‘I always hope that in the end the work will be physically present. That the works lead to essential questions is important. I don’t feel the weight [of tradition] because when I do them, I’m not thinking about the history, I’m thinking about the future’
‘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’
‘With this series, Schütte is working in a field which, over the last century, has raised the same question. From Aristide Maillol to Henry Moore through to the Cubist sculptors, the reclining female figure has provided the space in which artists have explored a range of different kinds of abstraction within an ostensibly figurative format’
‘There are figures that are exclamation marks – and others that are question marks’
On a vast steel plinth, a bronze woman crouches. As if emerging from – or melting back into – some amorphous raw material, the figure is embryonic. Her left arm is cut off clean before the elbow; her right ends in an undefined, paw-like hand. Her knees contort, extra joints appearing involute beneath ample thighs and a muscular torso. Her shoulders are cross-hatched with deep lines as if her scapulae are morphing into wings, or bear the impression of some vast creator’s oversized thumbprint. Head cocked to the left and hair in a rough-hewn ponytail, she wears an expression of quizzical poise. Thomas Schütte’s Bronzefrau Nr. 13 (2003), from his iconic series of eighteen Frauen (Women), recasts the towering figurative tradition of the female nude: taking cues from classical sculpture, the bronzes of Rodin and Maillol and the Modernist language of Moore and Picasso, the artist seizes figuration itself, in all its shifting guises, as his subject. The female form provides a site of revisionism and transformation, a highly-charged zone of rich historical depth in which Schütte probes the human condition in all its nuance and complexity. Born from a vigorous scepticism of established understandings of art and its institutions, Bronzefrau Nr. 13 poses a sophisticated critique, radically refashioning monumental sculpture as a mode of exploration and questioning that refuses the solidity of definitive answers. Non-didactic and anti-heroic, the work is a deeply compelling presence that asks just how malleable are the ways in which we make or receive meaning from art, and how it can change the ways we see ourselves.
Integral to our view of the work is its steel platform. The forms of the eighteen Frauen were selected from small ceramic maquettes, 120 of which Schütte made between 1997 and 1999, and each of which was fashioned from a single piece of clay together with its base. As Schütte tells it, they ‘are not drawn from nude models – it may come to that in the future – and neither are they modelled or sketched. They are all made from ceramic effusions [here Schütte is playing with the phonetic similarity of German “Guss” (cast) and “Erguss” (effusion)]. Which is why they are cast. I believe they are all effusions of some sort’ (T. Schütte, quoted in U. Loock, Thomas Schütte, Cologne 2004, p. 173). Scaled up in steel, the plinth brings forth a wealth of associations. Its functional, table-like legs deconstruct the traditionally solid and polished pedestal of large-scale sculpture, highlighting the dramaturgy inherent in the sculptor’s act of presentation. The contrast between the plinth’s rusted, sharp-edged metal and the sleek bronze figure in the present work heightens this disjunction. As well as a performative platform, it recalls an artist’s workbench, enhancing the sense that we are witness to a primary substance in the throes of formation. Schütte exposes the bare architecture of monumental sculpture, making his Bronzefrau an object of active inquiry rather than passive reception. Any mood of bland totemic grandeur is undercut. As Penelope Curtis has written of the series, this mode of staging makes the figures’ status enthrallingly uncertain. ‘Their heavy steel tables – even if alluding surreptitiously to the bed – function primarily as stands for sculpture … Schütte has a close and interesting relationship to the plinth; much of his earlier work involved fashioning some kind of stand for mannequins and his architectural models. Their sense of loneliness, combined with potentiality (a cross between the accused prisoner and the demagogue) has often effected a powerful mix. Set apart, on a platform, these figures seemed to be both in the dock and on the podium. Similarly there is something in the monumental women that combines power and vulnerability; they are at once like victims and idols’ (P. Curtis, ‘Reclining Sculpture,’ in Thomas Schütte: Hindsight, exh. cat. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid 2009, p. 54).
