Ausstellungsansicht "Priska von Martin" im Museum für Neue Kunst

Her female figures, reindeer, moose and horses are made of bronze, plaster, aluminium or simply cardboard, sometimes miniature, sometimes life-size. Von Martin not only presented her works in the traditional mode of works on pedestals in art museums, but also staged many sculptures outdoors and photographed them in various contexts – ranging from Munich’s prestigious Königsplatz to a common gravel pit. The delight she took in experimentation is also evident in her visually stunning and colourful drawings, collages and watercolours.

Exhibition View "Priska von Martin" at the Museum für Neue Kunst
Exhibition view, Photo: Bernhard Strauss

From over sixty sculptures, 230 works on paper and in excess of 1,000 photographs from her own collection, the MNK presents an exhibition in conjunction with the Gerhard-Marcks-Haus in Bremen. It constitutes an homage to a great artist and daughter of the City of Freiburg.

The Processual Nature of Priska von Martin's Work

Priska von Martin’s work raises a number of questions for art-historical research. The precise dating of individual works doesn’t seem to have been important to her, instead one gets the impression that different works were of particular relevance to her at different times. Nevertheless, at the end of her life, she felt the need not only to compile her oeuvre in the exhibition catalogue for her seventieth birthday, but also to divide it into periods:

  1. Beginnings 1929–1953
  2. Intermediate Period 1953–1958
  3. Final Phase of Intermediate Period 1958–1960
  4. Abstract Period 1960–1963
  5. The Red Girls and No No San 1968–1971
  6. New Beginnings 1972–1982

This subdivision of phases places a preliminary sense of order to her work, but it must be treated with caution, as it suggests an overall concept for an oeuvre that the sculptor demonstrably did not actually possess. each work can also represent an intermediate stage up until the point when it finally leaves the studio.

Rentierkörper aus Metall ohne Beine auf Platte montiert
Swimming Reindeer, Photo: Axel Killian

Schwimmendes Rentier (Swimming Reindeer) is a prominent example, which is often dated 1955. It was exhibited in 1982 after the artist’s death and is clearly based on a form from the late 1950s. But when did she saw through the body of the sculpture and mount it on the metal plate? There is some evidence to suggest that it was made post-1968, subject to verification. From today’s perspective at any rate, this work is one of the highlights due to the expressive treatment of its surface and the way it captures an extremely fragile state of being.

Animal Sculptures as Self-Portraits

Priska von Martin placed great importance in depicting herself in a certain light; the way she made notes, constantly editing and overwriting them, reveals just how important it was for her to leave a specific image of herself to posterity. She also attached great importance to the singling out of certain quotations from her notebooks and diaries for public consumption.

Wolfgang Längsfeld calls the reindeer her »heraldic charge«. He associates von Martin’s figurative treatment of the animal with her psychological disposition, referring to the fragility of the animal with its broken legs and »deep wounds in its flanks«. According to his interpretation, these features represent the artist’s own wounds, inflicted upon her by life and which she seeks to visualise via the body of the animal. This possible reading is also supported by von Martin’s surviving notes and statements, in which she herself draws the very same parallel:

»I didn’t make animal sculptures as characterisations of the given animal. For me, the animal was always a medium through which I wanted to speak about the human being.«

Ausstellungsansicht "Priska von Martin" im Museum für Neue Kunst
Exhibition View, Photo: Bernhard Strauss


In the process, above all suffering as a result of physical and psychological pain is integral to her work:

»Pain is a part of existence, a common denominator. It is what I must do to my creations to express myself, so that they show who I am.«

