Executed in 1995, United Enemies epitomizes the refined poetics of Thomas Schütte’s oeuvre and belongs to one of his most celebrated sculptural series. Comprised of over thirty works completed between 1993 and 1997, the eponymous series marks a novel approach to the genre and is central to understanding Schütte’s diverse artistic language.
Following the strategy evident in its title, the work unites the opposites to highlight the intricacies and contradictions of human relationships. The sculpture presents two figures, forcibly bound to each other with a cord. Despite an apparent simplicity of the binding, the union projects a sense of fateful permanence, and stages a metaphor for a conflict as something mutually limiting and ultimately futile. For Schütte, this is the image of an alliance formed with unequivocal absence of sincerity; the artist describes it as a “definitive model for a permanent situation,” which speaks to the timeless issues of political tensions and affirmations of power.
Modelled in remarkable detail, their heads and faces combine the conflicting expressions of confidence, anguish, agitation, desires that are repressed but not annulled. The complex and nuanced psychology of each figure evokes the works of the Old Masters and registers Schütte’s perceptive manipulation of Fimo clay, his preferred medium for its malleability and immediacy. Wrapped in fragments of Schütte’s own clothing, the figures attain an almost uncanny realism of the human presence. “It’s my job to turn emotions into material… art has to be about emotions, simple emotions that can be summed up easily” (T. Schütte quoted in Thomas Schütte: Hindsight, Madrid, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, 2010, p. 141).
Raised on an elegant tall plinth, the composition evokes the display of a classical portrait busts of notable political figures. Indeed, Schütte commenced the United Enemies series during his extended residency in Rome, where he was greatly inspired by the city’s long history of figurative sculpture, notably the classical heads of Roman emperors and the portraits of popes by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Though executed in marble, Bernini’s figures, adorned with regalia, acts as a symbol of the subject’s incontestable authority. Substituting marble with clay, and poised confidence with a muted conflict, the United Enemies highlight and investigate the hidden undercurrents of political regimes.
Incidentally, Schütte’s fascination with the history of the city coincided with the political scandal known as the Mani Pulite (Clean Hands, 1992) investigation, which exposed the entrenched bribery and corruption within the Italian political system. Set against the backdrop of political condemnation, the figures in United Enemies not only mirror their present situation, but highlight the questionable patterns of political power per se. As the artist explained, “I was [in Rome] in 1992, the year there was a peaceful revolution in Italy where the heads of State and a lot of prominent people were being exposed and discredited and sent to jail. So the caricature and the satire was a reality” (T. Schütte quoted in J. Lingwood, “David Lingwood in conversation with Thomas Schütte", London, 1998, p. 29).