Text written for Thomas Schütte and published on the online review ‘exibart’ on July 24th 2012.
In Praise of Thomas Schütte
From Realism to Figuration
In 1992 Thomas Schütte was a guest at the German academy in Villa Massimo, in Rome. Soon after his arrival, he asked me where he was to go to buy colours etc… the following day he told me that the shop I had recommended (a famous shop, the one which most Roman artists frequent) wasn’t at all the right place… too ‘artistic’. Instead, he had found a stationer’s, which also sold colours, but which, especially, stocked a ceramic modelling material which he could harden in the oven at home. With that material he ended up making a series of small sculptures which he entitled ‘United Enemies’ or ‘Innocents’. Human figures which were somehow also puppet-like (they reminded me of the Marionette Museums of Palermo and Turin), with very expressive faces and textile bodies mounted on wood. The faces were detailed, and characterised by exaggerated ‘poses’ of surprise, pain, introspection, curiosity etc… a whole catalogue of human expressions and moods which had until then disappeared from most artistic vocabularies, with their tendency to insist on anonymous, indistinct figures, works devoid of individual characterisation. These were statuettes which brought to mind Medardo Rosso, and which presented again the question of sense, of personal, singular expressivity, rather than proposing an anonymous style based on a learned expressive language. Those ‘statuettes’ then ended up acting as models for ever larger sculptures, true monuments, made with materials which were still traditionally similar to those of sculpture, but used at each turn in new and unexpected ways, performing juxtapositions which were expressively and narratively unprecedented. At the same time, alongside these statuettes, Schütte kept studying the drawing of details in the human figure, entering a dimension in which figuration would no longer act as a highlighting of scale comparable to that of the architectural, but rather it would become more and more of an autonomous theme, a matter of expressive and significational urgency.
From Pop Art to Popular Art
Thomas Schütte is an artist whose work has radically contributed to rethinking European culture, undoing and making transparent its limits while still avoiding to renounce his own identity (including his national identity). With his work, he has managed to shift the focus of artistic debate, which up until the mid 1980s was engaged in a series of fictional oppositions between spatiality and painting, memory and forgetting, abstraction and figuration, conceptualism and expressionism… Dualities which no longer belonged to the necessities of art, nor did were they able to speak to the needs of society. These debates have continued to drag in a lethal ritual up until now when, finally, younger artists have willingly and definitively forgotten their existence. Thomas Schütte is one of the protagonists of this artistic transformation, together with others, such as his fellow citizen Harald Klingelhoeller. His interest in architecture on the one hand and in monumental sculpture on the other, or rather, his interest in the intimate and necessary relationship between monument and city, has made him a precursor, painfully and ironically in equal measures, of much of the art which, after him, will interrogate the disappearance of a sense of belonging to a civilisation, specifically European civilisation, which was considered in irremediable decline, or rather dangerously resistant to an end which would was considered just and necessary. A lot of this art has declined its language by crossing it with the language of Pop, drawing from that bank of images and languages which made Pop the principal instrument for the criticism and the habit of the commodified dimension of existence. Schütte has also looked to Pop, but with extreme subjectivity and extreme melancholy, that is with the sensitivity typical of all great German artists, caught between a sense of belonging to their people and of being their people’s worst enemies. It isn’t fortuitous, then, that the artists he looked towards have always been artists who were also troubled by their national identity: the American Bruce Nauman, who escaped to a corral in New Mexico; the Englishman David Hockney, who escaped to California; the Italian Mario Merz, who lived in constant escape. All are artists who have lived and live in profound conflict, who see themselves as deeply embedded in their national identity and who, at the same time, feel moved to stay away from it. I think what he loved about these artists is their immediacy, their ability to synthesise, to heroically conjugate solitude with a sense of the critical and the collective, to intertwine an almost natural technical mastery with a disinterest towards its aims. In this sense, his interest in Pop Art isn’t really linked to the (typically American) themes of Pop Art, such as the world of commodities and of mass communications. Rather, he was interested in what is truly and intimately popular, which is something which radically connects to the spirit of European culture and to its genesis in Greek culture, where the arts were considered as a whole before they were divided into genres, where an identification between a people and its art wasn’t shortchanged for the images it produced. This has made me think about how we, as Italians, have also had our own ‘Pop Art’, by which I don’t mean the art connected to the ‘School of Piazza del Popolo’, bound to the strategies laid out by the Marshall Plan; I mean neorealism, both in cinema and in literature (both of which were Picasso-influenced), conjugated with the experimental and abstract practices borne out of the need to develop and abandon Malevič’s famed black square which had subverted (and still subverts) the debate between artistic expression and popular dimension. Maybe, then, it’s not by chance that at the end of his time in Italy Thomas Schütte made a series of drawings of the landscape of Ostia and the Michelangelo-esque towers that hover on the road that leads from the city to the sea, a piece he dedicated to Pier Paolo Pasolini.
Art where are you?
I treasure a little watercolour of Thomas Schütte’s, which looks like this: a very dark background, brown, almost black, in which you can barely distinguish two anthropomorphised potatoes whose eyes are looking upwards, directly at he/she who’s looking, and with a written sentence above ask, “Art, where are you?”. I think that’s the question Schütte is constantly asking himself, and us, in his work. The answer is in his pieces: art is in many places and in many feelings as long as you know how to seize it and show it. So I’d say art is especially in this ability (which he has) of shaping, giving form, figure and sense to its belonging to a world which is everywhere yet mysteriously incomprehensible (if not through the paradigm of art itself). His work leads us to images which appear from a dark and anonymous background and which, sometimes, are reabsorbed by that background, but which other times are able to shine like a star, in absolute purity. The simultaneous presence of light and darkness is his characteristic attribute as German artist turned water diviner, scouting the terrestrial surface, searching for the hidden rivers of European culture, whose noise and whose freshness he can feel from underground. A background noise which is dark and brownish, and the chromatic freshness, the perfect brightness of the image. It was like this that his ceramics brilliantly stood out against the background of the blue sky in Kassel 1992, a series entitled ‘Die Fremden’, installed on the roof of the Fridericianum. ‘Die Fremden’, that is, ‘to the outsiders’, who were then entering Europe from a dark, indistinct, obscure world and who being celebrated in their abundance of colours, accompanied by vases and installed on the roof of art the way Greek statues would be, adorn the roof of sacred temples. One last brief biographical story: one Christmas, when Thomas Schütte was visiting my house, he quickly made a plasticene standing mouse for my daughters’ nativity scene, the same dimension as a shepherd, and placed it behind the manger. In Barcelona, at Christmas, popular markets always sell a nativity figure known as the Caganer, who’s extremely important in the Catalan nativity scene: a character who is visibly defecating, with his trousers down, and which is placed, hidden, behind the manger. The Caganer is a diabolical, dark, and essential presence in the story of the nativity – I have often asked myself if Thomas was aware of this correspondence between his mouse and the Caganer, between these simultaneous aspects of sacrilegious and sacred.
Ps. The greatest thank you goes to Tucci and Lisa Russo for having gifted us Thomas Schütte’s presence in Italy.