What is a portrait for? What does it tell us? Before the camera it was the only way of recording human presence. All other images of the human face were transient: a reflection caught in a pool of water or a pane of glass. To put paint on canvas was to render a person immortal and, in many cases, it gave the sitter authority, status and power. For women it was often a passport to marriage (though the perils of lying paint were demonstrated when Hans Holbein’s portrait of the dumpy Anne of Cleeves beautified the princess so that on her arrival in England in 1539, Henry VIII, already in his late 40s, sick and ageing and married three times, rejected his prospective bride as not attractive enough.)
But with the invention of the camera ‘truth’ became the domain of photography, while painting was left to ‘express’ the soul of the sitter though, as John Berger points out in his essay The Changing View of Man in the Portrait, town halls and provincial museums are full of lifeless, boring likenesses that reveal little skill and even less about the human soul. Berger asks whether you would rather have a photo of someone you love or a painting. Go on, be honest, you’re not really going to keep an oil painting propped up on the pillow beside you when yearning for an absent love, are you? This suggests, then, that the average painted portrait was traditionally – with honourable exceptions such as Rembrandt or Van Gogh – about something else: status, aggrandizement, a legacy to history. Each year the BP Portrait Award is full of achingly skilful works that say little about the sitter and even less about contemporary painting. Those that do manage to do so stand out like diamonds. So what is the point of the contemporary portrait and why has an artist such as Thomas Schütte returned to concentrate on figures and faces?
Thomas Schütte Vater Staat (Father State), 2010
At 57, Schulte is one of Germany’s most visible artists, a product of the Dusseldorf Kunstakademie and nearly as famous as his former teacher Gerhard Richter. The black and white self-portrait in photo realist style at the beginning of the exhibition is a direct reference to Ritchter’s tutelage. But Schütte soon went on to embrace all sorts of other media – models, sculptures, banners, architectural installations, ceramics – and is generally lauded for his versatility. For the last two decades he has created a vast array of eclectic work but, here, at the Serpentine, the emphasis is on the figure and the portrait. The exhibition includes watercolours and drawings of friends and acquaintances, along with a series of self-portraits. Schütte is a difficult artist to categorise, one of a generation who, under Richter’s influence, returned to figuration after being absorbed by minimalism, His work is quirky, strange and, at times, outright odd.
As you enter the first gallery you are greeted by the bust of a bearded man. He has slightly crazy eyes and tangled hair and stares from the top of a steel plinth, his arms raised at the side of his head. Schütte has called the work Memorial for Unknown Artist, saying he that it reminds him of a Leonardo-like archetype. Though, personally, I think he looks more like Moses. There is something in his inscrutable expression that reminds me of the celebrated Michelangelo that so obsessed Freud and I wonder if there might be some connection. In the central gallery there is a towering figure, Vater Staat (Father State), in rusted steel, a sort of postmodern colossus that dominates the proceedings, casting a shadow of slightly malevolent authority of the whole space. Yet, at the same time, there’s something vulnerable and isolated about him – like God, himself, perhaps. Again Freudian notions about patriarchy and paternal domination creep in. With his chiselled features, his little cap and flowing robes it is not hard to see him as some Slavic potentate, an authoritarian father-figure of absolutism. Outside on the grass are two monumental bronze sculptures with two heads and torsos bound together like Siamese twins on wooden supports. They are part grotesque, part ridiculous and look as though they are taking part in some absurd three-legged race. They are from the Untitled Enemies series of 2011 and reminded me of T.S. Eliot’s Hollow Men. They, too, can be understood in psychological terms, as two parts of the same whole, the split personality that is within us all, the Janus who cannot make up his mind which way to face.
Thomas Schütte Memorial for unknown artist 2011 / Walser’s wife 2011
A reference to Janus brings us to Schütte’s interest in classical sculpture, including the busts of Roman emperors housed in the Capitoline Museum. He was, he says, 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 (were) a reality.” Installed in the second gallery are a series of disturbing busts in blackened bronze. Placed high on the wall, as if in a museum, they seem to form part of the architecture. Some have bushy eyebrows, others hooked- noses or flattened brows. They have been poked, pummeled and gouged like a child’s play dough heads and manage, at one and the same time, to create and air of authoritarian threat as well that sense of paranoid aloofness that so often surrounds authoritarian leaders. It is a reminder of how many German artists are, so long after the war and the collapse of the Berlin wall, still obsessed with authority.
These monumental works are in direct contrast to his delicate and often very subtle water colours. Using Monet’s trick of painting in series he is able to capture different moods and attitudes. He takes a similar approach in his Mirror Drawings where he observes his own face in a round mirror or lens so that the viewer has a strong sense of the artist’s presence both as subject and object. Schütte is a skilled draftsman as is evident in his Luise series from the mid-Nineties, The fragile washes and graphite and ink lines display sensibility and a lightness of touch.
In Britain he is best known for his sculpture on the empty fourth plinth, Hotel for Birds, a playful absurd, yet rather beautiful structure. Absurdity seems to play an important role in Schütte’s thinking. It appears to be a way of diluting impotency in the face of absolute power as in the satirical water colour of Adolf duck, a rubber duck complete with Hitler’s moustache and a swastika.
Thomas Schütte United enemies, 2011
Schütte is not an artist who is necessarily easy on the eye and, at times, the exhibition at The Serpentine can feel a bit confused so that it takes a while to work out the themes. Yet his constant reassessment of the figurative tradition and his willingness not to flinch from the unpalatable role that authority and power play in the modern world render him a significant player.
Thomas Schütte Faces & Figures at the Serpentine Gallery from 25 September to 18 November 2012
A solo exhibition of Thomas Schütte’s work can also be seen at Frith Street Gallery, 18 Golden Square, W.1 until 18th November.
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2012
Images © the Thomas Schütte 2012
United enemies Photography © 2012 Gautier Deblonde