"13 Attempts to Become a Rooster" 1977/78

Lettl Collection

Surreal Curriculum Vitae by Wolfgang Lettl

The series may be considered a surreal Curriculum Vitae.

The bottom half of this first image shows Wolfgang Lettl's index finger breaking through an eggshell and pointing straight up,

At the left upper edge of the image there is a figure whose whole arm is pointing in one direction.

Upon closer examination it turns out to be Vladimir Ilyitsch Lenin as he is often depicted, pointing left.

In 1919, the year of Wolfgang Lettl's birth, the Communist International was founded on Lenin's initiative and Lenin was at the pinnacle of his authority.

The appearance of Lenin in this image clearly shows that Wolfgang Lettl's life was greatly influenced by political circumstances.

In this second image heralds who can foretell the future announce the birth of an important artist.

In this third image a lath structure is the rooster, a red windmill represents his comb, and green and purple ribbons form his tail.

These two elements combined with the snow flurries summon up childhood memories.

Groups of garbage cans standing around serve as a contrast to the almost dainty rooster protruding into the image.

Wolfgang Lettl writes about his childhood:
As for the question why I am painting such crazy pictures, I think my psychiatrist is the competent authority. He told me that it is a relatively often observed phenomenon for people whose imagination may initially be considered quite normal, to suddenly find that in an environment that is monotonous and uninteresting in every respect and devoid of any incentive for a measured and harmonious development, their imagination starts to grow rampant like a cancer, and to boil over, so to speak.
Such an exuberant imagination tends to lead its owner astray, producing mostly sex killers and ideologues, as well as the occasional surrealist.

If I spent my childhood in a smug, square small town?
"No way," I said, "our school class once even visited the Golden Hall inside Augsburg City Hall."

The fourth image shown here recreates the fantasy world of a child with his toys in a cheerful hilly landscape. The rooster's rump is reminiscent of cloth diapers, but the other brightly coloured body parts are made of wood. Even the sun and the moon become wooden toys. Only the hole and cracks in the little hill at left in the foreground point towards the fragility of this world.

Wolfgang Lettl remembers:

"I don't know how old I was, maybe ten, when my father took me to the Alte Pinakothek. I was fascinated with the glorious colours of the medieval altar paintings. I had never seen anything like it. I don't know if the wish to become a painter had its first secret stirrings in me then. It seemed inconceivable to me that I would ever be able to create anything like that.

Later on I learned that in art you always have to do what you really don't know how to do, or it gets boring.

In Image Five Wolfgang Lettl uses the portrait painted by François Gérard (1770-1837) of Napoleon I in front of the Chateau de Malmaison, and attaches a rooster's head, a common symbol for France, to Napoleon's body. The background he painted is more stately than that in Gérard's picture.

The story of Wolfgang Lettl's relationship with Napoleon is as follows:
"Even in my earliest youth I felt connected to Napoleon. He was my idol. I knew him from a colourful little picture which showed the emperor with his child-like face looking at me blue-eyed and majestically, and I imagined that there was some resemblance between our features.

Whenever I had to have my hair cut at the barber's I contemplated my face in his large mirror to check to what extent I had succeeded in matching my features to those of the great Napoleon.

My fascination with the emperor began to pale at the same time as I began to realize that my features were gradually, but more and more unmistakably, taking a different direction than Napeleon's. He finally ceased to be a suitable role model, and as my knowledge of history progressed he actually turned out to be more and more unappealing.

Meanwhile my silent admiration had turned towards a lady who smiled at me kindly with dazzling white teeth from a Chlorodont billboard. Oh she was beautiful.

Nevertheless I have not forgotten Napoleon completely, and I give him credit for one thing: He is said to have stated once: "Whoever robs someone of his time should be locked up just like a common thief."

Here in Image Six the rooster is strutting along the beach.

The young rooster finds himself confronted with the topic of sexuality. Three elements are assigned in a seemingly arbitrary manner to the three figures, man, woman, and rooster: the axle of a wheel, a cube that is open at the top and painted in the primary colours yellow, blue, and red, and the setting sun plunging into the sea. Leisure time, freedom, being footloose and fancy-free - a cheerful picture that tells of the adventure of becoming an adult.

