also transmitted to him an appreciation of the creative arts, music and literature. It is solely to her merit that this child developed successfully in school and university and later also in academia. After graduating from school a year early with the highest marks, he studied physics and philosophy with honors and wrote his PhD thesis in the history of science in 1989. Following a longer peregrination from Hamburg to Berlin, Göttingen, Cambridge (Massachusetts), and Bern, he is now full professor of the history of science and technology at the University of Stuttgart and member of the eminent German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, etc.
Resumption of Exhibiting – OKB and Gruppe 9 – Her Own Pupils – Teaching
Her spouse had initially been proud of Ruth’s activities as an artist but forebade her from participating in any further exhibitions in order to take care of her infant. That meant she did not take part in another exhibition by the Deutscher Künstlerbund, that formal prerequisite for membership. After the divorce, and once her son had reached school age, Ruth Schmidt Stockhausen was able to become intensely active as an artist again. She made a name for herself in the province of Hesse and all over Federal Germany by major solo exhibitions in Bad Nauheim, Friedberg, Giessen (filling the entire conference hall) and Frankfurt, besides numerous others together with members of the OKB and its splinter Gruppe 9. A group of her own pupils in Bad Nauheim met once every few weeks to work together either in her own home or out of doors surrounded by nature. From 1975 to 1979 she also taught painting at the school for graphic arts Kunstschule Westend (now called the Academy of Visual Arts) in Frankfurt.
Theme III – Skin of the Earth –Structures in Nature
The central theme of Ruth Schmidt Stockhausen’s works of art is not nature studies in the classical meaning of iconically faithful reproduction of the object under observation as a painting or drawing, even though she had almost perfect mastery of both these techniques (see Theme I above). Structure is what mattered to her most—that which lies behind the phenomena, a grasp at the essence. That is why dichotomies such as “nature study vs. abstraction” miss the gist of her works of art. Their aim is structure—the abstract within the concrete, particularly in nature. For instance, works like “Nachtgesang” (night song) don’t attempt to give a 1:1 rendition of some concrete distribution of light, a glimpse of light framed within darkness. Their aim is to reproduce a mood that she distills out of observing and experiencing many such moments. Her landscapes aren’t recognizable topographies of a physical place but, likewise, distillations of the essential traits of a tideway, a polder, or a dark cloud hovering over the mudflats. While walking along the coastal mudflats of the North Sea and, during her travels, when visiting the catacombs of Rome, a gorge in Luxemburg or temple ruins in Greece, structures caught her attention: peeling paint on walls, cavities and rock formations, the shafts of light and shadowy figures forming in those spaces. Works of art developed out of these observations that now bear such titles as “Felsschlucht” and “Lichteinfall.” It was not a matter of depiction but development, distillation of the essence. Her technique was the superpositioning of many different layers of paint. That is how she generated those refined effects of peeling color and erosion that fascinated her so much. Or else she would work other materials into the canvas surface, such as coarse sand, crumbling insulation material, or pieces of wood, rope, seaweed or other finds on the beach or out of the garden. Many of her pictures have a strong element of three-dimensionality as a result and are best viewed in skewed lighting. Alterations to the canvas surface, texture and color from shrinkage, aging and decomposition interested her, and she was more delighted than disturbed when she noticed craquelure on her own paintings. Andy Goldsworthy’s rapidly fading outdoor works impressed her very much as well as Max Ernst’s usage of monotype, which partly involves chance besides subsequent artistic enhancement. In this respect, too, the style, techniques and approach of l’art informel toward painting come closest to Ruth Schmidt Stockhausen’s own intentions
Return to East Frisia in 1984 – Home and Studio at Cankebeerstrasse No. 97
Ruth never did feel quite as at home in the upscale but also somewhat bourgeois spa resort Bad Nauheim, as in East Frisia or the Rhineland. Space was rapidly running out in her cramped apartment at Haagweg no. 3, and the constantly rising rent made things only more intolerable. Not to mention the snobbery among the doctors’ wives and the social milieu as a whole. Klaus graduated from school in 1979 and left to study physics at university (completed with a Diplom in high-energy physics) and philosophy (completed with a Magister in philosophy of science). Ruth could think of resettling in her native region of East Frisia and she immediately started scouring newspaper notices and asking about among her acquaintances in search of a suitable property. This time, for the first time in her life, it would be a purchase. That was why she declined the generous offer extended to her by the mayor of Norderney to rent a house on the island at a specially reduced rate. For, how long would this privilege be guaranteed? What would happen after she died? The search continued and after a number of drives from Bad Nauheim or Hamburg to the coast, my mother and