The early years of Thomas Schütte’s career as an artist in the 1980s focused on architectural-style models and objects, sometimes featuring small figures. In the 1990s, the little figures embedded in the architectural models were freed from their narrative context. They became works in their own right, on a larger scale, produced in different materials; for instance, figures made of Fimo modelling clay that he later scaled up to huge dimensions and cast in bronze.
In contrast to this bright-hued modelling clay, bronze is a material that is associated, in the world of western art, with the notion of sculptures as lasting testaments and public memorials. Schütte, however, has always been open to forms of expression that do not fit easily into the canon of modern art. Materials such as glazed ceramics and Murano glass take on a hitherto rarely seen meaningfulness.
His portrayals of the human figure in various different media clearly indicate that not only the frailty and vulnerability of human existence, but also its absurd and grotesque aspects, are the driving forces in Thomas Schütte’s art.
A glimpse of Schütte’s genuinely sculptural oeuvre had already been seen before in Basel’s public space. For several months in 2014, his United Enemies (2011), two almost four meter tall double statues cast in bronze, dominated the inner courtyard of the Basel Town Hall, which itself dates back, in part, to the Renaissance. During the previous year, the same group of figures had been displayed in the foyer of Fondation Beyeler in Riehen as part of a solo exhibition.
Thomas Schütte’s work first became part of the Baloise collection back in 1998, with the acquisition of his 1997 series Flucht (Escape), comprising ten drawings and watercolors. Baloise have constantly followed his artistic development ever since. While the plans for Baloise Park were taking shape, we got in touch with Thomas Schütte.
Over a period of several years, in collaboration with the artist, we weighed up a number of options for the plaza. Our initial interest in a single figure or a group of figures was eventually narrowed down in 2017–18 to the monumental mythical creatures that populated the courtyard of the Kunstgiesserei Kayser foundry in Düsseldorf. It was from this bestiarium of fantastical creatures that Baloise selected the 2017 work Drittes Tier. The first animal sculpture had been created in 2013 for the exhibition at Fondation Beyeler, since when his waterspouting Hase (Hare) has been ensconced in a garden pond at the northern side of the museum.
In his exhibition at Kunstforum Baloise, Thomas Schütte has juxtaposed his Drittes Tier with female figures and heads. In addition to his crouching female figure on a tabular plinth (Frau Nr. 13, 2003, bronze) and his reclining female figure (Frau Nr. 17, 2009, aluminum), Schütte also presents faces carved into ceramic panels and three-dimensional heads in vibrantly-hued Murano glass and glazed ceramic. The viewer’s perception of the figures and the heads — from dreamlike rapture to existential angst — is torn between attraction and anguish.
We are immensely grateful to Thomas Schütte. He accepted the invitation of Baloise to inaugurate an exhibition conceived specifically for the new Kunstforum Baloise space that had been housed for more than twenty years in the adjacent building at Aeschengraben 21. What is more, the artist has even loaned us works from his own personal collection for the duration of the exhibition. Our heartfelt gratitude to Thomas Schütte also extends to his studio assistants Luise Heuter and Rupert Huber, who have shown such dedication in their support of both the exhibition project and the publication. We also wish to thank Dieter Schwarz for his essay on the work of an artist with whom he has shared a close friendship since his days as director of Kunstmuseum Winterthur.
Now, at last, with the inauguration of the sculpture Drittes Tier at Baloise Park, it would not be in the least presumptuous to declare Basel a Schütte City.