Priska von Martin and »Artless Art«

Like many of her contemporaries, Priska von Martin was attracted by the culture and art of East Asia as it was received in the West. During the 1950s, it was above all Eugen Herrigel’s (1884–1955) seminal book Zen in der Kunst des Bogenschießens (Zen in the Art of Archery) that exerted great fascination. readership. For many artists and intellectuals, his book became an important reference manual in the search for new spiritual values, and Priska von Martin also saw it as a »book, its content a decisive requirement«. Archery is described in the book as a form of Zen practice through which the expanded consciousness of complete purposelessness could be attained. It is not about accuracy, but about unifying bow, arrow and target. In this sense, archery is described as an »artless art« – a metaphor that Priska von Martin applied to her own artistic endeavours and with which she characterised her art as a way of leading one’s daily life. Accordingly, for Priska von Martin:

»art is not an entity, an object or a thought, but it is a [state of] being.«

This idea connects her with what she had read about Zen and what Zen meant to her: Zen is insight, preparedness and relates to the artist’s attitude.


Priska von Martin mit Studie zu Undine
Priska von Martin with study for 'Undine', 1955; Photo: Hans Kinkel

In many of the photographs depicting von Martin with her art, it is noticeable that she is looking rigidly and motionlessly into the camera. She and her artworks assert their individual existences side by side – without a hint of identification or, tongue-in-cheek complicity. Rather, the relationship between the creator and the created is characterised by peculiarity. Such an »anonymous sculpture« not only allows scope for the enigmatic, the inexplicable, but also reifies the attempt to liberate oneself from the need for legitimation, be it imposed externally or internally, and thus from concomitant expectation, categorisation and, indeed, limitation. By dispensing with effects, by reducing the influence and imprint of the ego on the work and the quality of »being just so«, von Martin aspired to make what she called an »artless art«. However, the notion of artless art by no means implies a repudiation of art, rather it is an attempt, as far as it is possible, to overshadow restrictive conventions and ideas about art and about oneself or, indeed, to eclipse them altogether.

Graphic Art

Priska von Martin’s graphic oeuvre preserved in her estate comprises over 200 works, most of which are undated. Her graphic works and illustrations are not only made up of the examination of the works of famous artists, such as Picasso, Matisse and the Surrealists, but also contain experiments and the use of trial and error using different techniques, materials and types of paper. In the case of many of the sheets, it is quite surprising that the drawings and watercolours have been pasted onto backing materials.

Ausstellungsansicht "Priska von Martin" im Museum für Neue Kunst
Exhibition view; Photo: Bernhard Strauss

The fact that the same paste has been used in the collages, leading to a brown discoloration over the years, suggests that she mounted the sheets herself. Her graphic oeuvre is to be regarded as an independent entity and by no means an adjunct to her sculpture. It contains two motifs: the female body, and animals. Hastily and aggressively scribbling these motifs in ballpoint, she proceeded to paste them together to form a collage whereupon she painted them as delicate Greek Tanagra figures in watercolour or shaded them very carefully in felt tip, thereby creating the impression that they might have been borrowed from the Max Ernst’s Surrealist collage novels. With regard to the female figure, stoles play a very important role, inasmuch as they are garments that drape the body with their folds and encircle the waist. This plumped-up, wave-like, airy fabric makes its reappearance particularly in the aluminium sculptures.

Dealing with the Female Body: The »Red Girls«, Aluminium Figures and Material Experiment


Writing in her diary, von Martin states that the Red Girls »are unburdened [...] driven by lust, accompanied by a sense of freedom, in which the perpetual compulsion to make art doesn’t exist«. Although her recurrent crises can be attributed originally to her personal constitution, they inevitably also concerned her art and therefore had a decided impact on her work. What does it mean if artistic production isn’t automatically synonymous with making art? Does it then have less merit? Is it merely a loosening up, a finger exercise, output destined to bediscarded? Conversely, what does it mean for art if internal and external constraints have the power to define the essence of the work? Which value systems and which ideas and demands formulated by whom are instrumental here? Which parameters of presentation and distribution define this kind of art? In the case of the Red Girls, something new, hitherto absent from her work, both formally and in terms of content, had been introduced: her works were life-sized, she was collaborating in the sense of shared authorship and the works produced only survive as photographs, owing to the fact that she had destroyed them; piling all these card-backed drawings up on a marble slab in the courtyard of the residential/studio building in the Bürgerstr. in Munich’s Bogenhausen district, she set light to them.

