Reclining Figure

“I dream of a sculpture in which landscape, architecture and city are one! It might be a city like Marseilles, a city steaming with heat which suddenly transmogrifies. It becomes an immense piece of sculpture, a gigantic figure, made up of white blocks and segmented by flat, horizontal terraces arranged in a bare and motionless landscape.”

No other sculptor represented in the Rotterdam International Sculpture Collection involved so emphatically the features of the city in his work as Wotruba. In keeping with his description of Marseilles of around 1969, his large limestone sculpture at the Sculpture Terrace is literally a ‘gigantic figure, made up of white blocks, arranged in the landscape’. The fact that it was the human figure which led to the work would seem of secondary importance.
However, Wotruba’s sculptures always feature the human figure, standing, walking, seated or reclining. Until the end of the nineteen-forties, they were most reminiscent of ancient Greek sculpture: static, somewhat out of proportion, with stylized features, but almost always classical in dimensioning. His later work retained that sense of serenity, although by then it was far more abstract and consisted, without exception, of the main geometric shapes of the cube, rectangle and cylinder. The rich variety in his work is produced by minor anomalies in the elementary formal syntax, and by the way in which the shapes are twisted and turned and forged together. Wotruba developed this characteristic style after the Second World War, having encountered modern sculptors like Zadkine and Laurens, and pioneers of modern art like the collector Peggy Guggenheim and the director of Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, Willem Sandberg. The latter honoured him in 1962 with a big retrospective. Wotruba developed the prototype of the Rotterdam Reclining Figure, one of the larger works in the Austrian sculptor’s oeuvre, in 1960. Paradoxically, this type, with its profusion of diagonal lines, makes a more dynamic and playful impression than his almost stern standing or walking figures, which are conceived as Doric columns. There is a bronze version of one of these sculptures – Walking Man from 1952 – in the centre of Utrecht, where it was acquired in 1974.

In the spring of 1968 a large touring exhibition of Wotruba’s work was to be seen in Museum Boymans-van Beuningen. That occasion probably led the Urban Embellishment Committee to approach the Austrian to carve a reclining figure for Rotterdam. In August 1968 the municipal executive made the necessary funds available, “because Wotruba belongs to the artists who make an important contribution to the evolution of sculpture in the present century”, according to newspaper reports. A few months later the Thyssen-Bornemisza Group N.V. (formerly the Bank of Commerce and Shipping in Rotterdam), to mark its fiftieth anniversary, donated the sculpture to Rotterdam, enabling municipality to leave the earmarked funds (the equivalent of Euro, 33,000) in the treasury. It was also announced that the piece would be placed at the promenade terrace along Westersingel. It was unveiled on 25 January 1971 by Madame Denise ThyssenBornemisza.

Wotruba was very fond of limestone for his work. It was most suited to the block-like shapes which dominated his sculptures and to the ‘architectural landscapes’ in which they often stood. “Stone is the only true material for the sculptor. All others, tin, iron bars, tin cans and coiled springs are merely poor substitutes”, to quote Wotruba. He carved his forms coarsely, leaving Wotruba, who taught sculpture at the Academy of Art in Vienna from 1945 until his death in 1975, committed a great many ideas and theories to paper. He had strong views, for instance, on art in public space. In his opinion it should never be ‘flashy adornment’ for capitalist bank and insurance buildings, but should maintain its autonomous merit as much as possible. In that respect, Reclining Figure has an exemplary location in Rotterdam. Wotruba was equally uncompromising when it came to other fields. His expressive, block-like shapes not only feature in opera sets and costumes, but also in the church he designed for the Order of Carmelites on Georgenberg mountain, Vienna, to which his dictum applied: “One cannot deny that harmony can only be established when many contradictions have been overcome’. The curious result, consecrated in 1976, is, without a doubt, one of the earliest examples of Deconstructivism in architecture.

Jelle Bouwhuis

O. Breicha (red.), Fritz Wotruba: Figur als Widerstand, Salzburg 1977
Tent. cat. Wotruba, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen Rotterdam, 1968

Publicatiedatum: 12/05/2015