‘And even the Abstract Entities
Circumambulate her charm;
But our lot crawls between dry ribs
To keep our metaphysics warm’
—T. S. ELIOT, ‘WHISPERS OF IMMORTALITY,’ 1918-19
Unfurling with leonine grace, a female form writhes into life. She is cast in sinuous oxidised steel, and fused to a table of the same metal. Her head is plunged to her plinth, hair abstracted to shapes that lick her shoulders like tongues of flame. An athletic spine arches along her back, twisting her torso to the side; her breasts are planed to flat facets; a taut waist and angular pelvis lead to legs that finish at the knee. She seems to push up from the ground with her left arm, whose tensed elbow juts at a dramatic angle. From the right shoulder protrudes another limb, somewhere between arm and leg, kicking out from the body’s embryonic frame as if fighting to take shape. Thomas Schütte’s Stahlfrau Nr. 6 (2003), from his iconic series of eighteen Frauen (Women), is a lithe critique of the promises of monuments. Taking cues from classical sculpture, the bronzes of Rodin and Maillol and the Modernist language of Moore and Picasso, the artist seizes figuration itself, in all its shifting guises, as his subject. The towering figure of the female nude is recast as a turbulent, dynamic entity of liquid animal shape. Charged with an almost Futurist sense of force and motion, Nr. 6 is among the series’ most muscular and most abstract figures, embodying a vital sense of conflict in its faceless, powerful form. Born from a vigorous scepticism of established understandings of art and its institutions, Stahlfrau Nr. 6 refuses any definitive answers, radically refashioning monumental sculpture as a metamorphic mode of exploration and questioning. The work is a darkly beautiful presence that asks just how malleable are the ways in which we make or receive meaning from art, and how it can change the ways we see ourselves.
The forms of the eighteen Frauen were selected from small ceramic maquettes, 120 of which Schütte made between 1997 and 1999, and each of which was fashioned from a single piece of clay together with its base. As Schütte tells it, they ‘are not drawn from nude models – it may come to that in the future – and neither are they modelled or sketched. They are all made from ceramic effusions [here Schütte is playing with the phonetic similarity of German “Guss” (cast) and “Erguss” (effusion)]. Which is why they are cast. I believe they are all effusions of some sort’ (T. Schütte, quoted in U. Loock, Thomas Schütte, Cologne 2004, p. 173). The unity of this conception is reflected in Stahlfrau Nr. 6, with plinth and figure formed of the same material; scaled up in steel, the support’s sharply functional table-like legs deconstruct the traditionally solid and polished pedestal of large-scale sculpture, highlighting the dramaturgy inherent in the sculptor’s act of presentation. There are two unique versions of Stahlfrau Nr.6; two versions of Bronzefrau Nr. 6, one of which is held in the permanent collection of the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein- Westfalen, Düsseldorf and has been exhibited in Castello di Rivoli; and one Aluminiumfrau Nr. 6 in the artist’s own personal collection. Each iteration sits upon this steel base. As well as a performative platform, it recalls an artist’s workbench, enhancing the sense that we are witness to a primary substance in the throes of formation. Schütte exposes the bare architecture of monumental sculpture, making his Stahlfrau an object of active inquiry rather than passive reception. Sculpture is caught at a formative moment of freedom and potential, and we see the bones beneath the skin. Any mood of bland totemic grandeur is undercut.
