The Serpentine Gallery last night premiered its latest exhibition, Thomas Schütte: Faces & Figures, a retrospective of one of the world’s most influential living contemporary artists. The German artist who studied under Gerhard Richter, Schütte, is known for his bewildering array of work, ranging from architectural models and actual buildings to diaristic water­colours, observational drawings and sculptures. However, unlike many other gallery’s before it, the Serpentine focuses entirely on his highly-charged and poetic responses to the human form.

Outside the Serpentine stand a pair of his United Enemies – originally small modelling clay, cloth and bamboo sculptures that sat under bell jars, now battling bronzes, pairs of bound-together figures that rear over us, roped together in conflict.

The artist has returned repeatedly to the genre of portraiture and through these works we see Schütte reassessing the figurative traditions of art, presenting emotive and often uncomfortable observations of the human condition. The exhibition brings together his key sculptural, painted and photographic portraits, embracing both existing work and new work made especially for the Serpentine Gallery.

Over several decades, Schütte has created watercolours and drawings of acquaintances and friends, as well as many self-portraits, including the Mirror Drawing works. His drawings are often created in series, approaching the same subject numerous times as a means of engaging with the inner nature of the individual. Schütte’s drawings feed closely into his sculptural portraits, which are created in a similar spirit.

A work central to the Serpentine exhibition is Vater Staat (Father State) 2011, a towering steel sculpture of an authoritative figure who, paradoxically, appears frail and isolated. This formidable work relates to Schütte’s interest in shifts of scale; although epic, the work remains an investigation into fragility.

Thomas Schütte: Faces & Figures is at the Serpentine Gallery till 18 November 2012.