From model to monument – Thomas Schütte, today’s classic
Līga Gaile 13/12/2016
Thomas Schütte: United Enemies Moderna Museet, Stockholm Through 15, January 2017
Thomas Schütte (1954), one of Germany’s most influential artists of the current day, may be most renown for his sculptures, but his body of work is actually quite broad in terms of both format and expression. Schütte describes himself as a seismograph that registers changes taking place in the surrounding world. He touches upon eternal questions that deal with the conditions of human existence – freedom and responsibility, power and vulnerability – allowing the viewer to come up with his or her own answers. In early October, Stockholm’s Museum of Modern Art (in cooperation with curator Matilda Olof-Ors) opened a comprehensive exhibition of Schütte’s works, titled “Thomas Schütte: United Enemies”.
Varying in both scale and materials (as characteristic of late modernists), Schütte’s oeuvre encompasses installations, architectural models, drawings, prints, and sculptures – from very small to truly monumental in terms of size. An indirect, often politically motivated subtext can be sensed. In terms of emotion, Schütte’s works are inhabited by a combination of subtle heavy-heartedness and humor. Life seems to balance on the edge of chaos, the familiar looks distant and absurd, and the intimate and personal contrasts with the monumental and authoritarian.
Thomas Schütte was born in 1954 in Oldenburg, in northwestern Germany. An oft-mentioned turning point on the artist’s creative journey is 1972, when an eighteen-year-old Schütte went to see the documenta V exhibition in Kassel. As Schütte himself has said, the art industry had not yet developed in 1970s Germany, and his own contact with art was very marginal. In contrast to this blank space, at documenta Schütte caught sight of surprising art forms such as white-painting, and artworks that looked to have been created by mental patients; it seemed as if even “nothing” could be presented as art – in this case, performance art, which the young artist now saw for the first time. The modern art that Schütte saw left such a powerful influence on him that the following year, he, in his own words, “drew a few drawings”, and was accepted to the Düsseldorf Arts Academy. 
In his interviews, Schütte fondly recalls his school years – the impassioned professors and the creative atmosphere and spirit of equality that reigned at the art school. 1976 could be said to be the next important moment on Schütte’s creative journey, which is when Gerhard Richter (1932) – the eminent German artist and painter – became his teacher. Schütte describes Richter as polite but unforgiving, as in rhetorically asking his students if they’ve ever thought of doing something else besides art; unsurprisingly, targeted students spent more than one sleepless night in the grips of self-doubt. Schütte admits that Richter has been the greatest influence on his body of work. Richter taught his students that if you’re not reaching success on your chosen path, your only hope is to set yourself either a new goal, or a different form of expression and/or scale. Schütte also admired Richter’s lack of pathos in his art and way of thinking, as well as the fact that Richter’s posing of questions and introduction of a healthy dose of self-doubt was not aimed only at his students, but that Richter himself struggled with these issues.
As a student, Schütte believed that it was important for art to be useful. At first he expressed this through the “borrowing” of friends’ walls so that he could create artworks on them. Gradually this idea grew into a lasting interest in architecture. By 1981, Schütte was already showing his first architectural models in the legendary “Westkunst” exhibition. The original commission was to erect the buildings true to size, but the exhibition’s organizers went through their funding too quickly, which resulted in Schütte making the pragmatic choice to exhibit just the models of the planned structures. Architectural models in various scales and types are still a core part of Schütte’s creative work today – he believes that the language of models is a way to make his ideas comprehensible to all, from adults to children.
Over the years, several of Schütte’s architectural models have been built true to scale, such as one of the models from the series “One Man Houses” (2003-2005), which is now on view in the Stockholm exhibition; a life-size version of the house stands in Roanne, France, and it is entirely habitable.
Schütte’s architectural drawings from 1980 – 2006 have been assembled in the portfolio “Architektur Modelle” (2006), many of which can be seen in the Stockholm exhibition. Several of the drawings have an ironic tone to them, such as the one for a museum that looks like a crematorium with a huge smokestack, or the one of a huge gravestone for himself. With other models, it can be clearly seen that Schütte has allowed the material to dictate their shape: the look of the “One Man Houses” models are dependent upon their main component – ready-made aluminum tubes intended for ventilation systems; likewise, a potato chip and a matchbox made up the 2011 model titled “Pringles” (which then served as an early prototype for the actual 2014 Skulpturenhalle building in Düsseldorf, home to the Thomas Schütte Stiftung, or foundation). Over time, Schütte has increasingly begun to value the lasting artistic legacy of architecture.