I discovered the property at Cankebeerstrasse no. 97, located directly on the main road between Hage and Dornum. It was easily accessible by car but could still offer a view to the lighthouse of Norderney—a lifeline between her native island and her mainland existence. The building was being offered by the Oldenburgische Landesbank at an astonishingly attractive price, owing to its generally poor state. Much needed to be done in the following years: a new roof, new windows and outer doors, and countless minor repairs besides other maintenance up to the present day. The modest price made it possible for her to take out a mortgage despite the rather modest means available to us at that time. The proceeds from a gardening plot in Bad Nauheim helped pay it off soon to assure frugal but comfortable living in a spacious home of some 200 m2 in addition to working space in the attached barn (another 250 m2, including a hayloft). A number of summertime atelier exhibitions also took place there, most recently in 2012, on the occasion of Ruth’s 90th birthday. It was impressively inaugurated with a concert by Prof. Tabel’s musicians from the Ländliche Akademie in Krummhörn. Now that Ruth has left us, her son will be continuing this tradition of atelier exhibitions.
Theme IV – Coastal Mudflats
A wave of creativity followed Ruth’s return to East Frisia. The new environment inspired her. She relished the landscapes, the broad horizons, the cloud formations and the light. Above all, she loved to discover ever new structures and colors in the silty mudflats—Watt—during her countless walks along the coast. Sitting in her livingroom, she could study and internalize the view up to the dike facing Norderney from her armchair. “Beach Wanderings” (Strandwanderungen), the title of a series of poems from this period, is symptomatic of her artwork as well, which revolved around clouds, Watt landscapes and colors. The topic of her last major solo exhibition, organized by representatives of the Kunstkreis Norden in July/August 2014 in the Kunsthaus in Norden, was entitled “Skin of the Earth” (Haut der Erde). The some 100 works on display revealed a panorama of creations spanning the elapsed three decades of Ruth Schmidt Stockhausen’s activity as an artist in East Frisia. They range from the floor-length mirror retrieved out of the straw in the hayloft, with its eroding silvery craquelure, embellished by just a few scratches to create a glittering tarnished Watt study; to large oil paintings in the moody colors of a sunset over the mudflats; monotype miniatures; and sculptures. This was a productive period indeed. As she approached the final years of her life, Ruth found it increasingly difficult to work upright on larger pieces. She reverted to smaller formats that she could work on at her desk. Some of her later pieces were even developed under the magnification device she had procured to assist her in reading, when her eyesight was beginning to fail her. Some self-portrait sketches and pastels emerged that way during the last year of her life. She even produced a soapstone self-portrait that she evocatively called Zeitlos—“timeless.”
Next to her art, gardening was a very important occupation throughout all phases of her long life. Ruth’s father had mostly spent his rare hours of leisure tending his extensive gardens. During the Stockhausen period, they filled the slopes behind the family “Solmser Hof.” A longer drive by car was necessary to reach his gardens during the Wilhelmshaven period. My mother was then often taken along and it is presumably around that time that her passion for gardening was born. Owing to her stiff hip, it became her only means of physical exercise. During the early 1960s she bought a gardening plot of her own at the edge of town in Bad Nauheim. In summertime my mother and I would set out practically daily on the hour-long walk through the whole town, often spending the entire day there. This area, measuring about 25 x 100 m, gradually transformed from a strawberry field into a skillfully designed English-style landscape garden dotted with tall evergreen plants, cedars and numerous perennials. The availability of a garden of suitable size, dimensions and plantings was another important selection criterion for her return to East Frisia. Wonderfully old fruit trees populated the garden attached to our Gulfhof—a small timber-framed brick farmhouse structure with attached barn typical of the local area—among many other pretty plants that my mother continued to tend, as she added some accents of her own. The purchase of an additional triangular piece of land behind the house enlarged her scope. However, her growing lameness and other complaints generally reduced her effectiveness as a gardener and she was forced to rely on assistance. In good weather, though, she could hardly be held back from pottering about among the plants to cut some roses for indoors or remove wilted blossoms and twigs and uproot weeds with her extended hand hoe and elongated pincers. I am convinced that those many decades of gardening kept her young. The time spent in the garden may have been at the expense of her art but the garden was a source of inspiration for her: dancing colors and color combinations, the play of light and shadow, 3D compositions in garden design. Basic themes of her works are also encountered there: genesis and demise (Entstehen und Vergehen). Soapstone carving and other messy tasks were also done outdoors during summertime. Thus art, landscape and garden unite in a greater whole, subsumed under the major heading Nature.
