“There are monsters, who are very kind, that snuggle up to you with their eyes tenderly closed and on your wrist they place a velvety paw One evening— when the whole universe turns purple and boulders take up their reckless trajectories anew they will awaken.” Guillevic, 1942
Narratives in Stone
Stefan Rinck’s stone figures form a motley and comical community of, for the most part, animals, chimeras and monsters. Dogs, foxes and wolves, rats and mice, bears, cats, monkeys, owls, frogs and even a tapir are to be found rubbing shoulders with one another. But these animals are not merely animals, they wear costumes and masks; are endowed with particular symbols or characteristics—a cross, a hatchet, a club, a mask or a hood; some bear the names of heroes of Greek mythology—Eurydice and Polyphemus; or of fairy tales—Pinocchio; or of legend—Romeo, Siegfried, Sancho; biblical names—Behemoth and Leviathan. Others have more functional titles—Executioner, Referee or Crusader. We also encounter modern-day monsters: a Troglodyte with Wall Street, another Troglodyte with a Mask and even an Angry Citizen. Rinck’s sculpted figures make up a discordant but related assembly of non-humans: they come from elsewhere, an archaic imaginary world, woven from myths and legends. In the Middle Ages, animals were the symbolic reflection of humanity, yet Rinck’s creatures are in no way symbolic personifications. So, what does this bestiary of medieval inspiration mean today? With his collection of fauna, the artist is exploring a comical, imaginary yet realistic vein, breathing new life into its iconography, using a technique typical of the Middle Ages: sculpting his figures directly from stone.
With their individuality and powerful characterization, Rinck’s sculptures remind us of the figures of Roman art, which populate the columns and tympana of churches. They share the same morphology and style: their small size—many of the sculptures measure between 50-60 cm—, the hybrid aspect of the chimera and monster, their grimacing facial expressions. They are also endowed with the telluric density of the gnome. These are grotesque figures, in which we recognize the vitalist comedy typical of medieval realism that Mikhaïl Bakhtine describes and which could be observed during the parades of jesters and buffoons at religious and popular festivities. The use of parody, which in those times permitted an inversion of common values and ecclesiastical and social hierarchies, also characterizes Rinck’s art, with its atmosphere of masquerade and transgressive excess, reminding us of the Feast of Fools, into which Victor Hugo plunges his readers at the beginning of his novel Notre-Dame de Paris (1831).
The masquerade or carnival is a predominant theme and many of the animals wear masks or medieval harlequin costumes complete with ruff. This is the case with Maître des plaisirs, Roi soleil, Bouffon, La Boule, Eurydike, Romeo, Mercury and The Fortuneteller with his body in the form of a dice, who are all inspired by a baroque court ballet, the Ballet des Fées des Forêts de Saint-Germain (1625), a wonderful, pirouetting parody of the melodramas in fashion during the 17th century. Yet if the Middle Ages seem to color Rinck’s art, its frame of reference in fact crystalizes around a number of “Gothic” obsessions of the Romantic kind: a taste for mythology and folk tales, for different epochs and cultures for the fantastic or figures of hubris and excess.
His creatures have thus emancipated themselves from their architectural framework. Since their release, they have been travelling through time and space, they have spawned and formed hybrids with their Aztec, Inca, Amerindian, African, Pacific and European counterparts. Often rigid and erect, they resemble votive, funerary or domestic deities and when the artist groups them together on the same plinth, we seem to be confronted by a crowd, addressing us with the questions: Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?
The titles also take on the role of costumes. The sculpture Eurydike is a skull placed on an outfit from the Renaissance period, whose ruff also doubles as the death’s head’s teeth. The sculpture Orpheus also features a skull. Of course the characters of Orpheus and Eurydice are strongly linked with death, yet without the titles, how could one imagine the subjects to be Eurydice the dyad and the handsome Orpheus? How could one identify Romeo as the masked rat or cat? Titles, attributes and appearance are all part of a play on the use of masks in this “Eternal Comedy of the Creatures1”, where the pieces are movable like pawns on a chessboard. Within this comedy, nothing is constant—certain sculptures bear names relating to their form: Jack in the Box. The same is true of Totem and sometimes a dog is Dog and a fox is Fox. And the Cyclops Polyphemus, which resembles an unfinished golem, does have a head with one eye. Symbols have lost their power. Absurdity pushes towards its antidote—belief (the totem, deities)—or towards a concrete reality—where a cat is a cat—or towards blind and monstrous violence. There can be no misunderstanding: Rinck is the antithesis of formalism and postmodern relativism, which operate through signs and images, his figures are made from the very material of drama “ the drama of landscape” (Victor Hugo), of the fauna and flora that humans destroy.
These small, carved rocks stand proudly erect: vertical islands, true to the original block from which they were extracted. They impose themselves through the immediacy of their simple presence. This stems from the primitive manner in which the material has been worked, which in turn shows though in their raw and even rough appearance. Traces of percussive blows are apparent and incisions are sometimes aggressive, particularly in the hard marble. The surface textures vary: sometimes gritty (The Magic Cube, You Carry), sometimes striated or polished (Casinofretman). The artist seeks to express himself through depth in the same way as an engraver uses lines and strokes. So, is Rinck taking us back to the Stone Age? Yes, in the sense that sculpting directly from stone implies a certain relationship to the material, the physical gesture and the tools employed. This is somewhat rare in contemporary and modern art and even in classical art despite Michelangelo’s belief that true sculptors sculpt directly from the raw material. A sculptor must understand the block of stone and let it express itself: his task is to extract a form from the raw material. The work of art is the result of a struggle between two opposing wills “the incisive will of the material” and “human willpower” (Gaston Bachelard2). Thus, direct carving gives shape to the struggle against the raw material’s resistance, a struggle that illustrates man’s domination of nature. Should we not be retaking control of these primitive, cognitive gestures of conflict and inverse the destructive curve?
Rinck’s sculptures are anchored in the surreal more than in reality, a surreal world that already existed, in nature, before it was observed by the human eye, to which it contributed in shaping. Perhaps they evoke a time when nonhumans spoke, because humans listened to them? The fully realized human form is absent from Rinck’s work, only present in the shape of the skull, associated with vanities and death—a recurring theme of his masquerades. A tree, surrounded by fallen skulls as its fruit, embodies in a sophisticated apotheosis, the vision of man locked into his madness in the heart of the jungle (Kongotree3).
The grotesque moves towards the tragic and the masquerade to the danse macabre. The comic is tainted by melancholy, cruelty, anger or imperiousness. The invulnerable Siegfried seems lost on his toy boat. Eurydice, her fists clenched, rails against Hades or perhaps Orpheus. As for the invincible Behemoth, leaning on his prehistoric club, he seems to be holding in his anger behind his predatory smile. The great Chained Fret is chained to a rock, adopted, domesticated, weighed down by mortality. These beings in sandstone, marble, basalt and granite are figures from the Terribilità: terrifying blocks of stone. A feeling of pathetic potency seeps from these miniaturized giants. They no longer wish to be the mirror of humanity and its destruction of the living world: the relief of the sculpted reflection in Ape with Mirror emerges from the mirror itself.
Familiar animals are our enigmas—enigmas full of pride.
Anne Bonnin, March 2017
1 “The Eternal Comedy of the Creatures” is the title of an exhibition of the artist’s oeuvre at the Alegria Gallery in Madrid (2015)
2 Gaston Bachelard, La terre et les rêveries de la volonté, 1948
3 Inspired by the final scene of Nicolas Roeg’s film Heart of Darkness, itself drawn from Joseph Conrad’s novel with the same title.