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A monumental interpretation of the human form twisting upwards towards the sky, Großer Geist Nr. 6 is an iconic sculpture from one of Thomas Schütte’s best-known series of works. Made between 1995 and 2004, no two of the Großer Geist are exactly alike, with each displaying an individualized personality. The scultures are widely recognized as being definitive to Schütte’s career, and other Großer Geist are now in the permanent collections of several major museums, including the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, the Museum of Modern Art in Chicago, the Beyeler Foundation in Zurich, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Executed in 1996, Großer Geist Nr. 6 is one of the earlier examples that Schütte made, and embodies the alluring, lyrical energy that he manages to capture in each of these alien, yet somehow strangely familiar, figures. In spite of its colossal size, and the rich green patina and solid weight of the bronze, there is a light-hearted sense of fleeting movement and joviality to Großer Geist Nr. 6. Arms lifted high above its head, looking up to the heavens, the figure appears as though it has been captured mid-movement, and is just about to move fluidly into another expressive and supple pose. At over two and a half meters tall, it is a friendly giant: playful, surprising and beguiling.
Although Großer Geist is usually translated as ‘big spirits,’ the title can also mean ‘large ghosts’ or ‘great minds’; an ambiguity that suits the experience of being in their presence. It is the viewer’s own understanding of the Großer Geist’s gestures and movements that takes precedence, for Schütte has imparted upon his ethereal creations an independence that leaves their mysterious physical features, unexplained postures, and their indeterminate facial expressions open to interpretation. When grouped together, as they often are when exhibited, the figures interact with each other as if they have their own language and purpose, and the viewer is an interloper on a strange ritual. We react to their robust physical presence and material complexities. As he has said: “The things you cannot talk about - these are essential. I believe that material, form and color have their own language that cannot be translated. Direct experience is much more touching than media, photographs and so on” (T. Schütte, quoted in J. Lingwood, “David Lingwood in conversation with “Thomas Schütte,” Thomas Schütte, London, 1998, p. 22).
The Großer Geist are an effective realization of Schütte’s long standing interest in what he has called “the grammar of character” (T. Schütte, “Man kann auch Schattenboxen oder Weiterstochern im Nebel. Ein Gespräch von Heinz-Norbert Jocks,” Kunstforum International No. 128, 1994, p. 252). He had begun to explore this concept in earlier works such as Die Fremden (The Strangers), shown at Documenta IX in 1992 and now in the collection of the Tate, and later in Untitled Enemies, the satirical, puppet-like, warped male forms perpetually bound together, conceived the following year. Both feature distorted, individualized characters, and were influenced by Schütte’s time in Rome, where having been awarded a grant he lived for a year. “I was [in Rome] in 1992,” the artist has explained, “the year there was a peaceful revolution in Italy where the heads of State and a lot of prominent people were being exposed and discredited and sent to jail. So the caricature and the satire was a reality…The first big set of [United Enemies] was made in Rome…I used by own clothes to wrap them in and form the body. For me they were puppets and not related to classical art…I disciplined myself to modeling each head for one hour only. They have no hair, so the face is more concentrated, more general, because hair always suggests a particular period.”(T. Schütte quoted in “David Lingwood in conversation with “Thomas Schütte,” Thomas Schütte, London, 1998, p. 29).
Schütte then developed these striking early investigations into the expressive potential of figurative sculpture into a series of smaller-scale aluminum figures, cast from wax moulds. These figures, known as Kleine Geist (Little Spirit or Ghost), came to be the direct inspiration for the Großer Geist. They arose as part of a collaborative exhibition with the British sculptor Richard Deacon at the Lisson Gallery in London in 1995. The exhibition, which was entitled Them and Us, displayed works that were the products of an ongoing debate between the two artists regarding some of sculptures most central concerns, such as the relationships between man and monument, and scale and space. As with the larger Geister, when displayed together the Kleine Geist form an eccentric, imaginary community that interact with each other in curiously humorous and human way. Speaking about the relationship between these smaller figures, Schütte recalled: “They stood around for a while and played various roles, each time with something else...They always relate to their surroundings, to the space, to the viewer, to each other.” (T. Schütte, quoted in M. Winzen, “Collect Yourself. Ein Gespräch mit Thomas Schütte” in M. Winzen (ed.), Zuspiel. Siemens Kulturprogramm, Ostfildern 1997, p. 111). As the title of the exhibition suggests, the Kleine Geists were part of the sculptors’ investigations into the idea of ‘otherness’. Like beings from another realm, each figure causes us to recalibrate our surroundings, our own sense of scale and even perhaps our understanding of our interactions with each other.
The Kleine Geists were constructed from long strands of wax twisted together in the form of spirals, before being immersed in a liquid wax, scaled up, and cast in either bronze, mirror-finished aluminium or steel. The unique style and posture of each individual figurine was therefore directly invoked during their creation, born of the artist’s experimental interaction with the material in the moment. Although dramatically magnified in size, the Großer Geist still convey the same palpable tactility that resulted from their intuitive inception. By casting these forms into such solid, permanent industrial materials, Schütte forges a compelling dialogue between his solid, earthbound materials and the precarious, ethereal beings to which they give rise. “You have to create a balance between the big things on one hand,” he told Hans Ulrich Obrist, “which you need to accompany strategically and which are not physically taxing, and the small, lyrical, handmade things on the other.” (T. Schütte, quoted in H. Ulrich Obrist, ‘Reality Production’, Mousse Magazine, accessed at http://moussemagazine.it/articolo.mm?id=677).
The method by which the Geisters are created are exemplary of the thread of experimentation and delight in materials that runs consistently through Schütte’s works. “The form mostly comes from dealing with technical problems, and the material,” the artist has said (T. Schütte, quoted in interview with J. Lingwood in J. Heynen (ed.), Thomas Schütte, London, 1998, p. 22). Studying under some of the most important and pioneering artists of the 20th century, notably Gerhard Richter, Gunther Uecker, and Blinky Palermo at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in the 1970s, Schütte has helped move contemporary art beyond the predominantly minimalist and conceptual concerns of the previous generation. Although he has used a variety of different media since his student days, including painting and photography, Schütte has spoken of how he does not like to distinguish between them. Viewing each strand as interchangeable and mutually dependent, the artist explains that they “all work off each other--in a kind of balance of contradictions.” (T. Schütte, ibid., p. 31).
These contrasting forces are at their most compelling in Großer Geist Nr. 6., and it is easy to see why Schütte has spoken of the creation of these much admired works almost as a life giving process: “I would rather talk with my hands and through forms and let these creatures live their own lives and tell their own stories. Avoiding certain fixed positions is important to me, avoiding being too classical or too predictable. I always hope that in the end the work will be physically present. That the works lead to essential questions is important.”(T. Schütte, quoted in Thomas Schütte, London, 1998, p. 22). Encasing dynamism and movement within immoveable steel, Großer Geist Nr. 6 almost evokes an act of transcendence, as if the steel structure is the last remaining trace of the spirit that may have once inhabited it.