‘Thomas Schütte is neither architect nor painter nor sculptor. He is the engineer who confronts the architect with construction, the painter with the image, and the sculptor with the public site. The question is the frame and the pedestal as well as the foundation. The question is the future of our institutions as well as the historicity of our dreams’ (D. Zacharopoulos, Fifteen Monuments by Thomas Schütte, exh. cat., Galerie Philip Nelson, Villeurbanne, 1984, unpaged).
Cast in bronze upon a totemic plinth, Thomas Schütte’s Vater Staat (Modell) (Father of State) presents a characteristically irreverent and subversive play on the architects and architecture of power. Cloaked in a floor-length robe, the figure is precariously perched upon his lofty pedestal, his diminutive form subsumed by the thick, billowing swathes of his official garments. Executed in 2010, it stems from the celebrated series of Vater Staat sculptures that embody many of the themes central to Schütte’s figural practice. Invoking the concept of the ‘Fatherland’ associated with his native Germany, the motif of the ‘Father State’ is one that the artist revisited multiple times between 2007 and 2010 in a bid to explore the concept of patriarchal fallibility. Schütte depicts the state as a shrunken, solitary figure, swamped by the heaviness of his faintly comedic, oversized vestments. At the same time, the figure’s cold, deadpan stare is held in counterpoint with a poignant sense of fragility and vulnerability, etched into the very surface of his visage. Modulated with the artist’s bare fingers, the work’s appearance is tactile, visceral and intensely human. Throughout his career, Schütte has exploited the malleability of sculptural media in order to explore the transience and flux of the human condition, teasing out its emotive complexities and uneasy relationship with societal systems. With their lineage in Schütte’s figural pantheon, including the United Enemies and Fremden (Strangers) of the 1990s, the Vater Staat works occupy a significant position within the artist’s oeuvre. Executed on a variety of scales, in materials ranging from bronze to wax, works from the series are currently on public display outside institutions including the Art Institute of Chicago and the Neuen Nationalgalerie, Berlin. In the critically acclaimed exhibition Thomas Schütte: Faces and Figures at the Serpentine Gallery, London, in 2012, a giant steel version of Vater Staat was placed prominently at the entrance to the show, towering over viewers with the same implacable expression as the present work.
Schütte’s satirical approach to figurative sculpture first began in 1992, prompted by a year spent living in Rome. There, he had observed the heroic statues of Roman antiquity, and admired the portraits of emperors in the collection of the Capitoline Museum. At this time, however, Italy was marked by considerable political upheaval, with the ‘Clean Hands’ scandal which famously implicated Andreotti and Craxi. The contrast between the classical icons and the realities of contemporary politics gave birth to a new sculptural vernacular within Schütte’s practice. Through his figurative forms, Schütte began to tackle the corruption bound up with the armature of political power, most notably in the United Enemies and Innocenti series. In these provocatively anti-heroic works, the artist stripped back the smart suits and ingratiating smiles to reveal venality and duplicity. At the same time, the strangely sensual, bare faces appear vulnerable and fragile in their precarious positions. Vater Staat may also be seen to relate to Schütte’s renowned installation Fremden (Strangers) at Documenta, Kassel, that same year. Silently surveying the world from an elevated vantage point, the Fremden were styled as social outcasts, itinerant migrants inspired by the political backdrop of refugees and torched asylum hostels in Germany at the time. In Vater Staat, these lonely, watching figures are replaced by an irreverent effigy of the state itself. Explaining his own understanding of the term ‘Father State’, Schütte cites Günter Eich from 1968: ‘What I find most disgusting in the world are my parents. Wherever I go, they follow me, there’s no sense of moving or going abroad. As soon as I’ve found a chair, the door opens, and one of the two stares inside, Father State or Mother Nature’ (G. Eich, Haugenossen, 1968, quoted in W. Bellmann and C. Hummel, Deutsche Kurzprosa der Gegenwart, Stuttgart 2005, p. 36). Here, Schütte inverts this relationship, personifying and exposing the ‘Father State’ before the eyes of the public.
It was in the 1980s, during the formative years of his practice, that Schütte became increasingly concerned with the public realm and the public/political nexus. This became manifest not only in the artist’s models for administrative buildings, the state’s power houses, but also in the small-scale expressionistic figurines he began to produce in the style of memorials or monuments. In works such as Mann im Matsch (Man in Mud), 1982-1983, we see a tiny figure immortalised on a pedestal, apparently struggling in mud. In Kleiner Respekt (Little Respect) and Grosse Respekt (Large Respect), 1993-1994, we see male figures bound to their adversaries, wrestling for an uncertain power. Conceived following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the works recall those statues of despots being toppled across the former Soviet Union with the end of the Cold War. These concerns, those of the autocrat and his bureaucracy, have come to dominate Schütte’s oeuvre ever since and are powerfully articulated in Vater Staat.