Olga Fröbe-Kapteyn

Olga was born in London as the oldest child of Dutch parents, Truus Muysken (1855-1920), a feminist and social activist, and Albertus Kapteyn (1848-1927), an engineer and inventor and older brother of the astronomer Jacobus Kapteyn. Her father had moved to London in 1881 to work for the Westinghouse Air Brake Company and by 1887 was the Director-General of the London site. Her mother befriended like-minded people as Bernard Shaw and Peter Kropotkin.[1] Olga attended the North London Collegiate School, where she was a close friend of Marie Stopes.[2] At the end of the century the Kapteyn family moved to ZürichSwitzerland, where her mother became the center of a group of reform-minded intellectuals.[1] There, Olga studied art history, became an avid skier and mountaineer, and in 1909 married the Croatian-Austrian flutist and conductor Iwan Hermann Fröbe, who shared deep interest in aviation and photography with her father. Iwan had been flutist of the local Tonhalle Orchestra since 1908, but his conducting career took the couple to BraunschweigMunich and by late 1910 to Berlin. At the outbreak of World War I they relocated from Berlin back to Zurich, where Olga had a literary salon known as the “Table Ronde” (round table). They had twin daughters in May 1915, but Iwan died shortly after in a plane crash in September 1915 in Fischamend near Vienna.[3]

Fröbe-Kapteyn’s collection consists of two parts, precisely delineated works on paper that she did between 1927 and 1934, and images from her archive of archetypes, which in this exhibition focuses on the subject of ”The Great Mother.” The drawings are what got my attention. The central motifs look like an imaginative amalgamation of esoteric symbols, heraldry, customized muscle car designs, Kenneth Anger neo-Egyptian movie stills, and emblems you might encounter in a Peter Behren’s building. You could imagine David Lynch finding use for one if he did a remake of his 1984 film, Dune. Their sharp angles or what Natalie Bell identifies in the exhibition catalog as the combination of “the accelerated energy of Futurism with a cryptic semiotics,” infuses them with a weird modernity, not the clean precision of the Bauhaus, but the side of 20-century art engaged with abstract ornamentation and the decorative. The use of gold leaf and a palette consisting of white, black, blue, and red are no doubt symbolic.

Fröbe-Kapteyn was not an artist; she was a researcher into the arcane and the persistence of symbolic forms. Still, there is something about the precision and polish of her colored drawings that is absolutely captivating, if not also a bit disturbing: her interest in these forms becomes something more than that, though I hesitate to call it an obsession. It is this unlikely combination that prompted me to return to them. Fröbe-Kapteyn, while avoiding the categorization of artist, belongs to the flipside of the reductive impulse running through modernism that culminated in Minimalism and paint-as-paint. It is a side that has been largely ignored, particularly in New York, until recently. In Fröbe-Kapteyn’s mixed media works one sees affinities with Forrest Bess’ “cuts,” Bruce Conner’s mandalas, the late paintings of Stephen Mueller, the works of Marilyn Lerner, Chuck Webster, Barbara Takenaga, and Philip Taaffe.

The tradition that Fröbe-Kapteyn belongs to a tradition that stretches back to Hilma af Klint and, before her, Georgiana Houghton (1814–1884), whose “Spirit Drawings” .  It seems to me that this strain of art history – one that the Museum of Modern Art in New York has erased, marginalized, and ignored for much of its existence – has been slowly emerging ever since Hilma af Klint’s work was first seen in public in 1986. The inclusion of works by af Klint and Fröbe-Kapteyn in The Keeper adds more to our knowledge of what John Ashbery – in a different context – called “The Other Tradition.”