Von Martins 'Rote Mädchen' im Atelier
Studio view, »Red Girls« and casting mould, about 1968

Hinrich Sieveking has described Priska von Martin’s artistic development as a series of liberations: from the parental home, where she felt herself to be physically and intellectually deficient; from the university professor and successful sculptor, Toni Stadler, twenty-four-years her senior whom she loved deeply and whose work she held in the highest esteem; from the artistic conventions of the Munich School. She herself speaks of »crossing borders – abstract, ostentatious, surreal« and, in her final years, turned once again to the female figure and torso. Compared to the scale of the Red Girls and her aluminium sculptures, shrinking the size of her works made them easier to handle and thus, organisationally speaking afforded a degree of independence, not to mention financial manageability in terms of production. She derived pleasure from her own physical decline as the result of her advancing years: »to be present with all your faculties and yet at the same time physically diminished is like a prolonged orgasm of demise.« She experimented a lot with wax, shellac, plaster, bronze and continued to work on her own, withdrawn.

Ausstellungsansicht Priska von Martin im MNK
Exhibition view, Photo: Bernhard Strauss



Priska von Martin (1912–1982) was born in Freiburg to a prosperous family as the daughter of Alfred von Martin from Rothenburg/ Niederlausitz – a well-known sociologist who was completing his doctoral thesis at the University of Freiburg at the time – and Hilda von Martin, née Landschütz, from Gotha. When Alfred was called up in 1914 to serve in the Great War, the family relocated to Gotha, followed by a move to Jena in 1917, whence, having been reunited, to Kronberg in the Taunus region, where Priska's father wrote his post-doctoral thesis (habilitation) at the University of Frankfurt. The family finally moved to Munich in 1923.

Her first step toward training was as an intern in a carpentry workshop. In 1929, she began her preliminary studies at the School of Arts and Crafts in Munich under Karl Killer (1873–1948), where she focused her attention chiefly on pottery. In the summer of 1931, she enrolled in Joseph Wackerle's (1880–1959) sculpture class as one of only two women in the Munich Academy of Art. At this so-called »Munich School« of sculpture, she learned how to apply the lost-wax process as is used in bronze casting. By appropriating this casting method, the surface of the sculpture is left quite coarse and is endowed with an extremely rough, painterly surface structure.  She later became a student of the sculptor and professor, Toni Stadler (1888-1982), whom she married in 1942.

She therefore belongs to the small group of female sculptors who underwent their academic training before 1945 and who subsequently distinguished themselves as modern artists in the post-war period.

Priska von Martin suffered from chronic neuralgia and severe depression throughout her life, which on occasion forced her to take long breaks from her work. In 1980 the atrophy of her muscles was so advanced that she was told that she would never walk again. Alarmed by the prospect of this diagnosis, she took her own life on 11 March 1982 at the age of seventy, a few days after her final exhibition opening.

Priska von Martin im Atelier
Priska von Martin in her studio, Photo: Rita Strothjohann

For Priska von Martin, the catalyst in life was the desire to capture humanity as form. She tried to delineate artistically what constitutes human existence, including isolation, dysfunctionality, pain, but also harmony, wholeness and beauty. She captured the essence of human existence in animal figures as well as women’s bodies and torsos. Her art was aimed at the corporeal, the visibly physical – injury, dislocation, displacement – as well as the spiritual, the invisible, the intangible – emotions, instincts, conditions. As we continue to explore her work, we want to keep it both as open and equivocal as possible.

Exhibition catalogue

Priska von Martin. Hrsg. von Christine Litz, Museum für Neue Kunst, Städtische Museen Freiburg und Arie Hartog, Gerhard-Marcks-Haus, Bremen. Köln: Snoeck 2020.