Dwarf with a Box comprises an apparently life-sized figure of a male dwarf, modelled in rough, unglazed terracotta, standing on a simple wooden table. The table elevates the figure to a height of over 1.7m. His face is expressionless and he seems to stare straight ahead. There is no sense of movement in the figure, except that his right arm is very slightly drawn away from the body. Fixed between arm and torso is a ready-made wooden box with a veneered lattice or chequerboard pattern on its lid.
The figure of the dwarf has a deliberately ‘unfinished’ appearance, and its surface was partly hand modelled. It is hollow and was fired in two sections: the upper torso, and the lower section comprising the trousers and shoes. Use of unembellished materials – unglazed terracotta and unvarnished wood – means that the colours remain neutral. Both table and box appear to be used or ‘found’ objects: the table top has some residual marks of paint and glue, and cigarette burns, on it, and the box’s veneer has one piece missing from its patterned lid.
This is a relatively early work by the Spanish artist Juan Muñoz, and one of several of the same period in which he made a dwarf his protagonist, the first of which was The Prompter 1988 (Tate T12797). Muñoz was, in his own terms, fascinated by the ‘otherness’ of the figure. He explained in 1995: ‘I was not so interested in the physical presence of the dwarf. It was more a reference to the question of strangeness than the problem of size ... It’s also the sense of being uncomfortable ...’ (Quoted in Wagstaff, p. 124.) Nevertheless, Muñoz’s dwarfs are dignified figures, and have been compared with those depicted by the seventeenth-century Spanish painter, Diego Velázquez (1559–1660), whose celebrated work Las Meninas (1656–7), depicting the family of the king of Spain, includes, in the foreground, the portraits of two court dwarfs. One stares resolutely out of the picture frame in the direction of the viewer. In Dwarf with a Box, Muñoz used a table to increase the height of the figure to the spectator’s height, but the dwarf’s impassive stare seems to look through, rather than to engage with, the spectator.
Muñoz’s sculptures have been compared to the figurative works of Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966), an artist whom he admired. Stripped of all but essential human features (see, for example, Man Pointing 1947, Tate N05939), Giacometti’s figures are anonymous, and engagement with the spectator is necessarily indirect and ambiguous, creating a parallel, albeit it through different means, with the younger artist’s work. Muñoz commented: ‘Some of the best figurative sculptures seem to be aware of the impossibility of looking alive and aware of the boundaries of the territory they occupy. The most successful ones are the ones that state those limits, the space between being just a sculpture and the man walking in the street. Not for a split second can you confuse one with the other ... [Giacometti’s walking figure] will be forever wanting to walk and never be able to make the next step forward.’ (Quoted in Juan Muñoz: Monólogos y Diálogos, p.159.)
Dwarf with a Box is concerned, then, with mysterious and ambiguous relationships: the encounter between the figure and the audience, which is designed to unsettle the spectator, and between the figure and the box he holds, the significance of which is not explained.
Juan Muñoz: Monólogos y Diálogos, exhibition catalogue, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, 1996.
Possible Worlds: Sculpture from Europe, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, and Serpentine Gallery, London, 1990, pp.58-61, reproduced p.64.
Sheena Wagstaff, ed., Juan Muñoz: A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Tate, London, 2008, reproduced p.24 in colour.