This ambiguous duality of victim and idol is central to Schütte’s Frauen. With their variously missing limbs, elided faces and warped physiques, they raise inescapable associations of violence and destruction. The Venus de Milo lost her arms to the ravages of time; the holes and distortions in Henry Moore’s figures were understood in post-War Britain as marks of damage, echoing wounded landscapes; the disembodied and exaggerated erogenous zones of Gaston Lachaise’s bronze women manifest a fierce eroticism. What, then, does the inchoate figuration of Bronzefrau Nr. 13 signify? Curtis argues that ‘If we find these metal forms to be subjected to forces that we define as destructive rather than creative, we reveal our fundamental naivety. To what extent these works play on that naivety and are successful because of it, or to what extent they require us to become more sophisticated, is the question that perhaps lies at their heart. Statuary cannot but engage an empathetic response (that naivety is part of an attraction that is both terribly simple and horribly complex) but Schütte’s manoeuvre is to push the statue back into the realm where meaning is produced; back into the realm of the avant-garde’ (P. Curtis, ‘Reclining Sculpture,’ in Thomas Schütte: Hindsight, exh. cat. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid 2009, p. 64). By dismantling and quoting various figurative traditions, Schütte presents us not with a woman but, emphatically, with a sculpture. This is sculpture not as representation but as an engine of meaning, whose amalgamated workings Schütte seeks to reassess.
Further than simply examining or discrediting tradition, however, as Dieter Schwarz has observed, ‘Schütte’s aim is to breathe new life into this figurative world, which enjoyed such acceptance in the past that it was ultimately taken for granted’ (D. Schwarz, ‘Figures in Waiting,’ in Thomas Schütte: Frauen, exh. cat. Castello do Rivoli, Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Turin 2012, p. 18). Neither derivative nor purely critical, Schütte’s revisiting of sculptural convention is couched in a deep respect for the craft, labour and materials required. As Schütte says, ‘Finding the right form involves hard physical work’ (T. Schütte, quoted in U. Loock, Thomas Schütte, Cologne 2004, p. 173). The Frauen each take between six and eight months to complete, with complex processes of carving, grinding, and casting, and are produced in iterations of steel, bronze and aluminium, some of these patinated or lacquered. The present work finishes Nr. 13 in silk-smooth black bronze; an aluminium version sits in front of the Museum Ludwig, Cologne. Recalling the surface of works by Antony Gormley or Jeff Koons as much as by Moore and Rodin, these variegated Frauen propose a multivalent conversation between past and present, shaping something relevant and new from an approach long deemed outmoded. In his figures’ postures, too, Schütte delights in playing with poses so common in art history as to have become almost cliché: however deformed or transformed, the women are recognisably seated, reclining or crouched. Novelty for its own sake, Schütte believes, is folly. ‘A porcupine in the Himalayas is somehow exotic but interests not a soul … People are currently operating with the word conventional but that in itself is so conventional. As if it were an achievement to do something completely over the top. Yet it doesn’t touch a soul, it affects no one. You are delighted when it has disappeared’ (T. Schütte, quoted in U. Loock, Thomas Schütte, Cologne 2004, p. 170).
If Schütte’s is an art of questions rather than conclusions, it does offer a positive answer to a problem raised by Dieter Schwarz, with particular relevance to Schütte’s post-War German background. ‘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, ‘Figures in Waiting,’ in Thomas Schütte: Frauen, exh. cat. Castello do Rivoli, Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Turin 2012, p. 18). Emerging in the 1970s alongside Daniel Buren and other early exponents of art as a means of institutional critique, Schütte has always been alert to how ideology of any sort can form oppression, and how control, authority and memory are embedded in public artworks. ‘There are figures that are exclamation marks,’ Schütte says, ‘and others that are question marks’ (T. Schütte, quoted in U. Loock, ‘Public Figures,’ Frieze, February 2013). Rather than extending the life of figuration for its own sake, Schütte also asks what its social usefulness might be. In all its parody and pragmatism, Bronzefrau Nr. 13 forges figurative sculpture anew, freed from artistic or historical dogma. Urgent and enduring in bronze, the work stands as an open-ended testament to human creation – and the human form – as a body of pure, protean potential: a place where we can work out our relationships with ourselves, and with the powers that shape us.