The contrast with the following four images could not be greater.

Wolfgang Lettl writes: "I remember the first few postwar years (World War I) as a happy time. There was something in the air: freedom, peace, hope. And the art of the expressionists spoke of a new beginning towards a new humanitarianism.Then came the night of the barbarians and the monsters."

In Image Seven the rooster loses his colours. Locked up inside a dark room and deprived of his freedom to move, he casts a dark shadow. His head is missing, revealing that he is just a hollow empty shell now. Life and spirit have abandoned the rooster.

School having been shortened by one year, Wolfgang Lettl graduates from high school in 1938. Hitler needs soldiers. After half a year of Labour Service he is drafted into military service and remains a soldier in the German Army until the end of the war in 1945. This is followed by half a year in the Lüneburg Heath as a British prisoner of war.

The years between the ages of 20 and 30 are normally decisive for a person's life.

Wolfgang Lettl 's generation is therefore often called the "lost generation".

Image Eight shows a Cubist figure in front of a grey wall. The figure bears only a vague resemblance to a rooster, but a bit of red and the yellow bowl inject some colour into the gloominess.

The following text is to be found among Wolfgang Lettl's wartime memories:

At the time, as the first significant works of Surrealism were being created, Germany soon became completely isolated from the modern currents in art; as far as I knew, Augsburg, the city of my birth, was just being timidly licked by Impressionism. A benevolent description of the artistic influences of my early years would be "Romantic/Biedermeier".

My turn towards Surrealism came about in different ways.

The war brought me to Paris for a few years where I breathed big city air, learned to appreciate the French, and occasionally saw Surrealist paintings which I hated at first but came to admire more and more as I was getting used to them.

During the second half of the war I was an airman and good fortune prevented me from ever seeing an enemy or having to shoot. We were bored, especially during the dark Norwegian winters, and resorted to fooling around. We fooled around with distorted words; sometimes the results were not fit for polite society.

But there were surprises as well:
Where in Schiller's Song of the Bell "raw forces reign senselessly" we came up with "raw forests sense forcelessly", which seems totally meaningless to the mind, but conjures up a wonderful image compared to Schiller's half sentence which comes across as tired and colourless.

This is just a small example of how surreal thought and perception were innate in me, and not only in me, and how they found their justification in the experience of the senselessness of war.

In Image Nine the rooster erupts from a mountain. The Great Dictator makes his appearance. He tries to carve his nationalist ideologies into everyone's brains.

At the foot of the volcano people are wandering through the area. Clouds are darkening the sky, a strip of light appears on the horizon.

Is there a glimmer of hope or is the sky getting darker and darker?

Image Ten, like Image Seven, shows an interior space. Unlike Image Seven, however, the rooster is in colour once more, although flat and leaning against the wall. The powers that threaten his existence are now clearly visible and thus predictable and defeatable.

In his surreal story, "A Painter - Searching for Himself in the Fog", Wolfgang Lettl writes the following regarding his interaction with his military superiors:

I dreamt that I was still running around in a corporal’s uniform, although I had been a sergeant for some time already.

It should be noted that I had actually made it to sergeant after six years of war service, but not until just before the end of the war, in March of 45, when the snow was melting in Norway. I could not be promoted any earlier, although I had kept strictly to an order, while the others had not.

This is how it came about: On the way from my lodgings to the canteen I, like everybody else, used to urinate in the snow, but I did so by writing my name, which was particularly suitable because it was short and had continuous lines. I was taken to task about it, but insisted that I was within my rights, as there was no rule for this. My superiors then wrote an order which expressly forbade me to do the above, because it might damage the reputation of the German Army.

I always followed orders, at least this time, and could do so with a clear conscience, because my comrades now made sure that my name would still be written in the snow. It was simply the most suitable name. But my promotion had to wait until after the snow had melted, and by then it was too late to save the fatherland.

The scene in Image Eleven takes place at a beach; the hills on the left in the background might be alluding to the Gulf of Manfredonia (Apulia), Wolfgang Lettl’s second home from the seventies onwards.

