Warengestell mit Madonnen is a sculpture composed of nine rows of thirty-two small figures each, placed side by side. The figures, which are a fairly common representation of the Virgin Mary, are made of plaster and painted bright yellow. They are perfectly aligned, both in relation to the outer circumference they form and their position in each row. As a result, each one is situated just above another. In its visual appearance, the work plays with its exaggerated dimensions and the repetition of a single element. Because they are painted in such a vivid colour, the figures are on the verge of losing their three-dimensional essence and becoming exclusively pictorial elements. Thus the work offers an attractive visual play of negatives and positives. The lurid yellow contrasts with the forms created by the empty space around each piece, forming a weave that is repeated in each row. This illustrates the three formal characteristics that the German critic Julian Heynen identified in Fritsch’s work early in her career: a frontal, symmetrical view, the importance of colour, and minimalist concentration, the feature that endows them with ‘the authority of the simple’. Born into a Catholic family, as a child Katarina Fritsch was fascinated by religious traditions and the rituals she sometimes attended. Perhaps for that reason, from 1982 she included the Virgin as one of her iconographic elements. She later used the image in other works: Warengestell (1979–1984), a compilation of the models that make up her repertoire of forms; Koje mit vier Figuren (1985), and Die Gelbe Madonna (1987). It is in this last piece that the figure of the Virgin began to take on the meaning that would culminate in Warengestell mit Madonnen. In the work, Fritsch placed an almost life-size effigy in a public square in Münster, between two big stores and a church. Her aim was to question the meaning of faith in contemporary culture. Warengestell mit Madonnen can be read in many ways. On the one hand, the work alludes to the negligible value of images in present-day media culture. On the other, and in accord with her wish to study the relationship between art and her public, Fritsch is addressing people who have little contact with contemporary art. To such people, who generally only understand art production in terms of excellence of workmanship, she dedicates a subtle irony. The virgins are just a crude popular representation. But their lack of ‘quality’ is set against their disproportionate quantity. That is how she provides viewers with new standards to complete their frame of reference in art and, through such everyday forms, she draws them into a new aesthetic experience. Fritsch’s work is equidistant from totally personal creation and the simple appropriation of foreign elements. She occupies a point of balance, extracting from everyday reality the forms she will later distort through simple artistic mechanisms. Unlike other artists of her generation who deal with similar themes, Fritsch does not make a barbed criticism; she provides viewers with the necessary principles to make their own judgment.
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