Kitsch drives me mad, as regular readers know. I fantasize about collecting together all the world’s Cabbage Patch dolls, garden gnomes, football team strips and Playboy coffee mugs and setting them alight in a great, searing, sacrificial pyre to bad taste. No more Hawaiian shirts! No more Elvis Presley singing telephones! No more doleful-eyed, flaxen-haired Christmas angels figurines! The world would become a much more beautiful place.
An Offenburg street artist named Stefan Strumbel has also taken on kitsch, but in a more imaginative (and less pyrotechnical) manner than me. He has devoted himself to reinventing the cuckoo clock.
Since time immemorial (or about 1850) cuckoo clocks have been fashioned in the shape of Bavarian, Black Forest or Swiss chalets. As we all know, these traditional timepieces can be decorated with quaint messages, carved leaves and deer horns. On the hour out pops a cutesy cuckoo plus – depending on the design -- animated woodcutters, guzzling beer drinkers and turning water wheels. The clock may chirp a simple ‘cuckoo’, count off the hours or release a medley of popular ditties such as Edelweiss or The Happy Wanderer. For me, the most pleasing attribute of these clocks is their wooden construction, which insures they’ll burn quickly on the pyre of sentimentality.
‘When I did graffiti, it was all about marking my territory,’ street artist Strumbel recently said in an interview with the New York Times. ‘But then I started thinking that graffiti itself was more of a New York thing and that I should do something that was authentic to where I come from, the Black Forest.’
In 2005 Strumbel settled on the quintessentially German icon of the cuckoo clock. He bought them second-hand and transformed them with florescent spray paint. When they sold out he employed Anton Schneider & Sons, a sixth-generation maker, to supply him with undecorated timepieces. Strumbel then adorned the clocks with grenades and machineguns rather than rabbits and antlers. By the end of the decade his largest creations were selling for as much as €25,000.
According to Mon Muellerschön, an Munich art curator who also spoke to the Times, the popularity of Strumbel’s clocks can be attributed to the way they capture the spirit of the new Germany. ‘A Germany that is aware of its past, but ready to take new, lighthearted and colorful paths,’ he said. ‘A Germany that can accept its clichés with the wink of an eye.’
‘For so long after Hitler, Germans haven’t been able or allowed to reclaim their Heimat,’ said Strumbel. Heimat is a German word – and concept -- which roughly translates as homeland. ‘When I speak to people about Heimat, people from across Germany mention the cuckoo clock, it represents the German Heimat feeling.’ He went on, ‘I wanted to ask the question, “What is Heimat?” and make it something fresh, ironic and dynamic.’
Last year Stern magazine photographed the designer Karl Lagerfeld in front of one of Strumbel’s clocks. On first seeing it, adorned with guns and antlers, the pony-tailed doyen of fashion – whose own work can fringe on the kitschy -- exclaimed, ‘A new expression of German culture, how stimulating.’
For Strumbel this was the ‘ultimate accolade’. Today with exhibits in Berlin, Munich, New York and Miami, he can hardly keep up with orders. But is Strumbel really eliminating kitsch, or simply embellishing it? Whatever the answer, enthusiasm for his idiosyncratic take on Teutonic culture isn’t only coming from the worlds of art and fashion.
‘The German Cuckoo Clock Association also supports my work," he declared with pride.
Kitschy-kitsch. Cuckoo-cuckoo. Now where are my matches?