War and Pieces by Bouke de Vries at Hillwood Museum

4 September 2019 — 5 April 2020
4155 Linnean Avenue Washington
#installation-art #visual-art

A remarkable ceramic centerpiece, created from thousands of white porcelain fragments, in the form of an epic battle will transform the dining room at Hillwood this fall. Inspired by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century centerpieces crafted in sugar and porcelain, ‘War and Pieces’ is a contemporary response to this tradition.

In the seventeenth century, wealthy households decorated their tables with extravagant sugar sculptures that replicated allegorical scenes, architectural follies, or classical figures. By the eighteenth century, artists augmented or replaced the decorations with porcelain, including that by Meissen and Sèvres, early porcelain manufacturers who used skilled confectioners as their first modelers.

War and Pieces comprises seven sculptural vignettes, created in both sugar and porcelain, along with pieces of plastic toys. “It’s a battle between the Ancien Régime of sugar and porcelain with the plastic elements the modern interlopers,” de Vries said of the work. Six of the scenes represent Roman war deities Mars and Minerva doing battle, with Minerva usually dominating and declaring victory. Both figures use table utensils as weapons as they stand among decapitated figures and severed heads–what de Vries calls “Hummels gone wrong”—and the broken remains of ceramic dinner plates. The focal point of the work is a weightless mushroom cloud standing two feet tall and nearly four feet in diameter and surrounded by numerous portrayals of the crucified Christ as well as Guan Yin, the ancient Chinese bodhisattva of mercy. At the top of the cloud, an angel cries. Besides war, chaos, and aggression, the installation also features humor and beauty, undermining classical symbols in a satirical and critical way.

This exhibition marks the second time that the grand dining table at Hillwood features a contemporary interpretation of earlier centerpieces. In 2009 and 2010, as part of the exhibition Sèvres Then and Now, the table featured the Sèvres 1979 centerpiece called Ruins of Egypt, a whimsical take on monuments from antiquity crafted in biscuit porcelain.

Called a “masterwork” by art critics, War and Pieces has toured venues in Europe and Asia since 2012. Hillwood will become only the third venue in the United States to display the work.

Bouke de Vries, War and Pieces, 2012 (installation view), 18th-, 19th-, and 20th-century. Porcelain, plastic, sprayed plaster, acrylic, steel, aluminum, gilded brass, and mixed media. Photos courtesy of Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens. Photographed by Erik Kvalsvik.

About the artist

Bouke de Vries is a Dutch-born ceramic artist currently living and working in London. He has lived a life that is much like his artwork – a mash-up of old world skills that he uses to remix, reorder, and deliver overt contemporary satire and social commentary. The reverse of Ai Weiwei, who dramatically dropped the Han dynasty urn to make a point about the loss of history, de Vries puts the broken back together to re-contextualize the past. De Vries applies gold (kintsugi technique) to highlight cracks of exploded ceramic matter to create new meaning and added value to shattered ceramic vessels and figurines, archeological finds, sunken treasure, and scavenged beack shards. Sad stories of accidents, disasters, mistakes, and loss become new triumphs. Using the skills of the conservatory and reversible but miraculously strong adhesives, de Vries actually does put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

About Hillwood Estate, Museums & Gardens

When art collector, businesswoman, social figure, and philanthropist Marjorie Merriweather Post left to the public her northwest Washington, D.C. estate, she endowed the country with the most comprehensive collection of Russian imperial art outside Russia, an exquisite 18th-century French decorative art collection, and 25 acres of serene landscape gardens and natural woodlands. Opened as a public institution in 1977, today Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens offers a gracious and immersive experience unlike any other. Highlights of the collection include Fabergé eggs, Russian porcelain, Russion orthodox icons, Beauvais tapestries, and Sèvres porcelain, and Post’s personal collection of apparel, accessories, and jewelry. Thirteen acres of enchanting formal gardens include a Japanese-style garden, rose garden, French parterre, and a greenhouse full of orchids.