One of the most exciting exhibitions of sculpture took place in Portugal in the year 2019. It was called The Lusitanian Route, and the sculptor of all the pieces was Robert Schad. The exhibition took place in 20 locations around Portugal, and comprised works in Robert’s preferred medium, iron and steel, and all of his pieces are fashioned from iron bars of a similar dimension. Each location received at least one of his works, and the locations ranged from the fortress walls at Valença do Minho down to the countryside outside Tavira.
Robert studied at the Staatlichen Akademie der Bildenen Künste in Karlsruhe and, in 1981, he won a German scholarship to study at the Escola Superior de Belas Artes in Porto. In 1982, he submitted an award-winning drawing to the 3rd Biennial for Contemporary Art in Vila Nova de Cerveira, and in 1989 he won the main prize of the 2nd International Biennial for Sculptural Art in Óbidos. Robert was so captivated with the north of Portugal that he and his wife Erika bought a house in Chamosinhos, near Vila Nova de Cerveira.
I admit that Robert’s style of working came as a surprise to me. I had imagined that a sculptor spends time working on the chosen material with which he fashions his imagination into solid form. Robert, on the other hand, spends much of his time in his design studio, which is an intensely private experience, since he does not wish to be disturbed at his design work. When he is satisfied with his drawing, he passes it to the welders, who make up the sculpture. Robert passes through the workshop regularly in order to be sure that his design is being followed.
In discussion, Robert said he had begun his sculpting career by working in both wood and metal but soon decided that his métier was to work in steel alone. He told us that an artist of his talent and genre must choose a medium and a style which is totally original and must then give it his best.
We first saw the new sculpture near Quatro Estradas, north of Santo Estêvão in Tavira. It was a fascinating folded-over kind of lobster pot. At that point, I decided that we should investigate further and find out more about the sculptor of this intriguing piece and discover how it had come to be in the field not six kilometres from our house. Our investigations led to Robert and his “Percurso Lusitano” project and, quite by coincidence, this sculpture is the sole piece by Robert in the Algarve.
I really wanted to meet Robert and invited him to speak to members of the Algarve History Association about his work, and in particular about the “Percurso”. To my surprise, he accepted and at the end of September made the journey from Chamosinhos to Tavira to address the association. Robert addressed us in his fourth language (English for him comes after German, French and Portuguese, in each of which he is fluent).
The life of a modern sculptor is not merely that of a designer and fashioner of materials. The sculptor must also find buyers for his work and when it is of large dimensions, he must negotiate with people and institutions which have the space and the ability to display his work.
He set up one piece, for example, outside the Pousada and Castle at Estremoz, which must have required the permission of the Câmara; another outside the castle at Évoramonte, which needed the permission of IGESPAR (institute for the management of architectural and archaeological heritage). Each of these permissions (remember there were 20 of them) had to be negotiated individually by Robert himself.
Robert and his wife Erika spend, at most, two to three months in the north of Portugal, and their main residence is at Larians in Eastern France, not far from Besançon. Robert chose his location well because the steel fabrication workshop is within a few minutes’ walk of his home.
Another aspect of Robert’s work intrigued me. How does he locate these pieces, and how does he transport them? Clearly, he has good relationships with transport companies and crane drivers. He told us that six of his pieces were recently displayed in Brittany, and the local authority was quite specific that he could not drill into any local stonework to mount his pieces. At the end of the display period, he was given only a week to remove his tonnes of steel. The transport bill came to around €20,000.
Robert’s spatial sketches are created using solid square steel bars, which are welded together. Steel, the material of weapons, machines and construction, is set in the countryside “becoming a part of nature”. Robert says his sculptures “dance in space”. Placing his sculptures in the countryside, he draws a contrast between what is man-made and the natural beauty of trees and meadows.
Changes in the weather, the time of day and seasonal variations are all part of the sculptural presence. He says “nature and sculpture are mutually dependent and interlock to make an organic whole”. His idea is not to provide furniture for natural spaces but to create different perceptions of the landscape as at Le Parc de Sculptures de Larians.
Robert describes his placing of sculptures in public open-air spaces as a desire to inspire people, particularly those who are not used to experiencing contemporary art. His artworks in indoor spaces again use prefabricated steel bars and he creates the illusion of solid matter appearing to be in motion.
His most famous work is “A Cruz Alta” (The High Cross) at Fátima. Robert comes from a Catholic family and he remembers as a child the great impression made on him by the fact that Our Lady appeared only to children, and not to adults.
He went to Fátima for the first time in the late 1970s to act as a tour guide. He used the money he earned in this way to finance his studies, and so his whole later career has its roots in Fátima. “A Cruz Alta”, his towering piece of religious art, will provide the focus for my next article.