‘... there is something in the monumental women that combines power and vulnerability; they are at once like victims and idols’
‘Frau Nr. 7 represents a fragment of a reclining female body with the head, neck and extreme joints of the arms and legs cut off. The dialogue with the antique torso is evident but also underscores the painful absence of limbs in Schütte’s sculpture’
With its beguiling, embryonic vision of the female form, Thomas Schütte’s Bronzefrau Nr. 7 offers a powerful critique of monumental sculpture. Executed in 2002, it stands among the most enigmatic figures in the artist’s landmark series of eighteen Frauen (Women) begun in 1998. With head, neck and limbs conspicuously absent, the bronze torso unfurls upon a vast steel plinth, as if emerging from a chrysalis. Like a precious antiquity unearthed, its rich, variegated patina bespeaks the timeworn polish of history; the rare marriage of bronze and Cor-Ten steel poses a stunning formal juxtaposition. Mining – and indeed undermining – the traditions of Classical and Renaissance sculpture, the bronzes of Rodin and Moore and the reclining nudes of Picasso and Matisse, Schütte transforms the time-honoured subject of the female nude into a site of profound ambiguity and beauty. Working at the turn of a century in which dictatorial regimes had strewn the European landscape with ideologically-loaded totems, he recasts monumental sculpture as a field of enquiry and rebirth. The heroic muse becomes a faceless fragment, open to scrutiny, interpretation and reassessment. The steel plinth, integral to the work’s conception, conjures sites of transformation and performance: an artist’s workbench; a theatrical stage; a bed in an operating theatre. ‘Set apart, on a platform, these figures seemed to be both in the dock and on the podium’, writes Penelope Curtis. ‘Similarly there is something in the monumental women that combines power and vulnerability; they are at once like victims and idols’ (P. Curtis, ‘Reclining Sculpture,’ in Thomas Schütte: Hindsight, exh. cat., Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, 2009, p. 54). At once familiar and deeply subversive, Bronzefrau Nr. 7 offers an alluring dual image of destruction and creation. The power of figurative sculpture to shape our identity is reborn as a complex, unanswered question.
Each taking between six and eight months to complete, Schütte’s Frauen are the products of an intensive working method. Their forms were selected from 120 small ceramic maquettes made between 1997 and 1999, each of which was fashioned from a single piece of clay together with its base. As Schütte explains, 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’ (T. Schütte, quoted in U. Loock, Thomas Schütte, Cologne 2004, p. 173). At a foundry in Dusseldorf, these small clay figures were recreated in Styrofoam on a large scale, and worked upon in further detail to produce a mould. Each work was subsequently cast in iterations of bronze, steel and aluminium, reviving techniques that had largely been side-lined in sculptural practice following the Second World War. Over the course of the series, Schütte took increasing liberties with his figures, truncating their limbs and contorting their forms into otherworldly configurations. As Dieter Schwarz writes, ‘In his treatment of the materials and of the theme of the female figure, which had become such a taboo in contemporary art, a whole array of ambivalent feelings broke through ever more powerfully – attraction and aggression, repulsion and fascination – all embedded in a form that no longer complied with any binding tradition and had to be reinvented time after time’ (D. Schwarz, ‘Figures in Waiting’, in Thomas Schütte: Frauen, exh. cat., Castello do Rivoli, Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Turin, 2012, p. 16). With its patinated surface and captivating, multi-layered form, Bronzefrau Nr. 7 represents the apex of glamour and complexity achieved in the Frauen.
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 ideology of any sort can form oppression, and how control, authority and memory are embedded in public artworks. By dismantling and quoting various figurative traditions, he seeks to question 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. ‘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, asks Schwarz, ‘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). In all its parody, pragmatism and radical beauty, Bronzefrau Nr. 7 forges figurative sculpture anew, freed from artistic or historical dogma. Urgent and enduring in bronze, the work stands as an open-ended testament to human creation – and the human form – as a body of pure, protean potential. ‘Here we find ourselves facing a creative adventure that acquires the sense of an in-depth investigation into human feelings and into man’s relationship with himself, with authority and power, and with history’, writes Andrea Bellini. ‘If this is a tragic age, Thomas Schütte is surely its poet’ (A. Bellini, ‘Bringing into Questions the Results: Thomas Schütte’s Sculpture’, in Thomas Schütte: Frauen, exh. cat., Castello do Rivoli, Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Turin, 2012, p. 130).