Creation of the “Propellerfrau”

Polke's relationship to the painting "Propellerfrau"

Polke’s relationship to the painting “Propellerfrau” was special. The painting had not left the studio until shortly before his death.

Many collectors and dealers had already tried in vain to convince him to sell the “propeller woman”. But Polke kept his conviction and kept his favorite painting for decades. Even his internationally renowned gallerists Holly Solomon (New York), Anthony d’Offay (London), Marian Goodman (New York) and Michael Werner (Cologne) were not allowed to exhibit or offer it.


The creation of the painting “Propellerfrau” fell into a time marked by the Cold War, the arms race and the “Space Race” of the great powers USA and USSR on the way to the first manned moon landing.

The USA were the first nation to bring a man on the moon in 1969.

Beyond that, however, it was above all the images from advertising, the world of commodities and comics that carried the “American Dream” into the world.


Sigmar Polke took up all this in his “Propellerfrau”: the rockets are labeled “US” or “United States”, the viewer sees the globe in space always in a position that shows the American continent in front.

Sigmar Polke had already discovered the motif of the universe before the creation of the “Propellerfrau”. He first processed it in his painting “Pasadena” in 1968 with the grid technique developed by him.

His watercolor work “Ufos” in the same year already showed Polke’s artistic exploration of science fiction comics. Also in 1968 he makes fun of American space travel in the painting “Polke als Astronaut”. He painted himself in his typical self-deprecating way as a conqueror of the universe – grinning and with square eyes.


As with the “Propellerfrau”, a printed decoration fabric with space motifs serves as a background. The motive of the “Propellerfrau” must have been a very important one for Polke. In 2002, he produced a series of prints for the German Lufthansa, which bears the name “Propellerfrau” and has the same composition.


Sigmar Polke satirises the heroic missions into space in the “Propellerfrau” with his own playful irony. His spaceship is a simple prewar propeller plane, as he had already planned in his sketchbook. There is no pilot, the plane flies leaderless. The supersonic drive is provided by an oversized propeller, which consists of two ghostly women presenting the title of the painting at the same time.

So the “Propellerfrau” races through space, passing a colorful galactic strip wall that reminds of the “Stars and Stripes” of the American flag with its golden stars painted on it. While the clouds are woven part of the curtain fabric, Sigmar Polke painted the golden stars with his hand.

The target of the propeller machine is at the bottom left. A planet that resembles an apple but is already inhabited, clearly recognizable by the oversized shoe prints.

The painting is typical of Polke’s parody of Western achievements: for him, art is not a product of higher spiritual inspiration, but a joke.

With this persiflage, the work joins a central phase of Sigmar Polke’s work at the end of the 1960s. In the aesthetics of pop art, the pictorial world of comics and space travel is presented as a cliché of the American mass media.

Polke’s ironic suggestion is also evident in the choice of painting material. In the “Propellerfrau”, he uses two curtains and decorative fabrics and no primed canvas. The fabric with the space motifs was originally intended as a decoration or cover for children’s rooms, as well as the fabric with the bright stripes and the woven clouds. Polke deliberately sewed two fabrics, that show a strong contrast in terms of color and composition, into one “canvas”.

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