Philip Haas: The Four Seasons at the Nelson-Atkins

Philip Haas, a contemporary artist and filmmaker, has created four monumental portrait busts entitled The Four Seasons. Haas’s 15-foot-tall sculptures are 3-dimensional interpretations of the Italian Renaissance painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s (1526 – 1593) portrait series of the same name.

As in Arcimboldo’s paintings, the physical features of the four sculpted figures are rendered in botanical forms appropriate to each season. However, Arcimboldo’s paintings only depict the figures in profile, so Haas sought to transform the images into three dimensions requiring the imaginative creation of motifs not depicted in the two-dimensional paintings.

“We changed the medium. It’s interesting that when all the art historians arrive to look at the sculptures they are coming not to look at the profiles they know, but are asking ‘what does the back of the head look like,’” Haas comments.

The Four Seasons acknowledge nature’s rhythmic cycles and also, as sculptural portraits of people, they represent the human aging process from youth to old age. Spring is a profusion of brightly colored flowers. The man’s cheeks are rose blossoms, petals hang from his tulip earlobes and he wears a coat of green leaves embellished with a collar of daisies. His broad smile expresses the joy of the season, characterized by increasingly longer days, warmer temperatures and the emergence of green grass and blossoming trees with tender buds and leaves. All signal a time of hope and renewal. Summer celebrates the abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables available during the season. The figure’s head is crowned with verdant leaves, a gourd serves as his nose, pea pods makeup his happy grin and he wears a coat of wheat adorned with an artichoke at the collar. Autumn reflects the winding down of summer’s plentitude; bright colors no longer prevail, and are replaced by the muted tones of seasonal fruits such as deep purple grapes and golden apples, conveying a sense of the year’s final harvest before the coming of winter. Winter suggests the barrenness of the season through the figure’s headdress of twisting tree limbs and ivy framing a face composed of a gnarled grey tree trunk devoid of foliage. Winter’s brow is furrowed, and no wonder, since winter days are short, nights are long, temperatures drop and snow falls, making time outdoors difficult to endure. Haas’s sculptures are meticulously detailed celebrating the human figure and wonders of nature in surprising new ways.

Haas states, “Whether I’m working in painting, sculpture or film, what fascinates me is the idea of metamorphosis. Through The Four Seasons, I am re-contextualizing the world of classical Renaissance portraiture using the transformative elements of scale, material and dimensionality, thereby altering the viewer’s perspective.”

In addition to Arcimboldo’s paintings, Haas’s sculptures may be compared to two radically different art movements of the early and mid-20th century—Surrealism and Pop art. The Surrealists created imaginative creatures from combinations of unusual objects and several Surrealists, like Haas, were inspired by Arcimboldo’s inventive paintings. The Pop artists of the 1960s enthusiastically embraced popular culture. They drew their subjects from images in magazine and television advertising and borrowed motifs, such as ordinary objects, from daily life. Food, including all kinds of produce, was a favorite and frequent subject.

The making and installation of The Four Seasons represents a complex endeavor involving many people with specialized skills. Each sculpture is made up of hundreds of individual sections. Molds were made for each one; sections were cast in fiberglass, injected with pigment and then painted. Welders created supporting steel infrastructures for the monumental figures. The figures were assembled at each exhibition site and the five-day installation at The Nelson-Atkins Museum required cranes, riggers and experts in sculpture installation from the museum and Haas’s staff. Haas was present to oversee the process.

Visitors are free to wander in and around the monumental sculptures located on the south lawn of The Nelson-Atkins Museum. Exhibited there, they make a wonderful juxtaposition to Claes Oldenburg’s and Coosje van Bruggen’s much beloved Shuttlecocks. The Four Seasons and Shuttlecocks make use of ordinary things—botanicals and badminton birdies—enlarged to colossal proportions all expressing a sense of whimsy and surprise. The Four Seasons will delight children and adults alike—be sure to come see them!

Philip Haas: The Four Seasons
April 25–October 18, 2015
Donald J. Hall Sculpture Park and Kirkwood Hall

Smaller models of The Four Seasons will be on view inside.

–Leesa Fanning, Curator of Contemporary Art, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

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