Mother and child

Some of the sculptures which are part of the Westersingel Sculpture Terrace used to stand at isolated spots elsewhere in the city. Their relocation has given them added value. Together they represent the varying ways in which the human figure is treated in modern sculpture. Auguste Rodin’s L’Homme qui marche, however unconventional the surface treatment and the ‘fragmentation’ of the body, is still embedded in an age-old figural tradition. On the other hand, the works by Henri Laurens, Umberto Mastroianni and Fritz Wotruba represent a typically twentieth-century view. The proportions and rendering of the limbs and the way they are interconnected; everything is, theo¬retically, open to decisions which deviate substantially from the classical norm. The outcome is in fact a hybrid image: in La grande musicienne by Laurens, a cross between human being and musical instrument, in Mastroianni’s The Farewell between human being and machine, and in Wotruba’s stacked blocks of Reclining Figure between human being and city.

The committee responsible for designing the Sculpture Terrace wanted to draw that line into the present, and selected Joel Shapiro and Carel Visser (the only Dutch sculptor in the group). In the last ten years, Shapiro has made a great many sculptures based on the human figure: enough choice from which to make a purchase. Visser, however, was commissioned for a sculpture. He was not exactly an obvious choice for the subject in question. His entire oeuvre, by now spanning a period of almost fifty years, is in fact a tremendous protest against the dominance of the human figure in sculpture. His protest is also evident in the technical sense. It is customary in the figural tradition to carve or model or cast a figure. Visser has always distanced himself from that approach. His sculptures are cut and welded from iron or, as has regularly been the case in the last 25 years, assembled from the most divergent materials and existing objects.

Visser’s earliest work from around 1950 does contain an occasional head, a few spindly bodies and a tower of acrobats, but otherwise there is hardly a human figure in sight. However, we do encounter large numbers of animals – birds, horses, dogs –and objects of a natural or cultural nature – a flower, a reed, an airship. After that there was a period, approximately between 1955 and 1970, with predominantly abstract sculptures, even though they often (and not accidentally) evoke associations with animals and things. After 1970 that associative aspect was again strongly emphasized, both in the titles of the works and in the formal syntax and varied materials he used. It is striking that, apart from animal figures, Visser also took large-scale natural and urban elements as his subjects: the waves of the sea, a rainbow, a river, mountain slopes, a bridge. These are highly unusual subjects for a sculptor.

The fact that Visser made a work in bronze for the Sculpture Terrace, and with the traditional theme of mother and child at that, is surprising but not entirely unexpected for anyone who has followed his work in recent years. In the first place, he discovered the bronze-casting process a few years ago, not only as a technical means of adding permanence to his extremely fragile assemblages, but also as a means of expression: the components, when cast in bronze, form a close connection, yet their original heterogeneous character remains in the texture. Later sculptures by Picasso, who often used that method (cast assemblages) no doubt inspired Visser.

In the second place, and that is more important, Visser recently began allowing the human figure to play a part again in other sculptures –with all that that implied. Not that he modelled those figures himself – he used existing material, as he did for the other parts of his assemblages. He even sometimes appropriated colleagues’ work. For instance, in 1992 he placed a bronze female figure (a cast of a plaster sculpture owned by his brother, Martin Visser, by the little-known Hungarian sculptor Anton Prinner) on a boat-like construction and called the piece Journeying. For other objects made from assembled material he used a cast of a large baby doll from a toyshop. Several years ago he made Woman Bathing, comprising a cast of a doll lying on a black inner tube of a tractor. A black horse’s tail has been inserted into the open skull and the long hairs are draped over’ the doll’s body. Contrary to what the frivolous theme might suggest, it is a distressing image.

As the human figure made its appearance, psychological factors also became more telling in one’s experience of Visser’s work than they had been in the past. This certainly applies to Mother and Child, a work which can be experienced at many levels. It refers to the sacred tradition of the image of the Virgin with baby Jesus on her lap or at her breast, but in its very rendering unavoidably makes a somewhat banal impression. It is humorous in its combination of a life-size baby doll with a mother figure consisting of scrap iron. But it also has an aura of threat. It is a matter for speculation whether the mother is cherishing her child or whether she intends to devour it.
Visser’s sculpture is very typical, in that it demonstrates his individual sculptural approach to the assemblage technique in which he pays particular care to the variation in the components’ plasticity and to their interconnections. It can also be seen as homage to a sculptor whose work made a great impression on him from a very early age: the Spaniard Julio Gonzalez. We encounter in the range of associations surrounding this work by Visser, González’s aggressive Woman with Mirror, as we as his monumental La Montserrat from Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum – an iron mother tightly clasping her child. Visser remains true to old love.

Caret Blotkamp

Blotkamp, C., Carel Visser, Utrecht/Antwerpen 1989 Carel Visser. Nieuw Werk, Den Haag (Haags Gemeentemuseum) 1994

Publicatiedatum: 12/05/2015