Johannes von Stumm’s unique combination of three different materials has attracted public and critical acclaim in a decade of successful exhibitions, both in Britain and abroad. His startlingly original sculpture, which engages continually with risk and a defiance of accepted laws, joins iron, granite and glass to create abstract or reduced figurative works in which apparently conflicting materials exist in complex harmony.
Von Stumm’s choice of media and instinct for experimentation is deeply rooted in his background, in a childhood and adolescence spent at the foot of the Alps with long winters, ice and rocks. His love of steel, in particular, is intertwined with his family history: ancestors on his father’s side were blacksmiths and steel factory owners for 250 years and, as a young man, he painted on cardboard in the cellar of his parents’ house, mixing broken glass and metal objects into the paint. At eighteen, during a visit to Paris, von Stumm was deeply moved by the power and beauty which he saw in Rodin’s sculpture; he immediately began to work figuratively with clay and plaster, first at home and then at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich; six months spent in a quiet Italian village strengthened his desire to test the potential of glass, stone and steel combinations. On returning to the Academy, he asked for help, only to be told that the alliance of these very different materials was impossible. The challenge was irresistible: after three years of breaking glass, he finally developed a way of joining these opposing forces in an inseparable unity, a form in which inter-dependent pieces hold each other upright and are often linked as a carpenter would join two pieces of wood. Such a breakthrough has proved rich in possibilities: in fifteen years of combining metal with glass and stone, von Stumm has expanded the boundaries of expression by fusing the strong and the fragile, the solid and the liquid, the dark and the transparent.
Recent developments in von Stumm¹s work have taken him further from those early artistic influences, from the earthbound suffering of Rodin’s figures and from the work of the Italian Impressionist sculptor, Medardo Rosso, with its intense manipulation of light and shade. In his ‘Immaterial’ series, von Stumm has eliminated the shadows to create figures of light and ultimate transparency, powerful figures which use the negative space to let light into increasingly complex and exciting forms. These works are a logical progression in his continual wish to translate and transform into solid sculpture the transitory effects of light, to de-materialise the image in space. An earlier piece, ‘Reflection’ a seated figure made entirely from glass had been an effort to create a form of absolute purity, but technical limitations made it impossible to increase the scale. The ‘Immaterial Figures’, however, represent much more than a technical solution to a problem of form; it is hard to imagine a greater embodiment of purity than this image of light streaming through space purity not in the subjective and limiting sense of morality, but as a freedom of spirit which transcends vanity and cynicism and other such obstacles to human aspiration. Here, light is quite literally enlightenment.
There is a clearly-evident spirituality in von Stumm’s sculpture, an expansive wisdom which draws its richness from his fascination with Buddhism, Hinduism, Shamanism and Christianity, which rejects exclusive religious references and defies a single interpretation. When the human body is represented, it is represented in recognisable postures with universal meanings: the ‘Welcome Figure’ opens its arms wide to meet an approaching person; in ‘Offering’, a kneeling figure holds a bowl in its hands, pointing to a position of humility; ‘Couple’ speaks of a strong and simple unity; and the large-scale ‘Immaterial Seated Figure’ is a calm and serene observer, looking out at the world. The powerful physicality and extraordinary spirituality which converse so intensely in a single piece of von Stumm’s sculpture is ultimately about much more than a challenging combination of symbolic materials: the impact comes undeniably from the artist’s physical and emotional struggle to express a transforming vision, and it is done so in a way which cannot fail to be felt and understood.