Regardless of the artist’s great interest in architecture, Schütte is often lauded as the most interesting sculptor of our time. Already at the entrance, visitors to Moderna Museet are greeted by the enormous metal sculpture “Vater Staat” (“Father State”, 2010) – a monumental figure that authoritatively surveys the exhibition’s visitors. In his distinctive way, with this piece Schütte uses monumental sculpture – the goal of which for centuries has been to glorify heroes and historic achievements – to portray the state as an old man. The man’s facial features are intelligent and weary, his gaze – relentless and piercingly observant. Conversely, the figure’s dynamic-less, loosely draped body contrasts with its definitive and seemingly implacable facial expression; viewers are left to interpret the contradictory presence according to their prerogative.
One of the most characteristic features of Schütte’s art are his repeated returns to previous themes, motifs, and forms – in order to develop and transform them. When asked how he can so effortlessly return to themes that he started ten years ago, Schütte reveals that he has both an analog archive (which he manages) and a digital one (which is run by his assistant). Consequently, it only takes a couple of minutes to find an old work, and so, work on a new interpretation can commence almost immediately.
The exhibition’s central figures – the monumental “United Enemies” (2011) sculptures – originate from a series of small figural works that were made in 1992, when Schütte was in Rome for half a year on a grant. Schütte himself says that the inspiration for this series came from the historical paintings that he saw in Rome, as well as from the older generation of Rome’s inhabitants, with whom he came into contact on the streets or in public transport on a daily basis. Another influence was the political “cleansing” that what going on in Italy at the time – many political and societal figures, including the museum’s director, were jailed in short order.
At first they were made as individual marionette-like figures with caricatured faces, bodies messily wrapped in rags, and three stick legs; later, Schütte paired them up and placed them under a glass dome. The word “united” in the title of the piece leads one to think of unity and conciliation, but the screwed-up grimaces on their faces seem, in contrast, unnatural and forced. Schütte has said that the title for the work comes from the campaign for the fashion label United Colors of Benetton, which, according to Schütte, illustrates the contradictions and hate that occur in society.
In 2011 Schütte returned to the subject: with the aid of a computer, he enlarged pairs from the series to a height of four meters and then poured them in bronze. He had, consequently, created a monument to narrow-mindedness and hopelessness, which is in direct contrast to the historical goal of monumental sculpture – to glorify heroes and prominent figures. This sort of paradox can be seen in two other series currently featured at the Moderna Museet: the heads from the series “Wichte” (2006), and the “Fratelli” (2012) busts; these pieces have been lined up against the walls of the exhibition, and they greet visitors by observing them from above – much like the heads of Communist Party leaders once did in Soviet culture palaces, or the antique busts that one still finds in museums.
Traditionally, busts are made to portray socially notable people. In Schütte’s series “Fratelli” (“Brothers”), we see four substantial busts of four unnamed men – although the form is historical, the viewer knows nothing about the history of these men. Next to these, the Moderna Museet has exhibited the series “Wichte” (“Imps”), which consists of twelve smaller heads with caricatured, seemingly quickly-formed faces.
Having walked through this gallery of heads and busts, the viewer arrives at what the exhibition’s layout has naturally marked as the hall’s climactic stage – the monumental sculptural assemblage “Krieger” (“Warrior”): two enormous wooden figures depicting warriors. These are not young and anxious warriors of the kind usually portrayed in war memorials. The bodies of these men appear to be deformed and scarred by long battles. The body of one is shredded, while the other lacks arms; but in spite of the serious subject matter, the artist’s ironic interpretation can be seen in the execution of the piece. Schütte humorously plays with scale, the properties of various materials, and expression – one can see that the helmets have been made from metal bottle caps, and the warriors’ only weapons are ineffective wooden sticks. The version on view in the exhibition came about by increasing the original bronze models 20 times in size with a 3D scanner, and then recreating them in the final material, which was then worked on to achieve a shiny and antiqued appearance.
In order to illustrate Schütte’s broad creative spectrum, the exhibition also includes the early photographic series “Skizzen zum Projekt Großes Theater” (Sketches for Large Theater”, 1980), in which the main characters are toy action figures from the Star Wars and Star Trek film and TV franchises. This piece was created during Schütte’s final years at the Düsseldorf Arts Academy. Perhaps the work was inspired by the spirit of protest which governed the Academy at the time – against both the daily lies of the petty bourgeois, and the intellectually militant ideas touted by youth groups in Western Germany in those days. The fictional persons in this series have aggregated in front of a grandiose stage on which is depicted an airplane pulling a banner with various phrases: Freiheit (the German for “freedom”), Alles in Ordnung (“everything is in order”), and Hoffnung (“hope”). The phrases seem to be in direct contrast to the overarching feeling of guilt that Germany struggled with after WWII, and the little figurines here serve as agitators with an unclear goal.
