130 drawings and gouaches on paper, 1927-1928
This dossier of drawings—all stained (probably by ink)—is the earliest extant work by Frank. The assumption that the sheets were stained accidentally seems farfetched, as some of the blots clearly suggest figurations. Intentional staining also seems typical of Frank’s artistic antics: a bent for illusion and deceit, a scatological compulsion, and also a self destructive tendency, which might have found expression in the willful desecration of this exceptionally labor-intensive work.
But the stains are not the only anomalous trait of the portfolio. Unlike any known sketchbook in art history, the portfolio contains a preparatory study for each and every painting Frank was to produce later on. This fact, considered along with the early date, gave rise to two contradictory theories. According to the first, which perceives the dates as genuine, Frank planned her creative development in advance. The portfolio thus enables us to perceive Frank’s oeuvre (and, indeed, her life), as a single gesamtkunstwerk of monstrous scale. If so, Frank’s leitmotif is a parodic reversal of accepted notions concerning artistic inspiration and creation. This interpretation seems all the more stunning as Frank’s style did, in fact, evolve substantially over the years, and clear connections between biography and subject matter in her art can be easily traced.
Another possibility is that Frank backdated the drawings later, perhaps even in the 40’s (other artists, such as Malevich and de Chirico back-dated works, an act motivated either by a better market for early works, or by the will to retrospectively revise the artist’s history). Regardless of the answers to these questions, the comprehensive scope of the portfolio offers an excellent introduction to the work of Justine Frank, It providing a lexical key to her themes, symbols and tropes.