Thomas Schütte - Ahead of the rest

From huge bronzes to photographs of tiny clay faces, a new show of Thomas Schütte's work proves his mastery of the figurative, says Adrian Hamilton

The German artist Thomas Schütte is arguably the finest figurative artist now working in Europe. Personally, I would drop the word "arguably". Although figurative art is alive and kicking, not least here in Britain (Thomas Houseago to name but one showing in London at the moment), none have managed to take monumental sculpture and intimate drawing and make it their own in quite the way Schütte has done.

Both the monumental and the intimate are on display at the Serpentine Gallery's exhibition. First, the sculpture. Even before you enter the Kensington Gardens gallery, on the grass outside, stand two of his well known Untitled Enemies series of 2011, gigantic bronzes of double figures entwined together in soulless agony. Held on tripod legs, they seem bodiless beneath their rope-wrapped cloaks, while the two bald and eyeless head look away from each other. What is extraordinary is not just the way that the artist expresses human tension in metal but the manner in which he makes the faces fleshy. They're a symbol of the hollowness of power but also its anger and its threat.

The same monumentality of scale and malleability of form is seen in the centrepiece of the show, Vater Staat (Father State). The figure stands nearly four metres tall in the central atrium, a colossus in steel breathing authority in its chiselled features, capped and begowned like a North African or Central Asian dictator. Only the steel is rusting and, when you walk around it, the gown seems bodiless beneath a head and shoulders held on a hidden structure. It's both terrifying and intriguing. Around it, quite opposite in scale but equally disturbing, are 30 close-up photographs of miniature faces modelled in clay, the Innocenti from 1994. Individually, they are human and even comic in their grimaces like children's finger face masks. Together they are unnerving, threatening in their mass.

Still in his forties, a product of the Dusseldorf Kunstakademie, Schütte is in one sense a very traditional artist. Although he has, particularly in his early career, worked a lot with architectural models and design, his central concern has always been with humanity and how to represent it. The Serpentine claims the show, titled Thomas Schütte: Faces and Figures as the first exhibition devoted solely to his portraiture. What comes through it is his deep commitment and knowledge of the genre.

The portrayal of power has long been part of the tradition of German art, but then so has the caricature of it through the exaggeration of features and facial gesture. Schütte has ascribed some of his inspiration from a visit to see the Roman portrait busts in the Capitoline Museum – realism made majestic. But his art also owes much to the 18th and 17th-century fascination with the extremes of emotion as seen in the face.

His modelled heads screech, scream, dribble, pout and purse. If the photographs of the Innocenti do it in miniature, the Wichte (translated here as "Jerks") do it naturally sized. Taking as his model the bronze portrait busts you see in town halls and public offices throughout Germany, he gives the series character through their individual modelling but vacuity through their eyeless looks. Arranged in line on wall plinths, glancing sideways, downwards, inwards but almost never at ease, they are a combined portrayal of the officials and middlemen who make authority and its excesses possible. Looking at them, one wonders again at the provincialness of so much of British art in its retreat to the personal and the showy.

In direct contrast are Schütte's drawings and watercolours. The modern portrait has never been the same since Cubism introduced multi-faced viewpoints and swept aside the old, fixed way of presenting snapshot of character and position. Schütte's answer is to accept the limitations of the fixed-point portrait but to do them in series, capturing different moods and looks in varied media and brushwork. The framed watercolours and drawings with engraved line are, in one sense, quite conventional. They are also surprising in their delicacy of line and sensibility. An early self-portrait done in oil on cotton from 1975 builds up the image precisely, using a grid that shows through the paint. The portrait is of the artist as he would wish to be but caught with a knowingness that subverts any sentimentality.

He does the same with a fluid and penetrating series of self-portraits, the Mirror Drawings from two decades later. Hung across a whole wall, the face is observed in a roundel as if in a focusing lens. The eyes are fully open, the glance questioning, the face occasionally coloured. It's as if other painters such as Rembrandt are looking out at you and are telling you what they are about (or would like to be). In these you are the artist as observer, outside himself and by no means admiring.

His Luise series from the same period in the mid-Nineties are more openly affectionate. The girl's eyes never engage as they look down or sidewise. The graphic line is purposeful and confident, the impression disengaged but open. So, too, with his recent portraits of his daughter and friends. It's amazing how the modern macho artist weakens at the knee when it comes to their offspring. Schütte is no exception but by using ink with watercolours, he gets away with it.

He is least successful when he tries to marry the intimate with the monumental in his female heads, such as the four-foot sculpture of Walser's Wife made in lacquer applied on aluminium. You see the references, the serene look and glance of the Thai Buddhas, the rough of the hair against the fine-boned face but in the end, the head, like the Frauenkopf in patinated bronze, also on show, it remains more interesting in its material than its message.

Fortunately, there's enough humour around to leaven the load. A delightful watercolour drawing of Adolf duck has a Hitler's moustache and a swastika added to a rubber duck while a picture of Me? draws himself as a preening swan. When commissioned to fill the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, he produced a deliberately glamorous Hotel for Birds. A joke, yes, but with purpose. If any artist can get a grip on today's troubled and fractious world it is Schütte.

'Thomas Schütte: Faces and Figures'. Serpentine Gallery, W2. To 18 November. The artist's most recent works are on show at the Frith Street Gallery, W1 until 15 November

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker