The voluptuous curves of the female form gives way to monumental proportions in Thomas Schütte’s Bronzefrau Nr. I, a truly contemporary take on the tradition of the female nude. Bronzefrau is the first of a series of eighteen sculptures made over a ten year period from 1999-2009 in which the artist depicts a nude woman reclining, and thus carries all the primal potentially and energetic distillation of the entire series. The artist worked first in clay, exercising the medium’s ultimate malleability to shape, bend and contort the features of a woman into an almost unrecognizable platter of curves. In Bronzefrau Nr. 1, some limbs balloon tautly pushing beyond the limits of the flesh, while others, including the Bronzefrau’s head, are flattened and distorted as if their metal solidity had melted and re-hardened into a different, a-human shape. He then increased the scale of the model exponentially before casting it in bronze, the material traditionally used for public memorial sculptures and monuments. Thus, the figure becomes an effigy of the brutality of the process that made the female sculpture as well as the kind of treatment inflicted upon women as the traditional subjects of artwork by male artists. In the present work Schütte has named his sculpture of women after the material she is cast in; other women in the series are named Steelfrau and Aluminumfrau—Steel Woman and Aluminum Woman—to reflect their material qualities and indicate that the abstract mound of contorted limbs and flesh is indeed, a woman. Schütte plays with the push and pull between abstraction and figuration in a gesture that expresses a brutality and violence towards the traditions of art. In addition to her sinuous curves and the evocation of breasts, it is her pose—one of Western art’s most enduring forms and traditional motifs—that reveals her status as a reclining nude woman.
Sculptural representations of the nude female form is as old as humanity itself. From the Venus of Willendorf, whose round, voluptuous curves were the result of abundance and promised fertility, to the marble Aphrodites of Ancient Greece, the symbol of love, desire, the female form has long been imbued as a symbol of the ideals important to the culture that called upon it. When, in the late fifteenth century, Renaissance artists Botticelli and Giorgione turned their attention to the lessons lost from Ancient Greece and Rome during the Middle Ages, they resurrected the nude female form, both reclining and standing, as a means of representing the Platonic ideal of divine love. However, in the early sixteenth century, the Venetian Renaissance master Titian painted the reclining nude as a vehicle for unapologetic sensuality, untethered from the reproductive functionality of the female body. His Venus of Urbino, 1538, was then perhaps the most scandalous and controversial images up until that point in time. Moving closer in time to our own, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres elaborated upon the proportions of his Grand Odalisque, 1814, adding more vertebrae to her spine to increase her spine, and thus her sexuality, in this painting that offers a glimpse into the constructed fantasy world of the harem. Édouard Manet doubled down upon Ingres’ illicit sexuality when he painted a well-known Parisian prostitute in the pose of the divine goddess of love Venus in 1865. In the most brazen act of wantonness to date, Manet’s Olympia confronts the vie wer with an implicating stare, acknowledging that many of the men of the bourgeois class who attended the reception in which the painting was revealed, were her clients. Cubists like Pablo Picasso and others, utilized the female form, much as they did with the still-life, as a traditional motif of Western art that they could evacuate content from to instead use as a vehicle for testing their theories of abstraction. Henry Moore, the British artist working in the immediate post-war period, of whom Schutte is a direct disciple, also took the female nude as his stalwart subject matter. But for Moore, the nude female body became a landscape of rolling hills and hidden eddies much like his native English countryside. As former Director of the Tate Britain, Penelope Curtis, has said of Bronzefrau Nr. 1, “With this series, Schütte is working in a field, which, over the last century, has raised the same question. From Aristide Maillol to Henry Moore through the Cubist sculptors, the reclining female figure has provided the space in which artists have explored a range of different kinds of abstraction within an ostensibly figurative format” (P. Curtis, “Reclining Sculpture,” in Thomas Schütte: Hindsight, Reina Sofia National Centro De Arte, Madrid, 2009, p. 54).