Living a life that art build

Wilmette Life September 4, 1997, Pioneer Press

“I like that tension between fantasy and reality. My painting is realistic, but at the same time it is not real.”


Just as in his enigmatic paintings and etchings, there is more to Curt Frankenstein than meets the eye. A little time spent with the artist reveals an extraordinary journey that has always had art as its guide. “Art was the determining factor in my fate,” he said last week during an interview in the large, airy space that doubles as his studio and living room of his Wilmette home. “Art has helped me enormously in some difficult situations. I have existed because I was an artist.” He is not exaggerating.

Frankenstein was born in Hanover, Germany, in 1922 to a Jewish father and a Lutheran mother. As a child he excelled in art and spent much of his time drawing, to the dismay of his parents who wanted him to choose a more lucrative career. But as Frankenstein reached his teens, his career plans were cut short by the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich. During the infamous Kristallnacht raids in 1938, his father was taken to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Luckily, he was released several months later on the condition that he would leave the country immediately. He boarded a freighter ship packed with other refugees bound for the international seaport of Shanghai.

Sailing for Shanghai

In 1939, just months before Hitler invaded Poland, the 17-year-old Frankenstein decided to join his father in Shanghai. Leaving his mother and younger brother in Germany, he boarded a train for Trieste, where he bought a ticket on a passenger ship bound for China. “In Shanghai it was very difficult,” he recalled. “The Chinese used to call us ‘foreign beggars.’ There were thousands of refugees from Poland, Germany and Austria, and there was no way to make money.” In desperation he turned to the one thing his parents warned would never earn him a living: painting. He met another German artist who – made a decent income peddling his traditional, European-style paintings door-to-door to wealthy Chinese. “The Chinese found these paintings exotic,” Frankenstein said, laughing. He worked as an apprentice in his studio, earning a little money for each painting he completed.

He lived that way, hand to mouth, for eight years. When the war ended, the U.S.S. Nashville sailed into Shanghai harbor, and Frankenstein painted a series of pictures showing the enormous ship floating next to the small Chinese boats. He thought the paintings might make nice souvenirs, so he sailed to the side of the ship in a small boat, holding one up to the sailors who were hanging out on deck. He sold it right away and began selling his works regularly to U.S. sailors of the Medic alert. This way, he met a doctor on a U.S. hospital ship who offered to sponsor Frankenstein, enabling him to move to the United States as a displaced person. “It was such a wonderful opportunity,” Frankenstein said. “I jumped at it, even though I did not have a single relative there.” His father returned to Germany to join his with and younger son, who lives there to this day. Frankenstein came to Chicago because he received a scholarship to the American Academy of Art through the Hillel Foundation. He lived in Hyde Park, paying for his room and board by working as a freelance commercial artist and illustrator. He later attended the School of the Art Institute and the Otis Art Institute of Los Angeles. He met his wife, Renate, a refugee from Berlin, in Hyde Park through a friend and the two married a year later.

The fair game

Frankenstein first succeeded in selling his paintings in 1954 at the 57th Street Art Fair. He has continued to participate in art fairs ever since, attending about six each year. During the 1950s, Chicago’s art world was delirious with the advent of abstraction. But Frankenstein, who was devoted to representational art, knew his passion lay elsewhere. It wasn’t until he was in his early 30s that he found his calling in surrealist paintings he saw at the Art Institute. “I wanted the viewer to see a story. Abstraction didn’t do that,” he explained. “It had beautiful shapes and colors, but no story. I was a storyteller.” He was inspired in particular by Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte and American surrealists George Tooker and Peter Blume. Like Magritte, Frankenstein’s visual vocabulary consists of familiar objects – shoes, cups, teapots. And like Magritte, he presents visual riddles that pose questions of meaning and relationship between painted and real objects. For instance, “The Faithful Jockey” shows a topiary horse with its middle missing. Above the space floats a jockey wearing a patient expression. The branches of the horse’s hind and fore legs are slowly growing toward each other but it’s going to take a while. The painting is rich in texture and contrast on many levels. “Hike that tension between fantasy and reality,” Frankenstein said. “My painting is realistic, but at the same time it is not real.”

Late summer is the height of art fair season, and Frankenstein has participated in several, including Highland Part’s Port Clinton Art Festival, which used one of its paintings on its much-circulated poster, and the Oakbrook Fine Arts Promenade. He appeared in the North Shore Art League Festival at Northbrook Court. He has won many prizes throughout his career and exhibited in several one-man shows throughout Chicago and the Midwest. His paintings are represented by a Wisconsin gallery and are also included in public and private collections. Looking back on his life so far, Frankenstein feels fortunate to have landed firmly after such a tumultuous start. “Mine is a very happy story,” he observed. “I had one of the luckier fates.”