Bouke de Vries’ “War and Pieces” uses the classic Roman imagery of Mars and Minerva, made of ceramic, sugar and Transformer pieces, to create a commentary on the centuries-long destruction brought upon by war. (Courtesy Bouke de Vries and Ferrin Contemporary)

A sumptuous ball hosted by the Duchess of Richmond on the eve of the 1815 Battle of Waterloo has inspired artists for centuries. These include Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, William Makepeace Thackeray and John Everett Millais.

Adding his name to that list is Bouke de Vries, a Dutch found-object sculptor.

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“War and Pieces,” De Vries’ show at Wadsworth Atheneum’s MATRIX Gallery, combines themes of extravagance and warfare. Aristocratic galas of that era featured table centerpieces glorifying the host family, telling complex stories, depicting current events or reflecting theatrical or mythological scenes. In early days, they were made of sugar paste, and later, of porcelain, before they fell out of fashion.

“The grand banquets celebrated marriages of moments of political propaganda, by whatever prince elector was holding the party, or whatever was pertinent to an agenda or an occasion,” says De Vries, who lives in London. “Also, sugar was an expensive commodity. They were meant as a show of status.”

De Vries uses sugar and porcelain, adding plastic elements from Transformer toys, to bring the classical imagery into the 21st century, telling a centuries-long story about the societal breakdown brought on by militaristic destruction. He has created a 26-foot-long feast table with a series of elaborate, all-white centerpieces representing Roman war deities Mars and Minerva doing battle in a variety of ways. The metaphorical destruction of society takes place among piled-up mounds of shattered tableware.

“Many of these banquets were held before big battles. At the Duchess of Richmond’s party [which was held in Belgium], Napoleon was advancing. All the men had to leave,” including almost every officer in the army of the Duke of Wellington. De Vries says. “I put the battle on the table. It’s a safer option.”

Seven pieces run across De Vries’ dining table. On six pieces, Mars and Minerva do battle, Minerva usually dominating Mars and declaring victory. Each uses table utensils as weapons. The gods stand among decapitated figures and severed heads – what De Vries calls “Hummels gone wrong” – as well as the broken remains of ceramic dinner plates purchased at IKEA.

A mushroom cloud decorated with figures of Jesus and Guan Yin sits at the center of Bouke de Vries' "War and Pieces."
A mushroom cloud decorated with figures of Jesus and Guan Yin sits at the center of Bouke de Vries’ “War and Pieces.” (Courtesy Bouke de Vries and Ferrin Contemporary)

Most amusing are the figures with Transformer heads and robotic arms attached to the classical statuary, the plastic pieces being the only colored elements to the assemblage. They create a mashup between sci-fi and antediluvian symbolism, a seeming alien invasion among the human figures.

“It’s a battle between the ancien regime of sugar and porcelain, with the plastic elements the modern interlopers,” De Vries says.

Another element of the modern world is the spectacular center sculpture. As Mars and Minerva fight to the death in the other pieces, a towering mushroom cloud rises.

“I found the mushroom cloud to be the strongest symbol of war, but the image can be stylized and made beautiful,” says De Vries, who also works as a ceramics conservator.

The cloud is 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.

The table is set with china from the Atheneum’s collection flanked by cutlery made by De Vries, whose handles are made of tiny Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles and then plated in gold. The gold and white shine in the gallery, whose walls have been painted dark green. Around the table hang many frames. Most of the frames are empty, but some have mirror-surface images of mushroom clouds.

The exhibit has been traveling the world. The Atheneum show is its first appearance in the Americas. It was brought to Hartford by Linda Roth, the museum’s curator of European decorative arts.

BOUKE DE VRIES: MATRIX 180; WAR AND PIECES is at Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main St. in Hartford, until Jan. 6. thewadsworth.org

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