The rooster's body is made of car tires. A figure posing as a nude model is sitting on a wooden crate, severed shark heads are lying scattered on the ground.

A new era has dawned, the dangers of war are over, that might be a possible interpretation of the severed shark heads. The rooster's head lets out a pained cry, in the process of which its maggot-like body transforms into car tires. The nude model sitting on a wooden crate observes the rooster's metamorphosis.

Wolfgang Lettl becomes a surrealist.

In 1949 Wolfgang Lettl marries his Franziska who will become his model, his muse and his patron.
Referring to his painting "Venere Sipontina " (1987), he raved about her:"Having your own wife for a model is ideal, she is always available, and if something is missing in a painting, you can always have your wife lying there, she always looks good. With time you get to know her by heart, so you don’t need a model at all anymore, or very rarely for some detail. Clothespins, too, are always available to me, but although they have beautiful colours and lie still so nicely, they cannot compete with my Venus."

From Franziska’s perspective it sounds like this:"I met Wolfgang Lettl in 1945. It was love at first, second and third sight. In 1999 we celebrated our golden wedding anniversay. I continue to be his favorite model, although he has committed me to memory long ago. Since he cannot paint my intelligence, he quite often simply omits the head. Posing in paradise is a lot of fun; every once in a while an admiral comes to see me there and rests on my bosom."

The original working title of this series was:"12 Attempts to Paint a Rooster“

And thus the cycle ends logically for now, with the death of the rooster, shown in this image as the burning rooster crashing into the flowery meadow below, which in Lettl’s iconography, and following Henri Rousseau (1844-1910), somehow represents the original paradise.

Wolfgang Lettl painted this image at age 58. Little did he know that 30 years later, on February 10, 2008, still painting until his strength gave out and with a "Yes" on his lips, he would leave this world surrounded by his paintings and his loved ones.

But just as he is convinced that one's being does not end with one's death, this series does not end with Image 12. As a Surrealist he learns that other realities exist behind this reality.

And so he writes with reference to the painting "What Are You Looking at? - Look at Yourselves!" (2001):
Is the image in all its mysteriousness going to tell us that our reality and all those things beyond it that we can believe, know, and suspect, might not be the ultimate limit? That the abyss and the mysteriousness do not mean danger, but rather. . . the unimaginable plenitude of salvation?

The series ends with a self-portrait, not because Wolfgang Lettl enjoyed looking at or even painting himself; looking at himself in the mirror every morning while shaving was enough for him. His opus of 500-600 works created over more than 60 years includes just six self-portraits.

The self-portrait with a rooster's beak resulted from an inescapable interpretation of this series of paintings.

We end up realizing that what matters is not how to become a rooster, but to prove to be human in vastly divergent life situations, something for which the example of the rooster is only partially successful.

New challenges in life call on us to strive over and over again to be human with one another.

As humans we are never finished.

Credits: Story


1919 born in Augsburg

1940-1943 Communications Officer in Paris; first exposure to surreal art; paints watercolours of Parisian scenery in his spare time

1949 marries Franziska Link

Since 1954 independent painter. Receives commissions for murals, sgraffiti, mosaics, stained glass windows, portraits.
Develops a personal surrealist style.

Since 1963 participates in the "Große Kunstausstellung München". Member of the "New Munich Artists' Cooperative". Numerous solo shows.

1975-1995 establishes a second residence in Puglia (Italy). Inspired by the southern light he occasionally creates impressionistic paintings.

1993 - 2013 "Lettl Atrium - Museum for Surreal Art" in Augsburg

1998-1999 participates in four surrealist short films: "The Mad Lemon", "Riegele", "SUB","The Operation"

2000 major Retrospective in Augsburg:"Lettl - 80 Years".
In connection with this exhibition five multimedia students from the Technical University create, produce and present the project "Lettl in Motion" for the city of Augsburg.

2002 opening of the Lettl Museum in Lindau

2004 to mark his 85th birthday, the multimedia project "Doors" is produced.

2008 Lettl dies surrounded by his paintings.

Credits: All media
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