Tribute to Peter Schütz
By Carol Brown
Peter Schütz, sculptor and teacher, died of cancer in his home in KwaZulu-Natal on October 15, 2008. Born in Glogau, Germany in 1942, Schütz obtained a BA(FA) Honours and MA(FA) from Natal University. He won the Standard Bank Young Artist Award in 1984, the Cape Town Triennial Gold Medal in 1988, and represented South Africa in Chile and in Morocco at official presentations. He taught at major tertiary educational institutions including the Technikon Natal and the University of the Witwatersrand, and maintained fully equipped sculpture studios at Wits and in KwaZulu-Natal up to the last three months of his life.
There are not many people whom one can say are true individuals and who are constant in every way, but Schütz was one of these. He made some of the best contemporary artworks in the country yet avoided the hype and publicity of the artworld, retaining a privacy and abiding respect for ritual and tradition. Television, cellphones and the internet were ignored by Schütz, and his grace and charm made one wonder why we need these unnecessary interruptions to our daily work.
He was a man who loved the good things in life; beauty in its various manifestations - be this of nature, art or food and wine - was always greatly appreciated by him. Although in his work, he tackled many important issues, (some of which long before they became fashionable - such as environmental degradation, the loss of nature in the cities, the destruction of animal life) it was always with an eye for aesthetic appreciation of form and colour and beautiful craftsmanship.
In the last ten or so years he became fascinated with the ritual and particularity of the Christian religion. This started to appear when he exhibited his 'dumb waiter' sculptures at the Goodman Gallery. These were figures carved from his favoured medium, jelutong wood, and they harked back to the flat cut-out wooden images of colonial times when the dumb-waiters stood and served in the background.
Schütz's work subtly restored dignity and respect to this group of workers who invisibly served others, and it led him to examining the lives of Saints and the typical actions by which they were characterised. The dramas and pageantry of these ancient stories were well suited to his vision which was one that followed a unique trajectory. There was also the remarkable series of the Madonna which departed from the usual representations and seemed to hold a magic of their own but always with reference to our historical consciousness. Ritual, in all its pomp, ceremony and sensuality, was always a part of his interest, and his attraction to Mariannhill Monastery near his Durban studio where his memorial service was held, was no doubt evidence of this.
A work with which I was personally associated was the larger than life-size sculpture entitled Durban Icon which was commissioned for the Durban Art Gallery collection and is arguably one of his major works. This work sanctifies the image of the ubiquitous rickshaw puller who is looked upon as a tourist attraction without consideration for his burden of pulling the heavy weight of sightseers. Schütz honoured this member of society by representing him as a saintly figure bearing the trappings of a high clergy member, transforming the traditional outfit into holy robes and the headdress into a halo-like crown. This dignification of labour and the overlooked was a landmark work and it is appropriate that this was one of the largest works he ever made. Its message is a vital one.
His respect for physical work was an important aspect of his life and to him there was no labour which was superior to another form - I remember once asking him how he was coping with preparing so many sculptures for a forthcoming exhibition, and he answered that to be working was in itself a privilege. This was one of his strengths - his work was his life. He loved creating with his hands and out of this process some remarkable and unforgettable images appeared.
Those who knew this essentially private man were privileged. Schütz leaves his sister Heidi and her family and his life partner Jill Waterman, as well as a remarkable legacy of artwork which will live on for many generations.