“It is the common wonder of all men, how among so many million faces, there should be none alike” (Sir Thomas Browne). Thomas Schutte might say that it’s a wonder how in only one man, there can be so many million faces. His exhibition at the Serpentine is a masterful, even obsessive, study of portraiture in all its different forms, reveling in the act of catching the essence of a subject with a deft touch and a sly wink.
Schutte has several intimate small scale portraits on show, so small they might pass as doodles from a lesser artist; here they are delicate figurative responses to the problem of true representation. The playful Adolf and Rubber Duck (2007) sees the eponymous duck don a Hitler mustache and a swastika, reducing the high falautin Nazi agenda to something loud but ridiculous, while Me (2007) subverts the innate conceit of an artist’s self portrait by presenting ‘me’ as a vainglorious swan;
similarly Self Portrait (2008), displays the self-centered artist with a heart for a face, while the achingly handsome Self Portrait (1975) knowingly dons dark glasses and a sneer, as if to ask the viewer, “Don’t I look cool?”
The proof that Schutte is neither a preening swan nor a shrinking violet comes in the wonderful series Mirror Drawings (1998 – 99). His face is rendered again and again in the rounded frame of a vanity mirror, the eyes always searching and what they see always changing. So ingeniously does Schutte catch the lines and tones of each face that after a while I began to feel as if I was looking at myself in the mirror – surely the Holy Grail of portraiture. His drawings of his children, Henri and Carla (2012),while more traditional and sentimental, still show Schutte’s characteristic ability to capture character in a few strokes.
The other half of the exhibition, Schutte’s large-scale sculptures, are divided into the personal and the political. The personal show the same mastery of technique as his sketches, but lack the depth of meaning.
Walser’s Wife (2011), a head sculpture of lacquer on aluminum, with its nod to African art in its patterned hair and closed eyes, is beautiful but empty. I understood that the piece was referential, but learnt nothing about the mysterious Mrs. Walser. Similarly the Polynesian-inspired Woman with Flower (2006), with its touch of Gauguin, was glamorous and unmemorable.
The centrepiece of the show, Vater Staat (2010) is as intriguing as everyone says; the impassive features of the gargantuan leader are so well balanced that he becomes truly global – he could be Caucasian, Asian or African. The authoritarian state is part of the human condition. Huge and imposing yet apparently frail and immaterial under his robe, this is literally a head without a body, a capital without a country, a leader without followers.
Surrounding and looking down on Vater Staat is Innocenti (1994), a series of photograph portraits of eerie and deformed wax faces, seemingly as far from innocents as it is possible to be. Do these figures stand for the supporters of the regime, the ugly machinators behind every great dictator who at his downfall declare themselves innocent? Or are there no true innocents left in this world? When we become onlookers to political atrocity and declare ourselves innocent through inaction, are we as ugly on the inside as these demons are on the outside? Like the greatest portraitists, Schutte poses the question, what does humanity look like? And then he leaves us looking at our own reflections.
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