by Mark Moran
Marjorie Merriweather Post’s Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens is a lot of things, but one thing I never thought of it as is a shrine to postmodern conceptual art. So I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it when I encountered Bouke De Vries’ art installation, War and Pieces, on the grand table of Marjorie’s sumptuous dining room.
I came across it as a curious surprise, entirely unaware of its presence in the museum: a great spread of shattered white porcelain shards, clustering toward the center of the table and rising in a shape that I did not quite recognize at first: the mushroom cloud of an atomic explosion.
As the Hillwood Museum website explains, this is not the first time the dining room table has hosted a contemporary interpretation of classical table centerpieces.
“In the seventeenth century, wealthy households decorated their tables with extravagant sugar sculptures that replicated allegorical scenes, architectural follies, or classical figures,” write the curators. “By the eighteenth century, artists augmented or replaced the decorations with porcelain…”
De Vries’ War and Pieces comprises seven sculptural vignettes, created in both sugar and porcelain. Say the curators at Hillwood: “Besides war, chaos, and aggression, the installation also features humor and beauty, undermining classical symbols in a satirical and critical way.”
The presentation stayed with me, as a compelling work of art will do. My interest and curiosity was piqued especially by the kind of statement such an insistently ironic or “provocative” work of art might be making in the mansion home of a wealthy mid-century socialite with a grand sense of style and a classical aesthetic sensibility.
War and Pieces is, first of all, visually appealing, all that porcelain and sugar like a snowfall of perfect white across the table. There is such a thing as “elegant chaos,” and something in the human soul that loves to see a fine, fragile thing shattered. War and Pieces appeals to that instinct. To be reminded of it when you are in a place that also houses a “breakfast room” with a chandelier from Catherine the Great, Faberge eggs from the Romanov family, and an 18th-century French rolltop desk inlaid with mother-of-pearl – well, it creates a special kind of resonance.
As a museum-going experience, The Hillwood Estate “works” not because it is a showcase of vast wealth, but because it is a repository of civilization, of a civilized sensibility. Mere wealth is easily (one might say, cheaply) counterfeited, as is evident, say, in the home of rich man who fills his rooms with a lot of gilded junk. But Marjorie Post’s home is more than a rich woman’s house. The home is reflective of a distinctly mid-20th century American appreciation of civilization at a time when the country was at its most expansive and confident. The collection at Hillwood speaks to a receptiveness to the artistic, architectural and design influences – English, French, German, Russian and Asian – that have shaped the American sensibility. To fill one’s home with such treasures and then to turn it over to the public as a museum also strikes me as deriving from a uniquely American instinct for the democratic.
At an auspicious moment in American history, Bouke de Vries has crashed the party at Hillwood like a rogue guest to remind us about that something there is in the human soul that wants to see a fine thing destroyed, and to tell us redundantly (since history, if we were paying attention, would never let us forget it) that it is all much more fragile than we may allow ourselves to acknowledge.
War and Pieces will be on display at Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens through April 5, 2020.