hans van bentem

Hans van Bentem (The Hague, 1965) established his reputation in monumental sculpture, mainly involving public spaces. His search for traditional, craftsmanly materials has brought him to many places, including the Czech Republic for crystal, India for bronze, China for porcelain and Morocco for copper work. The themes of his sculptures are more important to him than their stye. The same stories can be portrayed in many different ways. Ceramics, glass, bronze and anything that triggers his passion, is put to use in realising his sculptures.

Hans van Bentem studied monumental design at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, graduating in 1988. Previous displays of his work include The Hague, Amsterdam, Berlin and Beijing.


Contemporary ships of fools

Behold, there lies the beginning: with two tons of whole-fat red clay, sticking to a framework of wood and chicken wire. The clay contraption rises in flame, as though gravity is a mythical joke. They are sculpted ‘flaming’ hands, stretching to the grimy roof of the Noletloodsen. The hands fold around a water jet: a fountain, whose water drops ensure the clay remains wet.

That is the beginning displayed by artist Hans van Bentem (1965): that wet, red clay. It is the material with which he begins to work after his 1988 graduation from the Koninklijke Academie voor Schilderkunst in Den Haag, and which diametrically changes the direction of his artistry.

After a period of academic custom, dominated by abstract art, Van Bentem gets his hands into the clay. The world that opens up to him consists of earthenware and later glass. Hyperrealism is his trademark. The colours he chooses are roaring. From 2006, porcelain is added — a  type of clay so sheer a pink it resembles a baby’s skin, turning a translucent white once baked, and ever so fragile.

Van Bentem travels to China, where, in Jingdezhen — a centuries-old centre of expertise for porcelain bakers — he has his designs manufactured by porcelain masters whose knowledge of the complex baking process of porcelain has been handed down from generation to generation. In The Netherlands, porcelain is often associated with frilly cups, teapots and saucers. In Jingdezhen, experts make everything from porcelain: from monumental to minuscule, no motive is too curious.

This is clear from the second sculpture Van Bentem has set up at the Noletloodsen, which, along with the clay ‘fountain sculpture’ forms the installation Keep on Dreaming! This second sculpture, in all its cacophonic splendour, is continuation, counterpoint and conclusion. Take your time to look at everything. Walk around, turn back, peer closely and view from afar. A skull of black wood serves as the chassis for a carnivalesque parade of objects and figures, lying and standing like a crown on the roof of the skull. It is a cluster of jerrycan, gun, woman’s leg in fishnets, shoe, fish, faces, lotus flowers, animal heads, blocks, penis. The roof of the skull comprises hundreds of parts: proliferation is a euphemism. This collection has grown — and is still growing — since Van Bentem started working on it in 2006.

Everything is porcelain and a radiant white. This choice of white is remarkable, given Van Bentem’s previous preference of bright colours and contrasts. ‘The white began to defend itself,’ the artist says on the subject. ‘I’ve had to develop the courage to expose the porcelain in all its bareness.’

He bares that courage in Keep on Dreaming! Van Bentem shows a contemporary memento mori and a carpe diem in one. His fountain with flaming hands is an ode to life and to the transience of it. The porcelain skull with headdress is a ship of fools, a metaphor for life and death, captured in delicate porcelain.