In Willy, Thomas Schütte memorializes former German Chancellor Willy Brandt and Nobel Peace Prize winner, as Christ on the cross. Nails are inserted into Brandt’s caricatured head, bowed forward and eyes narrowed as if in pain. The wooden bows of a metaphoric cross appear outstretched where arms might be and small bells dangle from the end of either beam, to ring in the permanence of the moment. Willy hangs from a thin stretch of yarn, cloaked in a peachy swath reminiscent of Christ’s robes. Two green bottles have been supplanted for his legs. It is as if Schütte carefully considered the fragility of the glass and intentionally hung the figure; the weight of the body unable to withstand the delicate material. Together we witness Willy at his moment of glorified greatness and death, made lasting in Schütte’s impersonation and interpretation on Brandt’s life’s work.
In 1992, Schütte was working in Rome at Villa Massimo. That year Italy was especially riddled with corruption and a peaceful revolution emerged where many prominent government figures were uncovered, discredited, and sent to jail. Schütte simultaneously spent extensive hours visiting the Capitoline Museum and the rooms where hundred of heads of state are interned in marble, their permanence glorified row after row. The influence of these stately figures with their pristinely carved and dignified facial features may have influenced Schütte’s exaggerated depiction of Willy, who while recognizable in Schütte’s depiction possesses more embellished features than he actually appeared in the flesh.
Brandt was by no means the perfect politician. He was the illegitimate son of working-class parents and was a political exile in Norway throughout Hitler’s reign, until 1948. However Schütte’s depiction seems to recall, in contrast to more typical critical renditions of political figures he crafted, the cherished memory of Brandt the martyr that many Germans carried. Here is a Brandt who fought for modesty and peace in what would become ostpolitik, leading grueling negotiations as Chancellor on behalf of West Germany with the Soviet Union, Poland and East Germany to help ease Central European pressures, for which the following year he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
In this sense, Willy is a unique component of Schütte’s oeuvre. Willy is a seminal work, exemplifying the artist’s principal aesthetic and political concerns. The work is directly related to the United Enemies produced between 1993 and 1997 and considered one of the most iconic series by the artist. According to Michael Govan, writing as Dia Director in 2003 preface to Schütte’s exhibition: “In the wake of a remarkable surge of artistic production in postwar Germany, Thomas Schütte’s work stands out among a younger generation of artists for its ambition, its diversity in its form and media, and its awareness of the historical, social, economic, cultural, as well as personal, conditions of twentieth-century Germany” (M. Govan, Scenewright, Gloria in memoria, In medias res, exh. cat., New York, 2002, p. 6).