Review Thomas Schütte / Serpentine Gallery
The Revolution is over
by Ben Lewis
In the first room of Schütte’s new exhibition at the Serpentine there is a small but riveting monochromatic self-portrait of the artist from 1975. He looks like a Baader-Meinhof terrorist with his long hair, dark glasses and the long cold curl of his sexy youthful lips. The Baader Meinhof Group believed in the permanent leftist revolution of Maoism. Modern Art had its own version of that idea through most of the twentieth century. Each generation was meant to rebel against the previous one, demolish and sweep aside their ideas and come up with ever more avant-garde art.
But Schütte’s self-portrait is not revolutionary. It is a remarkably deft yet utterly prosaic watercolour painting. That tension between the subject and style is emblematic, at least in my mind, of Schütte’s whole project. In the late nineties he told the curator James Lingwood “The situation is completely different to the beginning of the twentieth century. The idea of endless progress is as repressive and meaningless as the false promise of eternity of the Salon artists at the end of the last century”
Thomas Schütte’s work tells us that the revolution is over – the long modernist, revolution. Instead Schütte presents us with a manifesto for modesty and a manifesto for ‘maybe’ [I mean the subjunctive], for not wanting to be the most original, for not trying too hard – and nowhere better than in his portraits, which are the subject of this elegant new exhibition at the Serpentine.
The show leaves aside Schütte’s numerous, wittily utopian architectural models, his theatrical scenography-like installations, and his shiny silver Michelin-man like figures. Instead we have his most conventional work – the caricature waxwork heads of the “Innocenti” (1994), plus newly cast large outdoor bronze versions of “United Enemies” (2011), which Schütte first made in the early nineties, probably as symbols of the unified Germanies, and a couple of beautiful portrait busts. There is a wall of self-portraits (1998-9) and a wall of portraits of a woman called Luise (1996).
This may be the most conservative contemporary art show you will ever see. I found myself admiring the work for the most old-fashioned reasons, the same ones, in fact, that my Granny liked in art. Schütte’s portraits, in ink, crayon and watercolour are simply drawn. Sharp somewhat hesitant lines play off against the soft splodges of watercolour, just like they did in nineteenth century studies and sketches. The distorted faces of his waxwork heads are stunning, and seem to come from the French cartoonist Daumier or even the crazy characters who inhabit the painting of Hieronymous Bosch. Whether they are images of Schütte or his caricature fantasy characters they all seem to share the same minor key moods – lugubrious, reflective, perplexed, tired, depressed. There’s not much heroism, or even good cheer here. The artist has steered well clear of the grandiosity of salon art and modernism alike, and create a world that is tentative and melancholic. As one enters the exhibition there is the “Memorial for Unknown Artist” – an old man with a flowing beard, who looks like a caricature of a Renaissance image of one of the apostles, with his hands up next to his head in a gesture of either consternation or confusion. It’s a symbol – that most old-fashioned of artistic strategies! – of Schütte’s message. The artist is confused and exasperated – he doesn’t know what to do.
But this work is not as old-fashioned as it appears, otherwise it wouldn’t be so alluring. Schütte’s art is like a traveller who has gone on a long arduous journey and has now returned home. The person has been changed by their experiences in distant places. Now the ink and watercolour drawings are arranged in neat conceptual grids. The identical frames of the self-portraits have been determined by an industrially-produced circular bathroom mirror, through which the artist gazes at himself. The faces of the Innocenti are each modelled in a sixty minute time-frame the artist set himself, and they are photographs of waxworks, and so the result of a set of processes, as well as of the artist’s hands. The bodies of the ‘United Enemies’ are put together in a makeshift way by bundling up cloth with rope. The bust of the artist is perched on a slanting oval that recalls minimalist geometry. The portrait bust of “Walser’s Wife” had a deep red sheen that reminds one of Koon’s “Hanging Hearts and other “Celebration” series sculptures. There’s a lot of knowing games going on here, as Schütte tips a wink at fashions for the temporary and ephemeral, for basic geometries and such like in contemporary art.
There is another aspect of Schütte’s work, which really marks it out as part of the art of this new century. In the centre of the main room the artist has created a kind of new work, an installation combining two old ones. Mounted high on the walls are the photographs of the wax-modelled “Innocenti”, dating from 1993. In the middle is a tall robed figure called “Vater Staat.” There is a searing contrast between the serene and authoritarian gaze of the standing figure and the uncertainty and weakness on the faces on the walls around him. This may be an unnerving image about dictatorship, nationalism and the exercise of power. I’d like to say it’s about Germany, but the clothes of the standing figure, who seems to be wearing a dressing gown and a fez would make that a tenuous assumption. That ability to create memorable images that ‘appear to mean’ while meanings remain diffuse and open-ended, seems to me to be becoming one of the defining aspects of the art of our time. Art can be seductive yet puzzling and ambiguous in ways that language cannot.
For all its play on uncertainty, there is an assurance in Schütte’s work which many of his contemporaries lack. Many artists turned towards figurative painting and sculpture in the nineties – from Maurizio Cattelan to Elizabeth Peyton to Karen Kilimnick, Kippenberger and Tuymans. But there’s one big difference between their work and his. Theirs has an ironic layer, a dabbling in styles as a gesture against modernism. Schütte, on the other hand, is sincere. We haven’t come to the end of art history after all, he seems to tell us, we’ve just calmed down a bit. We may greet Schütte’s art like we are welcoming back that travelling friend who has been gone a long time. As you go round this wonderfully low-key exhibition, you may be filled with a sense of relief. Because it makes you feel like art has come safely home.
Thomas Schütte, Faces & Figures
25 September – 18 November 2012