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Who is Walser’s Wife?

By Shirley L. Kearney, German by Martin PütterBild Walser wife

“Walser’s Wife” by Thomas Schütte stays at the Fondation Beyeler until 2 February 2014. The title of this sculpture alludes to the Swiss writer Robert Walser, born in Biel in 1878, died in 1956. His literary prowess and modernist style eventually brought him acclaim as the leader of the modernist movement, something he never planned on and never knew.

Some of Walser’s stories were published as early as 1898; his first book (Fritz Kochers Aufsätze, not translated) appeared in 1904; and in 1955, Der Spaziergang (The Walk – published 1917) was the first book translated into English. He was “rediscovered” in the 1970s. The Robert Walser Centre and Archives is in Berne: www.robertwalser.ch

Walser’s Wife was created by Thomas Schütte for the exhibition “In the Spirit of Robert Walser”, held at the Donald Young Gallery, Chicago, in 2011/12. Schütte and Young are keen followers of both Walser’s early playful and subjective approach to writing and his later heavier and tighter style, which took hold with the onslaught of modernism in the 1930s when everything was changing too fast for him.

Several members of Walser’s impoverished family suffered from mental disturbances. Walser had difficulty settling down so he adopted a nomadic lifestyle, wandering from one canton to another and even crossing the border into Germany. At the age of 50 he voluntarily entered a mental asylum, where he spent his last 28 years, writing and wandering about at night. On 25 December 1956 he was found dead, lying in the snow after suffering a heart attack during one of his nocturnal outings.

Schütte’s artistic and magical ability to elicit from hard materials an inner world with its fluctuating emotional states and transform them into fictive portraits would have pleased Robert Walser. Perhaps he fashioned Walser’s Wife – knowing full well that Robert Walser never married – as the writer’s emotional inner being: withdrawn and contemplative. What a perfect marriage of sensibilities.

For Schütte, Walser was “the major among the minor writers”.

Listen to Thomas Schütte talking about Walser at the Goethe Institute Chicago, February 2012, as part of the presentation during the Robert Walser Symposium.

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