Bouke de Vries, War and Pieces, 2012. 18th-, 19th-, and 20th-century porcelain, plastic, sprayed plaster, acrylic, steel, aluminum, gilded brass, and mixed media, installation view. Photo: Steve Groves

Bouke de Vries


The Frick Art Museum

The Frick Art Museum, located on the Pittsburgh estate of the late-19th-century coke and steel magnate Henry Clay Frick, was founded in 1970 by his daughter Helen to house her collection of European fine and decorative arts. This rich setting provides a perfect context for War and Pieces (on view through September 5, 2021), an installation originally created by Dutch ceramics-conservator-turned-artist Bouke de Vries for the Holburne Museum in Bath, England. de Vries’s 26-foot-long tour de force consists of porcelain figures and discarded shards covering a formal dining table, arranged to recall and critique the ostentatious centerpieces (surtouts de table) that once adorned the elaborate dinners of 17th- and 18th-century European aristocrats. Having overcome humble functional origins, these objects—crafted in everything from precious metals and ceramics to sugar (a prized commodity that signaled the host’s wealth)—reveled in ornamentation, combining lavish allegorical vignettes, mythological figures, and architectural follies. 

In De Vries’s expansive “table-scape,” what at first appears to be a beautiful arrangement of figures in a landscape, turns into a fragmented nightmare—a sculptural aftermath of disaster, reminiscent of Bosch’s visions of demons, half-human animals, and machines conjuring fear and confusion. Like Bosch’s paintings, De Vries’s tableau is carefully composed, the chaos orchestrated. A dense, complex conglomerate of dramatic units is populated by an army of symbolic figures and details all playing their parts in an eccentrically horrifying theater of the absurd. At the center, a towering mushroom cloud rises over the rest of the scene. Ghostly cherubs, antique Hummel figurines, and tiny skulls float up to the top like lost souls. At the summit, an angel weeps. Figures of the crucified Christ hang from the column of the cloud, while smashed Buddha statues surround its foot. Meanwhile the Chinese goddess of mercy, Kuan Yin, peacefully gazes over the ruins.

In the lateral scenes, Transformer toys and plastic limbs lie scattered among piles of shattered porcelain. The goddess Minerva, holding a fluttering, gilded-brass battle flag, attacks an adversary with a silver spoon. The table itself is formally set with plates bearing images of Mars and Minerva, while the gold-plated cutlery handles resemble miniature Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles.

The ambience of the surrounding room enhances the historical echoes of War and Pieces. Above the wainscoting, deep emerald-green walls hold paintings by Jan Steen (The Music Lesson), Michel Garnier (La Femme Qui Joue de la), Jan van Os (Still Life with Fruit), Peter Paul Rubens (Portrait of Charlotte-Marguerite de Montmorency, Princess of Condé), Francesco Guardi (The Grand Canal at Saint Geremia, Venice), and Antoine Le Nain (The Blessing).

de Vries’s idiosyncratic sculpture offers a rich commentary on consumption, excess, greed, and violence—both past and present. But perhaps the scenario of War and Pieces is not altogether bleak; the work is also a tribute to adaptation and reinvention. de Vries refers to his work as “the beauty of destruction,” emphasizing the new status of the broken ceramic debris he’s collected.