Throughout time, sculpture has been used to portray the human body, whether by Michelangelo, who ‘saw’ his David within a marble block before he ‘released’ it; by Roman artists, whose portrayals of emperors, (also in marble), were wrought with political power; by Giacometto, whose ultra-thin bronze bodies stride into a void of angst; or by Antony Gormley, whose completely contemporary characters are poised in static poses and speak of twenty-first century dislocation. Sculpture throughout time has idolized and idealized heroes – unsung or not.
At Galerie de Bellefeuille, the work by Dutch artist Hanneke Beaumont has a different sculptural strategy. Her unknown individuals have a sense of elegant ennui. Perfectly balanced, some of her lonely people step off their pediment into a void. Some sit. Some stand. They are androgynous; their faces offer no clues. There have no hair and their feet are bare. Covered with sheet-like robes, their identity is further obscured. The faces are portrayed in the realistic tradition, with careful delineation of eyebrows, ears and eyes. But the bodies are simplified and roughly textured, whether the piece is in bronze, cast iron or terra cotta. Therein lies the tension between realism and abstraction; between classicism and modernity. Each sculpture has realistic feet and hands.
However, each torso presents a flattened surface. The artist has removed all evidence of their gender. Their identity is undefined, roughly smoothed into anonymity, a feeling echoed by the treatment of the heads: all are alike, and all are bald. Her ‘people’ are shown seated, standing, crouching, lying down and walking. Each seems to have a strange instability. Each seems to be caught in a moment in time. Their pause can be read as one of waiting. For recognition? For friendship? For the eternally elusive Godot? Their gazes, unlike the unseeing orbs of a marble Caesar, whose eyes nevertheless conveyed potentate power, are introspective. Whatever their stance, they look into the distance. And in that lonely stare lies their humanity. We are touched by their isolation, by their seeking to connect, as they gaze into the empty room.
The artist seems to have captured the feeling of today’s alienation, an essence of the contemporary zeitgeist. None of Beaumont’s sculptures seem to communicate with the viewer. They gaze away avoiding eye contact in their moment of reflection. Their bodies seem poised between an outward inchoate longing and an inward introspection. In spite of being sexually simplified, these bronzes somehow invite us to reach out and touch them. Each possesses a personal power, whether it be the smaller pieces, (a few centimeters high), or the large, bolder figures, as in her installation at Brussels airport; her sculptures are universally poignant. As we stand in front of their ruggedness, we are drawn to their intrinsic beauty. There is a curious contrast between the formal discipline of the sculpting and the immediacy of the rough finish. The sculptures are at once intimate, and strange. Her delicate, haunted creatures have a lean, gritty realism. These androgynous personages emit an inner strength – a suggestion of permanence in a world in flux. Within the canon of classicism, Beaumont has created a pantheon of figures that is a subliminal reminder of the power of the human spirit in the Everyman/woman.
Born in the Netherlands, and initially trained as a dentist, Hanneke Beaumont lives and works in Belgium and Italy. The internationally acclaimed artist has works in public and private collections in Germany, Switzerland, Spain, France and Belgium, as well as in the USA.