Schütte’s Frauen express an ambiguous dual state of victim and idol: they are raised on podiums but also placed under inquisition. In one sense their metamorphic bodies express a form of liberty, yet with their variously missing limbs, elided faces and warped physiques, they raise inescapable associations of violence and destruction. The Venus de Milo lost her arms to the ravages of time; the holes and distortions in Henry Moore’s figures were understood in post-War Britain as marks of damage, echoing wounded landscapes; the disembodied and exaggerated sections of Gaston Lachaise’s bronze women manifest a fierce eroticism. What, then, does the inchoate figuration of Stahlfrau Nr. 6 signify? Penelope Curtis argues that ‘If we find these metal forms to be subjected to forces that we define as destructive rather than creative, we reveal our fundamental naivety. To what extent these works play on that naivety and are successful because of it, or to what extent they require us to become more sophisticated, is the question that perhaps lies at their heart. Statuary cannot but engage an empathetic response (that naivety is part of an attraction that is both terribly simple and horribly complex) but Schütte’s manoeuvre is to push the statue back into the realm where meaning is produced; back into the realm of the avant-garde’ (P. Curtis, ‘Reclining Sculpture,’ in Thomas Schütte: Hindsight, exh. cat. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid 2009, p. 64). By dismantling and quoting various figurative traditions, Schütte presents us not with a woman but, emphatically, with a sculpture. This is sculpture not as representation but as an engine of meaning, whose amalgamated workings Schütte seeks to dissect and reassess. As Dieter Schwarz has observed, ‘Schütte’s aim is to breathe new life into this figurative world, which enjoyed such acceptance in the past that it was ultimately taken for granted’ (D. Schwarz, ‘Figures in Waiting,’ in Thomas Schütte: Frauen, exh. cat. Castello do Rivoli, Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Turin 2012, sdp. 18).
Neither derivative nor solely critical, Schütte’s revisiting of sculptural convention is couched in a deep respect for the craft, labour and materials required. ‘Finding the right form,’ he says, ‘involves hard physical work’ (T. Schütte, quoted in U. Loock, Thomas Schütte, Cologne 2004, p. 173). The Frauen each take between six and eight months to complete, with complex processes of carving, grinding, and casting, and are produced in versions of steel, bronze and aluminium, some of these patinated or lacquered. Recalling the surface of works by Jeff Koons or Anish Kapoor as much as by Moore or Rodin, these variegated Frauen propose a multivalent conversation between past and present, shaping something relevant and new from an approach long deemed outmoded. In the present work, Nr. 6’s burnt orange finish invites comparison with contemporaries such as Antony Gormley or Richard Serra as readily as with Schütte’s earlier forebears. Her reactive surface beckons the weathering of time, blurring the lines between historical artefact and contemporary art object. Novelty for its own sake, Schütte believes, is folly. ‘A porcupine in the Himalayas is somehow exotic but interests not a soul … People are currently operating with the word conventional but that in itself is so conventional. As if it were an achievement to do something completely over the top. Yet it doesn’t touch a soul, it affects no one. You are delighted when it has disappeared’ (T. Schütte, quoted in U. Loock, Thomas Schütte, Cologne 2004, p. 170).
Emerging in the 1970s alongside Daniel Buren and other early exponents of art as a means of institutional critique, Schütte has always been alert to how ideological control, authority and memory are embedded in public artworks. ‘There are figures that are exclamation marks,’ he says, ‘and others that are question marks’ (T. Schütte, quoted in U. Loock, ‘Public Figures,’ Frieze, February 2013). If Schütte’s is an art of questions rather than conclusions, it nonetheless offers a positive answer to a problem raised by Dieter Schwarz, with particular relevance to Schütte’s post-War German background. ‘Did the Fascist dictatorships in Europe, which appropriated figurative art for their own ends, destroy its legitimacy in the artistic consciousness once and for all, or is there a way to continue the figurative line, without descending into archaism or conservatism?’ (D. Schwarz, ‘Figures in Waiting,’ in Thomas Schütte: Frauen, exh. cat. Castello do Rivoli, Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Turin 2012, p. 18). Rather than extending the life of figuration for its own sake, Schütte also asks what its social usefulness might be. In all its parody and pragmatism, Stahlfrau Nr. 6 forges figurative sculpture anew, freed from artistic or historical dogma. Meaning is made mutable. Solid in steel, her surface evolving, the work stands as an open-ended testament to human creation – and the human form – as a body of pure, protean potential: a place where we can work out our relationships with ourselves, and with the powers that shape us.