It’s difficult not to overemphasize the political importance of Thomas Schütte’s sculptures. His unrelenting discourse on the machinations, exercise and hypocrisy of power is so vividly brought to life across a body of work which inhabits and then turns the knife on this same discourse. It’s a brilliant and unique oeuvre to which we should all be paying more attention. That said, I was surprised that the current exhibition at the Monnaie de Paris, Trois Actes, didn’t make more of Schütte’s ongoing contestation with the discourses of power as they are played out in political and cultural institutions and the public spaces they fashion.
Visitors must walk through the courtyards to enter the exhibition, and rather than stopping to interact with Schütte’s monumental warriors, it’s best to start inside to familiarize oneself with his varied and extensive oeuvre. The gradual discovery of his artistic trajectory ultimately gives the monumental bronzes an extraordinary impact that they might not otherwise have. In the first rooms of this exhibition, we meet limbless, contorted aluminium women’s bodies with gaping holes where we expect to see their sex and their heads. The stage is set by this confrontation with violence and manipulation before moving into a small corridor-like room in which grotesque mask like ceramic busts are placed high up on the wall, resting on steel shelves. The exhibition flyer discusses the busts for their reminder of those of Roman Emperors and the satirical drawings and prints of the 19th century Honoré Daumier. However, these works are much more than a reach to familiar images of the past.
The Wichte (2006) are ceramic fired busts of gnomes with grotesque and deformed faces. Of course, they are also beautiful because they are coloured in blue and sea green, black and grey. They are also shiny and sensuous. Each gnome with its misshapen face reveals the character of the person it represents, at least this is the claim made and the narrative told by the bust of the Roman Emperor. He is as noble and perfect as the kingdom over which he rules. In reality, Schütte reminds us, faces are filled with inexplicable emotions, realities that make them human, and in this case, the dignity of dispossession. Like all of Schütte’s sculptures, the Wichte are also about display. The steel of their plinths is included in the materials of the sculpture. Thus the plinth or shelf, its placement, and where we stand in relationship to the sculpture is as important as the object itself. We look up to men of importance and power. But here we find little people placed high up, inviting us to strain our necks to see them, demanding our attention. Unlike the rich and the powerful whose busts are placed on plinths in museums all over the ancient world, we are not able to see figures creatures in their entirety; they are too high to contemplate fully. Ironically, however, men of small stature look down on us, from above. They are given the power of evasion and, simultaneously, of looking.
The United Enemies (1993-94) for whom Schütte is most well know, even though they were rejected and criticized at the time of their making, are frightening, curious, painful and touching all at the same time. Schütte re-makes them again and again over the course of his career in multiple media. They appear in the 1990s as plasticine and clay figures, put on display under glass domes. He represents these same figures in photographs, and then most recently, in 2010 they become giant cast bronze and steel sculptures who hover like wounded warriors through the courtyards at Monnaie de Paris. These figures also have deformed faces, but by the time they are cast as giants, we are so used to their unusual faces that we are captivated by their misshapen and broken bodies. As warriors, they tower over us, threatening with their power, and yet, they are tethered together, forever united but struggling to separate. They are prisoners to each other, the enemy. In the courtyards, the sculpted fabrics wrapped around metal bodies are hoisted up, exposing their peg legs, like amputated soldiers who nevertheless manage to walk. They are resilient, but fragile in their deformity and vulnerability.
One of the most powerful pieces on display is The Third Sister (2013); a woman weeping. This doesn’t sound so exciting, but the bust is made of steel. Tears fall down her cheeks from closed eyes. Sadness, suffering, melancholy and death are not such strange figures for a sculptor to capture, but steel, bronze, glass and aluminium are also not the materials in which such fragile human emotions and states are conventionally cast. The execution of the impossible—capturing tender emotions in inflexible metals—is breathtaking to behold. In another contradiction, inside the display cases around the edges of the Monnaie de Paris’s main room, glass faces removed from their heads lie on wooden plinths turning the display case into a mausoleum of which the glass door is left hanging open.
Size matters for Schütte: the size, and also, where the figures are placed, if they are elevated, or if they tower over us will determine how we look at them. Moreover, the size and material of execution is often surprising, and at the very least it often adds further conflict to an already dense creation. Four busts from 2012, Fratelli, are oversized patinated bronzes on steel plinths, arranged in a circle. We have no option but to stand inside the circle if we want to see their faces. We stand surrounded by the brothers who, though wearing the coats and cloaks of popes, are threatening us with their facial expressions. They are intimidating because they are bigger than us, they are four and we are one, staring with bolts for eyeballs, smirking, and if they could talk we imagine them hurling abuse our way.
Schütte’s Trois Actes includes no busts of great men or heroes, but these are its real subjects. Our mind wanders to all the statues dotting the streets of London especially, but also Paris, and we imagine their legs cut off like Schütte’s wounded warriors. As much as he represents the deformed, the outcast, the socially rejected, Schütte also makes big, noble and honoured men very small. In one of the most poignant, a soldier carries his face, making him anonymous, a nobody in the fight for someone else’s life. The great men of history manage to stand, but are always maimed on their pedestals. There is also a religious element to all these statues. I was reminded of all the Christs on the cross and other icons that are worshipped and fawned over, even though no such images are present. Nevertheless, all the weeping and wailing, the ambiguous gender of the masks, heads, faces rubbed out and multiple images of the same, repeated figures, or bodies being tied together. All of them are simultaneously critique of the ones we worship as well as an elevation of the ones we do not.