Thomas Schütte (born November 16, 1954) is a German contemporary artist. From 1973 to 1981 he studied art at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf alongside Katharina Fritsch under Gerhard Richter, Fritz Schwegler, and Benjamin Buchloh. He lives and works in Düsseldorf.
United Enemies, made between 1993 and 1997, is a series which comprises over 30 works with figures made out of Fimo modelling clay and ‘dressed’ in various fabrics and displayed under glass domes. Schütte made eighteen similar sculptures each comprising a pair of small male forms bound together with masking tape and medical sticking plaster; there are also a small number of three-figure works and a few single figures.
‘Speak as if you were speaking to yourself. MONOLOGUE NOT DIALOGUE’, Robert Bresson instructed his actors in his seminal 1975 book Notes on the Cinematographer. The French auteur’s directive is applicable when considering the ‘models’ of Thomas Schütte, whose sculptural figures, theatrical mock-ups and architectural prototypes flaunt an opacity that seems to delimit a similarly self-generating conversation. From the cheery startle of Schütte’s series of metallic monster-like figures, ‘Große Geister’ (Big Spirits, 1995–2004), to the Modernist architectural models of ‘Ferienhäuser für Terroristen’ (Holiday Homes for Terrorists, 2002), the German artist has long pursued a multivalent practice that – though it grew out of the Minimalism and Conceptualism of early 1970s Dusseldorf, where Schütte studied under Gerhard Richter and Benjamin Buchloh – has spoken mostly to itself. That conversation, broaching biggies like power, modernity and monument-making, carries forth with an internal humour that the viewer readily identifies but cannot entirely understand. Obscure or not, it’s this humour – dry, dark, a bit jumpy – that ties together Schütte’s wide-ranging oeuvre.
Schütte made eighteen similar sculptures each comprising a pair of small male forms bound together and sealed under a glass dome mounted on a cylindrical pillar. He modeled the figures’ heads by hand in coloured fimo, a modeling compound sold in toy shops. The bodies are stuffed rags swaddled on a tripod of doubled beechwood dowel sticks. Schütte bound them in pairs with masking tape and medical sticking plaster. Each couple stands on a shallow wooden plinth set on a tall section of terracotta-coloured plastic drainpipe. Some are trapped facing towards each other; others look away. The figures have bald heads and deeply incised features; their caricatured expressions are reminiscent of the ‘character head’ busts created in the late eighteenth century by Austrian baroque sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736-93).
Schütte began working on the United Enemies sculptures during a period spent in Rome where he had been awarded a grant to live and work. He was looking at classical sculpture, such as the Roman portraits of the Emperors housed in the Capitoline Museum. He has explained:
I was [in Rome] in 1992, the year there was this peaceful revolution in Italy where the heads of State and a lot of prominent people were being exposed and discredited and sent to jail. So the caricature and the satire was a reality ... The first big set of [United Enemies] was made in Rome. They are just sticks with a head on top and another stick that builds the shoulders. I used my own clothes to wrap them in and form the body. For me they were puppets and not related to classical art ... I disciplined myself to modeling each head for one hour only. They have no hair, so the face is more concentrated, more general.
“They are emotional things that we can all relate to,” said Nicholas Baume, director and chief curator of the nonprofit Public Art Fund, which is presenting the work. “Think dysfunctional family or simply the battles within ourselves. That’s what’s so brilliant about the sculptures. They operate on many different levels.”
During the Serpentine exhibition Mr. Schütte explained that the faces were partly political caricatures inspired by a visit to Rome in 1992, when “heads of state and others were being exposed and discredited and sent to jail,” he said. “So the caricature and the satire were a reality.” The figures, he continued, were “modeled in isolation but bound in pairs, emerging in parallel.”
They also could be seen as 21st-century examples of the kinds of distorted faces made famous by the “character heads” of the 18th-century German sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt or the satirical political caricatures that the French artist Honoré Daumier created nearly a century later. “They do relate to that tradition,” Mr. Baume said. “Thomas Schütte’s work always balances the political and personal.”