Four Sisters in the Bath 1989 comprises four female busts made from terracotta, wax and paint, which are positioned roughly equidistant from one another in a pool of painted blue pebbles bounded by a low circular brick wall. The relatively smooth surfaces of the women’s faces and shoulders contrast with the more gestural rendering of their heads, which are covered by what may represent either hair or towels that are painted, respectively, in yellow with spots of orange, light golden brown, dark brown and red. The paint is unevenly applied, revealing in places the natural tone of the terracotta beneath. The figures’ skin is a dark brown colour, with flecks and lines in shades of red, blue and yellow traversing its surface in some areas. All of the women are positioned at the edges of the pool, with their backs to the wall and their faces turned towards its middle, and their expressions are contemplative. The sisterly relationship between the four figures that is indicated in the title of the work is reflected in their unguarded facial expressions and the intimacy of their setting.
This work was made by the German artist Thomas Schütte in 1989. Although it is not known how he made the bricks and the blue pebbles, the women were modelled in terracotta and wax. Three of the figures were sculpted over polyurethane cores that are still present in the work, while the fourth is left hollow, suggesting that it may have been cast from a pre-existing mould. The sisters are not based on real individuals: aside from his self-portraits, Schütte’s first works from life were his 1996 series of portrait drawings entitled Luise.
Schütte trained at the Düsseldorf Kustakademie in 1973–81, at a time when conceptualism and minimalism dominated artistic education in Europe. However, throughout his career Schütte has largely rejected these approaches, reintroducing figuration, an emphasis on the creative process and an expressionist style into his work, as can be seen in Four Sisters in the Bath. As Schütte stated in 2013, ‘a scratch on a copper plate or a fingerprint on clay or burned Polystyrene are just great. Precisely the kind of things that were forbidden when I was a student: artist’s hand, fingers, bodies, personal stuff’ (Schütte in Loock 2013, accessed 22 November 2014). The use of brick also recalls several works featuring walls that Schütte made earlier in his career, including Mauer (Wall) 1977. Schütte’s experience constructing mock stage sets and architectural models with set design students at the Düsseldorf Kustakademie is also evident in Four Sisters in the Bath, which seems to present a frozen moment in a narrative that the viewer is invited to complete.
Four Sisters in the Bath can also be viewed in relation to other works by Schütte that feature female heads and busts, notably the stylistically similar Walser’s Wife 2011. While Schütte’s male figures, such as those seen in the group of works collectively known as United Enemies 1993–4 (see, for instance, Tate T07017), are often presented as politically inflected grotesque caricatures, the faces of his female subjects are smoother and more naturalistic, drawing on classical standards of beauty. Schütte’s female figures are generally presented alone, even when they form part of a series (see, for instance, Frauen 1998–2006), and Four Sisters in the Bath is therefore unique in Schütte’s work in its representation of the relationship between multiple women.
Four Sisters in the Bath may be considered within the context of other figurative sculpture exploring the human condition and psychological states by artists of Schütte’s generation including Juan Muñoz, Kiki Smith, Charles Ray and Stephan Balkenhol.
Julian Heynen, James Lingwood, Angela Vettese and others, Thomas Schütte, London 1998.
Ulrich Loock, Thomas Schütte: Friedrich Christian Flick Collection, Cologne 2004, p.47.
Ulrich Loock, ‘Public Figures’, Frieze d/e, no.8, February–March 2013, http://frieze-magazin.de/archiv/features/tierisches-theater/?lang=en, accessed 22 November 2014.
Supported by Christie’s.
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