Carrying the weight of history in its graceful, undulating form, Stahlfrau No. 8 (2003) is a vision of abstract beauty from Thomas Schütte’s landmark series of Frauen (Women). Unfurled upon a vast steel plinth, it offers an enigmatic reinterpretation of the reclining female nude, transforming its time-honoured subject into a site of otherworldly ambiguity. Though forged in the likeness of her ancestors – from the sculptures of Moore and Maillol to the lithe muses of Picasso and Modigliani – her raw embryonic form seems to speak of a new dawn. The work is one of eighteen such sculptures that Schütte began in 1998, each cast in steel, bronze and aluminum. Working at the turn of the millennium, the artist launched a powerful critique of monumental sculpture, challenging a genre that – since antiquity – had been loaded with ideological promise. In its most recent history, it had been exploited by the dictatorial regimes of the twentieth century, littering the European landscape with its totems. In his Frauen, Schütte sought to subvert these associations, transforming the heroic figure into what he described as a ‘question mark’. Faceless and formless, they are no longer statements – steadfast and unmoving – but rather elemental shape-shifters, open to scrutiny and reassessment. In works such as the present, they are captured in the process of creation, the steel plinth evoking an artist’s workbench or operating table. In the familiar yet alien form of Stahlfrau No. 8, Schütte overwrites the shadows of the past, leaving an image of liberation in their wake.
Despite their riposte to the lessons of history, Schütte’s Frauen are nonetheless rooted in a deep respect for sculptural craft. ‘Finding the right form,’ he says, ‘involves hard physical work’ (T. Schütte, quoted in U. Loock, Thomas Schütte, Cologne 2004, p. 173). Their shapes were selected from 120 small ceramic maquettes made between 1997 and 1999, each of which was fashioned from a single piece of clay together with its base. At a foundry in Düsseldorf, these figures were recreated in Styrofoam on a large scale, and worked upon in further detail to produce a mould. Each sculpture subsequently took between six and eight months to complete, involving complex processes of carving, grinding and casting: techniques that had largely been side-lined in artistic practice following the Second World War. Over the course of the series, Schütte took increasing liberties with his figures, truncating their limbs and contorting their forms into metamorphic configurations. As Dieter Schwarz writes, ‘In his treatment of the materials and of the theme of the female figure, which had become such a taboo in contemporary art, a whole array of ambivalent feelings broke through ever more powerfully – attraction and aggression, repulsion and fascination – all embedded in a form that no longer complied with any binding tradition and had to be reinvented time after time’ (D. Schwarz, ‘Figures in Waiting’, in Thomas Schütte: Frauen, exh. cat., Castello do Rivoli, Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Turin, 2012, p. 16).
Throughout his practice, Schütte has repeatedly probed the relationship between art and ideology. His United Enemies, begun during the early 1990s, were similarly interested in dismantling the heroism of sculpture, transforming proud effigies into warped, deformed monsters. During a trip to Rome at the time of the ‘Clean Hands’ scandal, Schütte became attuned to the long-standing connection between public monuments and political power. His upbringing in post-war Germany, too, was influential in this regard, furnishing him with a deep awareness of the intersection between art and authority. What hope was there, then, for the future of figurative sculpture? As Schwarz asks, ‘Did the Fascist dictatorships in Europe, which appropriated figurative art for their own ends, destroy its legitimacy in the artistic consciousness once and for all, or is there a way to continue the figurative line, without descending into archaism or conservatism?’ (D. Schwarz, ibid., p. 18). Ultimately, Schütte’s Frauen offer a hopeful response to this question. By quoting and undermining tradition, he refashions the human form as a site of creative potential: a place where art-making might begin afresh. Writhing with protean force, his figures break free from the narratives of the past, no longer demanding acceptance but rather inviting us to question them. Here, in the image of the female nude, Schütte makes a powerful case for sculpture’s rebirth.