A brilliant yellow Madonna, a set of skeleton feet, a grey giant leaning obdurately on his club, a green and boyish-looking St. Michael slaying the dragon, a pitch-black snake—these and other figures make up a curious cast of characters currently on view in MoMA’s Sculpture Garden. Figurengruppe (Group of Figures) is a tightly arranged ensemble of nine sculptures by the German contemporary artist Katharina Fritsch, first conceived in 2006–08 in painted polyester and recast in 2010–11 in durable lacquered copper and bronze for outdoor display. The group is making its MoMA debut as part of Figure in the Garden, a seasonal outdoor installation that unites figurative works from the collection from the late 19th century to the present.
Fritsch is best known for fastidiously crafted figures, animals, and everyday objects placed in unexpected arrangements and juxtapositions, uncovering new, sometimes unsettling meanings about our past and present histories. Often painted in striking colors, her work invariably commands attention—and MoMA’s Figurengruppe does not fall short of that. The figures’ polished, silky surfaces, beaming colors, and choreographed arrangement are spellbinding and puzzling, their mute stance and inscrutable veneer tempting us to search for some larger narrative.
There are hints and clues about what inspired certain characters, but ultimately any fixed meaning remains stubbornly elusive. The artist has explained, for example, that the Madonna is based on cheap souvenir figurines sold near church pilgrimage sites in Germany and France, albeit without the lemony dress. Religious symbolism is present, but the dazzling color unhinges the worshipped item from a prescribed context, de-familiarizing her into an object that can bear other potential storylines or associations. (Fritsch also produced the Madonna as a small-scale multiple, creating a more widely available, high-art doppelganger of the commercial souvenir.)
The skeleton feet go back to a childhood dream in which the artist, as a four-year-old, fled a burning house only to encounter a pair of skeleton feet. These in turn relate to a shoe-fitting practice offered in German shoe stores through the 1960s whereby an image of one’s foot bones would be created using an x-ray contraption. Anecdotal memory plays a part here, but seeing the rigorously crafted set of bones can just as easily bring to mind some disembodied creature out of Edward Gorey’s morbid tales or a commonly encountered object from an archeologist’s lab.
The female torso takes its cue from a 1926 Expressionist sculpture by a man named Ernst Conze that used to stand in the garden of Fritsch’s childhood home in Langenberg, Germany; now painted white and reduced in form, it has been lifted from its past into a present-day setting. In fact, mid-century German parks and public gardens have been a recurring theme in Fritsch’s practice, in some works even serving as visual backdrops. In a way this tactic is preserved in MoMA’s current display—the newly re-installed Sculpture Garden makes for a fitting tableau, situating Figurengruppe within a diverse congregation of cohorts that include Auguste Rodin’s St. John the Baptist Preaching (1878–80), Aristide Maillol’s contemplative female Mediterranean (1902–05), Max Ernst’s King Playing the Queen (1944), and Tom Otterness’s sleeping Head (1988–89), among others.
Taking a look at some of the artist’s source material can offer access points into the group’s oblique presence. What I find most captivating, though, is the friction between the sculptures’ smooth, almost generic look and the rich and quasi-narrative worlds that unfold beneath their surfaces. It’s a space where our intellect or attempt to rely on a logical framework loses its tight grip, conjuring instead images from the realms of history, memory, myths, and fairytales. These aren’t necessarily cheerful, but they do make us ask questions—maybe even reveal some of our own skeletons in the closet….