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"Fritz Wotruba: Hommage à Michelangelo" opens at the Belvedere in Vienna
Fritz Wotruba, Two Figures and a Torso, 1958. Paper, quill in black, 29 x 42 cm. Belvedere Vienna, permanent loan from Fritz Wotruba Privatstiftung. Photo: Harald Eisenberger, © Fritz Wotruba Privatstiftung.
VIENNA.- Fritz Wotruba (1907–1975) numbers among the most important European sculptors of the 20th century: he is considered a “classic” of modern sculpture. Alongside his sculptural oeuvre, he also created an extensive body of graphic work. He himself felt that drawing was an indispensable part of the “unity” of his work. The drawings almost never have a merely preparatory or accompanying function: most of them are autonomous artworks.

Wotruba saw both drawing and work in stone, his preferred material, as the most elementary and unmediated art forms. In 2007 the State Graphic Collection in Munich presented the first extensive exhibition concentrating exclusively on Wotruba's drawings, accompanied by a few selected sculptures. Shown at the Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich and at the Lehmbruck Museum, Duisburg, the show was primarily assembled from works provided by the Fritz Wotruba Foundation in Vienna. The current exhibition for “Wotruba im 21er Haus” was conceived upon the foundation provided by the 2007 exhibition.

With 65 drawings and 8 stone sculptures, the exhibition seeks to show how in the process of drawing Wotruba focused on the most elementary “building blocks” of the human body, preparing a process of reduction that, often much later, also found expression in his sculptures. Wotruba's drawings gravitate around and condense his conception of the figure, providing him in their at times ruthless directness with unadulterated raw material. They were an inexhaustible source of inspiration, from which he drew formal clarity, allowing the spontaneity, passion and untamed force of the original idea to flow into the finished sculpture. The drawings conserve the “essence of the idea”, as he himself said.

On the occasion of the 450th anniversary of Michelangelo Buonarroti's (1475–1564) death, the exhibition explores Wotruba's lifelong fascination with this sculptor of genius. For many artists over the centuries, from his contemporaries to those of the present day, Michelangelo has remained a key point of reference. Wotruba's dialog with Michelangelo began during his years as an apprentice, from 1921 to 1925, when every morning before beginning work he would draw after reproductions of the art of famous sculptors, including Michelangelo.

If one is seeking quotations of Michelangelo's artistic language in Wotruba's work, one can certainly find some, for example in the drawings from the 1930s, whose figures are reminiscent of Michelangelo's Pičta Rondanini and other works. Even more rewarding than the speculative hunt for “direct” quotations, however, is the appreciation of fundamental standpoints that Wotruba assumed in his work in stone, which bring to light interesting parallels. Generally Wotruba, like Michelangelo, worked on stone in taille directe. Here the sculptor forgoes the widely used method of transferring a model onto the stone using a dot system, instead hewing the sculpture directly from the block. Wotruba's work was guided solely by an orientational drawing on the stone, and preceded only by designs sketched on paper.

Michelangelo based his work on the Platonic notion of the idea, or form, as the highest principle. He saw the finished artwork in the raw block of marble, already existing as an idea in the stone and waiting to be revealed in its true form. This conception of the already extant figure in the stone waiting to be liberated by the sculptor also influenced Wotruba's thinking. Manifested most of all in Wotruba's late work, it can be appreciated clearly in the unfinished 1975 sculpture Standing Figure of Carrara marble. It is also readily apparent in the final series of drawings Hommage ą Michelangelo, a reflection on the process of sculptural creation.

In the reception of Michelangelo, the concept of terribilitą, formulated by his contemporary biographer Giorgio Vasari, is of central importance. Not fully translatable, the term is a superlative description of formal aspects – for instance daring shortenings – and of the overall aura of forcefulness and violence emanating from the work. Simultaneously, it characterizes the personality of the artist himself as powerful, frightening and wild. Despite the broad expanse of time separating the two sculptors, Wotruba may well have seen himself as a kindred spirit of his great model, sharing with him a close juxtaposition of vulnerable delicacy and terribilitą. These extreme poles, also visible in Wotruba's work – as are those of sensuousness and asceticism, stringency and Baroque abundance – emerge most strongly in his drawings. In the end they represent the fundamental tension underlying his art. Even in the “act of creation” of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Vienna-Mauer, there lies an “act of violence” which was only possible through “the daring presumptuousness of ignoring conventional fields of competence and assuming by force the role of the architect” (Werner Hofmann, 1992). It is exactly this sort of negation that we see realized in its highest form in the overpowering artistic genius of Michelangelo as draftsman, painter, sculptor, architect and poet.

An aura of terribilitą has also arisen around Wotruba over the decades in the reception of his achievements. Relating to both his art and his person, it is transmitted in mythologizing concepts such as violence, resistance, stone, block, mass, architecture, impact etc.

Lastly, we also encounter the non-finito, the unfinished, as seen in a large part of Michelangelo's sculptural work – be it a consciously implemented stylistic device or the result of external circumstances – on numerous occasions in Wotruba's as well. In 1971 Wotruba began work on a head in Laas marble, continually developing it over the years until his death in 1975, at which time it remained unfinished. This head, which according to oral tradition the artist saw as the melding of a Michelangelo portrait and a self-portrait, finally found its permanent home when his widow Lucy Wotruba donated it to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the city of Michelangelo.

The catalog of the 2007 exhibition, which has since become the standard work on Wotruba's drawings, is available for purchase in the Salon für Kunstbuch im 21er Haus.

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