Also on view in the exhibition are works from two completely new series done in glazed ceramics: “Gartenzwerge” (2015-16), and “Grosse Doppelköpfe” (2015). The first, which translates as “Garden Gnomes”, visually echoes off of chess pieces or characters from the 1920s experimental scenography of “Das Triadisches Ballett” (“Triadic Ballet”), by German painter, sculptor and choreographer Oskar Schlemmer (1888-1943). This series also contains echos from Schütte’s “Die Fremde” (“The Strangers”), a famous and much-discussed piece that he made for the 1992 documenta IX exhibition. Also fabricated in glazed ceramic, this group of figures consisting of various people, luggage, and vases, was interpreted as a statement on the antagonistic attitude of some Germans towards immigrants.
The huge heads in one of Schütte’s latest series of works, “Grosse Doppelköpfe” (“Big Double-Heads”), have two faces just like the Roman deity Janus – one looked to the future, while the other to the past. Done in Schütte’s prized manner of choice, these sculptures are a combination of the physical images and expressions of two individuals, thereby depicting conflict – a theme that the artist returns to again and again.
Drawings also occupy a notable part of Schütte’s oeuvre. Sometimes they serve as sketches for other works, sometimes they serve as a visual diary. Likewise, his ink and chalk drawings, supplemented with watercolors, are bona fide artworks in themselves. Short phrases or strings of words often pop up in theses works. Word games, language collusion, and deliberate typographic errors create new meanings that are at once banal and surprisingly dead on target.
Schütte’s seemingly playful interpretations of the genre of art history, as well as of classic themes and techniques, are well-illustrated in the exhibition by way of the sculpture series “Frauen” (“Women”, 1998-2009). Schütte began the series when he became a father, and had therefore decided to work in formats that would allow him to spend more time in his studio that was not far from home. The series consists of 18 large-format sculptures, with each piece poured into three different materials: bronze, metal, and aluminum.
A lazily reclining, naked female body is a recurrent theme in art history. Schütte not only gives in to his fascination with experimenting with various metals, but he also plays around with references to art history (Picasso, Matisse, Rodin, Moore) and interprets them in his characteristically ironic manner. In this case, the artist is no longer interested in faces, but in their polar opposite – the body; in this series, the body is often caricatured to the same degree as the male faces in Schütte’s other works. Moderna Museet has three works from this series on display: “Bronzenfrau Nr. 7” (Bronze Woman No. 7”, 2001), “Stahlfrau” (“Steel Woman No. 7”, 2001), and “Aluminiumfrau Nr. 7” (“Aluminum Woman No. 17”, 2009).
At the exit end of the exhibition, visitors are escorted out by the chained and apparently captured-for-eternity “Efficiency Men” (2005). Visually, the sculptures are reminiscent of the early versions of “United Enemies” – the primal ones made from modeling clay. However, these skeleton-like bodies are made from metal, and the heads – from silicon. The figures seem to be suffering from complete and utter exhaustion; they are draped with blankets instead of clothes, thereby bringing accident victims to mind. The figures’ feet are chained so that they can move only by taking small, coordinated steps – in sharp contrast to the referenced “efficiency”. They look fragile and unhappy, but at the same time, their stares contain something unsettling. These efficient men are often translated as the artist’s comment on international investment firms at the time when they were profiting off of German industry by demanding higher efficiency, but refusing to take any social accountability upon themselves. Unfortunately, today’s political and social environment offers great opportunity to interpret the piece the same way again.
When leaving the exhibition, the viewer again passes by the “Vaader Staat” figure. The man with a serious expression sternly looks down at passersby. Perhaps, after being inspired by the artist, your mind may now accusingly ask if this stern and strict sentry may not himself be responsible for what is in the exhibition. Of course, there is no ready answer here either; interpretation is up to the individual.
Although Thomas Schütte often stresses in interviews that superficial honors and creative competition don’t interest him, he has taken part in numerous exhibitions throughout the world. Schütte’s works can be found in many museums and private collections, and he has received several awards, including the prestigious Golden Lion at the 2005 Venice Biennale. Often called an admirable forger of one’s own path, and venerated as probably the finest sculptor of our day, Schütte is undoubtedly a modern-day classic. Which makes it even more wonderful that his works can still be experienced at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm up through 15 January 2017.