My mother lives in The Netherlands, and I fell in love with a little museum there when I visited her in The Hague.
Museum Beelden aan Zee sits by the ocean and houses a collection of contemporary figurative sculpture. While most pieces in the museum’s collection are obviously, if abstractly, figurative, some cause you to stop and wonder how they relate to the body. Some make you uncomfortable, some are stand-outs simply because of their innovative execution, some make you laugh, and in fine art that is unusual.
On the terrace in front of the museum sit twenty three enormous, whimsical pieces illustrating fairy tales, by the American sculptor Tom Otterness. Otterness’s style is simple and almost cartoonish, and if the pieces were smaller they would merely be cute. Because of their scale, though, they are imposingly playful. In the work “Mama Es Boos (Mad Mama), Otterness plays with the juxtaposition of scale, making the looming, angry Mama more fearsome for being disproportionately larger than her three offspring. But Otterness’s sweet stick- figure Mama could never be mean, she’s just mad. Through his cartoonish depiction of the human body and his grand scale, he’s perfectly captured a very familiar moment: an angry mother and her three nonplussed children. This is one of my favorite sculptures.
Figurative work pull at me in a way other subject matter doesn’t, probably because I’m a very physical person and I love using my own body well. I love the way the body works: the look of muscles under skin, the shapes and spaces and angles created by the positioning of limbs, the way the body changes as it ages. Is there is any story the human body can’t tell, any idea which can’t be explored through the figure?
A professor once told me that once you can draw the human body, you can draw anything, and he’s right. To depict the human body correctly is difficult, to bring it to life and imbue it will context and meaning seemingly effortlessly creates the moment when art comes alive and draws you in. It’s this mastery which allows the viewer to put aside everything else and experience a conversation with that piece.
Tom Otterness’s sculptures create a playground of art, and so the experience his mastery allows is a bit different from other “serious” art. It’s an experience of joy and playfulness and childlike responses, but it’s no less important an experience for being lighthearted.