A small group of life-size, colorfully glazed ceramic figures stands motionless on the roof of the Fondation Beyeler. Silently, with heads bowed in a dignified manner, eyes closed, an introspective air, and their arms by their sides, they wait among their possessions: boxes, sacks, urns, tubs, and suitcases are grouped around them. These ‘strangers’ are standing on the edge, at the crossroads, on the precipice, or perhaps in front of the void. Are they leaving or arriving? Schütte unfolds a wordless narrative of homelessness, exile, flight, of being an outcast and unwanted. He called this figural group Die Fremden (The Strangers) and deliberately plays with the ambiguity of the term (it could also mean ‘The Foreigners’), with its lack of clarity: ‘strange’ is something that appears unknown and unfamiliar to us, something we may greet with curiosity—or with fear.
The convoys of refugees from the First Gulf War (1991), and the burning down of refugee shelters for asylum seekers in Germany, formed the contemporary political backdrop to these ceramic figures, which caused a stir at DOCUMENTA IX (1992). The issues of ‘strangeness’ and ‘foreignness’ are of course still part of the debate today, too. The co-existence of different cultures is normality only to a limited degree, whereas forced migration happens every day. Schütte’s figures are a memorial: the silent mourners of a welcome that was refused.
There are figures in Thomas Schütte’s sculptural oeuvre that have accompanied the artist since the earliest days of his career. United Enemies is one of these. Others include Vater Staat (Father State) and Mann im Matsch (Man in Mud). The latter marked the start of Schütte’s work as a sculptor: Mann im Matsch of 1982 was the very first figure he made. When the tiny man threatened to fall over, Schütte took the impromptu decision to cast him in wax. In this case, being stuck in the mud surprisingly involves a certain—and perhaps necessary—degree of stability. Since then, Schütte has produced both small and large versions of Mann im Matsch. The United Enemies you see here in the Foyer have likewise been the artist’s companions for many years, and exist in various materials and sizes. Next to those that are small and modellike, the viewer becomes a giant. Facing those that are larger than life, on the other hand, it is the viewer who is dwarfed. With United Enemies, the unusual scale relationships and changes of perspective that characterize Schütte’s figural works announce themselves right at the start of the exhibition. This is the first time the 2011 ensemble has been presented indoors. The 1994 version is on show in another room in the exhibition.
Thomas Schütte’s Stahlfrau Nr. 16 (Steel Woman No. 16) presents herself as a reclining Venus in rough-hewn form. She appears at first sight to be kneaded out of a soft material. Her torso, limbs and head are modeled in only rudimentary fashion. She is lying on her side and holds herself in position with her left arm, her oval head attentively raised. Two rings suggest her breasts. Her supple, curving body still carries the marks of the artist’s shaping hands and at the same time recalls reclining female figures by Picasso. Schütte’s sculpture has been cast in hard steel, however, and arranged on a kneehigh workbench. She sports a handle below one hip, as if she had only temporarily been deposited in the gallery.
Like the eight other sculptures in this room, Stahlfrau Nr. 16 is part of the Frauen (Women) series that Thomas Schütte produced between 1998 and 2006. In this series, which comprises eighteen figures in total, the artist explores not only the themes of woman and womanhood but also, above all, the wide-ranging formal possibilities of sculpture and its presentation. Just as he distorts the faces of many of his male heads into grimaces, so he deforms the female body and presents it in some cases as an object of sexual desire, in others as a lumpy mass devoid of all eroticism.
Schütte’s Frauen are lined up bench by bench in the main gallery at the Fondation Beyeler. These larger-than-life female sculptures were preceded by smaller-scale versions in clay, in most cases modeled with great spontaneity— a process still clearly palpable in the materiality of Stahlfrau Nr. 16.
The title Walser’s Wife was chosen by the artist himself and makes reference to the exhibition for which the sculpture was created: In the Spirit of Robert Walser, a series of six shows staged in 2011/12 at the Donald Young Gallery in Chicago. Walser’s Wife speaks silently of inner retreat. Robert Walser (1878–1956) is one of the most famous Swiss writers of the first half of the 20th century. The author, who wrote novels, collections of poems, and short stories, as well as publishing numerous articles in newspapers and magazines, lived and worked in great poverty. In the circumstances of Walser’s life, Schütte sees parallels with today’s blogger scene, which produces a vast wealth of texts on the Internet but usually finances itself in other ways. After suffering a breakdown, at the age of fifty Walser withdrew to a psychiatric institute, where he spent the rest of his days removed from world events. He never married. Emotional and mental states such as yearning, loneliness, and inspiration merge in this fictive portrait and form a sort of alternative to the relentless acceleration of the modern world. As evidenced by other works in our exhibition, Schütte has studied this type of female head on several occasions.
For Thomas Schütte, the Luise series was an experiment: it was the first time he had worked directly in front of a model. The artist had already painted the human figure, of course, but in the case of his self-portraits of 1975, for example, had based himself on a photograph. All his other ‘portraits’ are not reproductions but inventions, stereotypes, anonymous studies, or caustic caricatures, such as his Criminali series of bald-headed criminals (1992). By contrast, the drawings of 1996 were made directly in front of the sitter: Luise.
Look up and then copy down. Nothing more difficult than that. But what is the drawing supposed to capture? Outlines and contours? Do you draw what you see—or what you know? One false stroke, and immediately the portrait spirals out of control: the ‘likeness’ is no longer there and the whole thing must be started all over again. The ‘recording’ process takes just a few minutes. Schütte worked on this series over several months in 1996—and continues to add to it today. Certain sheets are removed, others destroyed. In these rapidly executed portraits, with their sensitive use of color and bold handling of black ink, Luise sometimes seems to emerge from the paper, sometimes not. In the latter case, she has provided only the starting point and inspiration for what are ‘merely’ fine drawings.