Tragic life reflected in impressive body of work

Gerda Frömel drowned aged 44, but a new exhibition serves as a reminder of why she was one of Ireland’s most lauded sculptors, writes Alan O’Riordan

SHE was one of the most lauded sculptors in Ireland, but Gerda Frömel has largely been forgotten since her untimely death in 1975.

Her short, remarkable life ended when she was just 44. She was drowned on a holiday in Mayo, a fate she shared, tragically, with her two-year-old daughter, who had drowned some years before in an accident at their home in Dublin.

That biographical element is poignantly represented in a retrospective of Frömel’s work at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin. One room is devoted to a series of stark figures, bronze representations of Eve and Ondine that seem to emerge from water.

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Ondines are spirits of the water who, in Teutonic myth, are doomed to die if betrayed, and in Irish and Celtic myths they are associated with lost children. This was an artist interrogating her own experience, and with a keen intelligence that is seen in everything she did.

Other rooms tell other chapters of Frömel’s remarkable life. The first one mixes rough ecclesiastical works — bronze crosses and reliefs — with designs for stained-glass windows. This was the Germany of Frömel’s childhood and early adulthood: building amongst the post-war ruins.

Frömel was born in 1931 in what is now the Czech Republic. A Sudetenland German, she was part of the mass expulsion of millions of German speakers after the war.

An estimated half-million people died during the expulsions, and Fromel’s family were not immune from this violence: they were held at gunpoint and threatened with execution. After a period in Austria, the family settled in Stuttgart.

Frömel moved to Ireland in 1955, with her husband, the sculptor, Werner Schürmann, whom she had met at art school in Munich. Schürmann taught metal-work at NCAD and established one of the only foundries in the country, at their Dublin home.

There, Frömel worked, producing an array of bronze busts, human figures, and works of domestic animals. Frömel’s use of rough and oxidised surfaces makes for lively, fluid and lyrical pieces.

Her appreciation of the random is perhaps best captured by ‘Sheep’ — the semi-collapsed casting giving it a touch of the ancient.

Her metal-working style also finds fine expression in ‘Small Castle’ from 1964, and in works with simple titles such as ‘Tree’ or ‘Animal’. All are redolent of wind-blown Irish scenes: an artist putting down roots.

Frömel’s bronzes justify comparison to Alberto Giacometti, as well to Edward Delaney, whose rugged surfaces are here seen in a smaller, more interior scale.

More archaic resonances come later in the exhibition, as Frömel moves into stone (she was equally at home carving as casting). Sometimes, a simple depression is seen in a piece of marble, evoking primitive tools. At other times, granite is used, suggesting early Celtic stonework.

A series of mask-like heads shows her range — some of them fine alabaster, some rougher stone, some marble. They amount almost to a survey of the importance of such iconography across cultures and ages. Later complexity is apparent in aluminium and alabaster yin-yang shapes, and abstract astrolabes.

The exhibition concludes with a wall-sized photo of ‘Sails’, Fromel’s large-scale outdoor work. It was commissioned by the architects, Scott Tallon Walker, for the Carroll’s factory in Dundalk.

It’s a striking and ambitious work; its tall, metallic sails shift slowly in the wind, their movements reflected in water below.

 As a first and last truly monumental work, it is poignant, hinting at what could have been achieved in a longer career; but it is also the summation of a remarkably broad talent, and of a major artist who deserves her place in the Irish canon.

This IMMA exhibition, curated by Sean Kissane, with significant contributions from the artist’s own estate, should see to that.

‘Gerda Frömel, A Retrospective’ is at IMMA until July 5

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