Final Months, Illness and Death
In the fall of 2014—as every year—she took full advantage of the few days of reasonably fair weather to prepare her beloved garden behind the house for the winter months. She cut back the roses, pruned withered stems from the perennials and collected the fallen fruit from her “Belle de Boskoop” apple trees. An extended family of pheasants, countless birds and other animals would spend the winter in her wonderful landscape garden. A rain shower suddenly took her unawares at work. It always took her quite some time to retreat into the house with the help of her rollator, and this time she got soaked through and caught a chill. For weeks afterward she was suffering from what she thought was a stubborn cold and tried to remedy with the usual cough syrups and cold medicines. She became even weaker and lost a considerable amount of weight. Then toward the end of November it was realized that she was actually suffering from pneumonia and pleurisy and she was delivered to the district hospital in Norden, where she was treated for eleven days. The first antibiotics did not agree with her and a substitute had to be recommenced. The allergic inflammation inside her mouth and on her lips and the dehydration medications caused dryness of the mouth, exacerbating her difficulty swallowing. She was no longer able to eat solid foods either in the hospital or later in the nursing home in Dornum-Schwittersum, where she had been transferred in December to convalesce. She had to resort to a liquid diet. Not even saline infusions led to any improvement of her health. A mechanical oxygen ventilator could at least compensate for her increasing shortness of breath.
Character Sketch and Final Words
Greatly weakened by the advanced stage of her pneumonia, she dictated the following words to Annita, one of her most trusted household helps from the Diakonie Norden, who had been coming to help her with the household chores once or twice a week for 2 hours:
“Have a good time, my dears,
I wave you farewell;
Think of me sometimes in good spirits,
I am with you”
The large network of friends, acquaintances and neighbors that she had built up over the course of 30 years since her return to East Frisia, saw to it that she was not alone during this difficult period. Her Soroptimist Club sisters were especially caring (above all, Marlies König and Shahla Stegmann) besides Anja and Annita from the Diakonie Norden. Our heartfelt thanks to all these helpers in her time of need! Her son and daughter-in-law had also been visiting her daily at the nursing home in Dornum-Schwittersum since19 December 2014. Her mind was completely lucid while awake, but she was suffering very much from the unpleasant consequences of not being able to get up or swallow properly, and was trying to gather all her forces to counter them—in vain. Yet she was still able to greet the local clergyman, when he came to visit her, with the prepossessing words: “Herr Hurtig—do come in, but I cannot console you at all today!” They reveal her characteristic wit and a presence of mind that had carried her safely through so many social situations. She had always been able to find the right tone of voice. Nevertheless, she could also be quite combative and tough. For example, she effectively fought with a verve surprising for a 92-year old when, in 2014, the Norden drainage authories were threatening to send a bulldozer into a part of her garden that had been purposefully left a wilderness, in order to indiscriminately clear the banks of the narrow Toogschlot canal. She enjoyed watching political debates on television—occasionally energetically joining in on the discussion.
Ruth Schmidt Stockhausen passed away toward 6 o’clock in the morning on December 22nd, 2014, in the presence of her son and his wife. Although the breath of life and warmth has escaped from this body afflicted with so many ailments, a life is only really over when there is no one left to remember the deceased. Those who have remained behind will see to it that this does not happen. There are plans to turn her residence at Cankebeerstrasse no. 97 into a museum. On weekends during the summer months its doors will be opened to visitors interested in seeing her many works of art in their original setting. These along with documentary films and recordings will illustrate within her concrete environment and living quarters under what conditions great art is generated. An inventory of her works is also being planned as well as an illustrated volume of her poems Strandwanderungen.
© Prof. Klaus Hentschel (Stuttgart)
land more swiftly
The wind snatched
with them –