It’s spring in New York City, but winter – and fall and summer for that matter – are also currently staring down visitors at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. Looming over the courtyard of the garden’s Enid A. Haupt Conservatory is a 15-foot-tall bust -- sculpted by film director-turned-artist Philip Haas – which casts a cold eye amid its fiberglass hair of tree limbs and ivy and skin of scabrous bark. Winter looks across the way at another towering sentry, Autumn, a visage composed of apples and root vegetables and ripe-to-the-point-of-bursting wine grapes. Inspired by the famed Four Seasons paintings by Renaissance artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo – in which the 16-century painter used images of vegetables, fruits and other organic materials to create fanciful faces -- Haas’ sculptures look like they could have emerged in some magic way from the grounds of the gardens. The scale heightens the tension between the familiar, natural objects -- a cucumber, wheat – and the strangeness of the countenances created from them.
Haas -- the director of such films as the romantic dramas Angels and Insects (1995) and Up at the Villa (2000) -- left Hollywood to become a full-time artist after directing his 2006 feature film, The Situation (starring Homeland’s Damian Lewis), about the Iraq occupation. “I’m now describing myself as a recovering film director,” says Haas, who began in film directing documentaries that spotlight artists.
To the extent possible, his Four Seasons sculpture series is a faithful recreation of Arcimboldo’s paintings, all four of which were done in profile. Transforming them into three dimensions – on a grand scale -- required continuing the elements to areas not seen on the canvases. “We changed the medium. It’s interesting that when all the art historians arrive to look at the sculptures they are coming not to look at the profiles that they know, but are asking ‘What does the back of the head look like,’” he says.
says.Haas sees his pieces, which are both injected with pigment and also later painted, as somewhat akin to what Andy Warhol did with his soup can paintings. Arcimboldo’s works – haunting faces that later inspired such Surrealist artists Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte and Man Ray – are among the most visited works of art at museums around the world (two hang at the Louvre), becoming so well-known that they have almost become advertisements for art in and of themselves. “I’m transforming art into art. I was particularly interested in taking the Renaissance imagery and making a transformation both in scale and dimension and medium,” says Haas, who first created Winter for a 2010 exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. It accompanied a show of Arcimboldo’s work. After he created the rest of the seasons, the four sculptures started a tour of arts institutions that has also seen them visit Phoenix’s Desert Botanical Garden and London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery. “It’s been terrifically exciting to see children respond to them,” he says. “Of course, there was an old woman with a cane who whacked one of them. I think she was trying to see what it was made of. It wasn’t actually damaged.”
The director and comedian Mel Brooks, whose late wife Anne Bancroft starred in Up at the Villa, is a fan of the work. “They are incredible and so powerful and so damned interesting. I’ve never seen creatures quite like them,” he says.
Brooks says he understands why Haas was drawn to move away from Hollywood. “In a way, Philip is kind of an artist who doesn’t want to be interfered with. He knows what he wants and it’s easier to get it in these amazing sculptures than it is in a movie and I guess it’s much more emotionally fulfilling. He’s just sharing his vision with the world and not with the actors, not with the crew, not with the craft services people, with everybody you have to share the adventure with.”
Haas, though, is quick to point out that creating Four Seasons was not a one-man effort. “If we had to run a credit roll, there would be 20 to 30 names on the sculptures … painters, mold makers, welders, riggers, photo-shopping. We had to figure out what everything was in the paintings and how to sculpt it. The mustache of Autumn is kind of an oat-like material. The cloak of winter is straw. We had someone weave the straw and make a mold of that,” he says. “With fine art you can keep working on it until it’s right and there are other measures of success. It’s not just box office.”
The Four Seasons sculptures are being produced in an edition of three, with two currently for sale. Haas hopes the traveling show continues indefinitely. He’s also produced three-foot-tall maquettes which have been shown at New York’s Sonnabend Gallery. His first major foray into the art world was a show at the Kimbell Art Gallery in Fort Worth, Tex. Time magazine called the exhibit – in which Haas selected five period paintings from the permanent collection and built film installations around them – one of the top 10 shows of 2009.
Next up for Haas: A show of painted plaster sculptures, opening September 27, at New York’s Francis M. Naumann Fine Art, that takes his surrealist theme further. One work features the late film director Luis Bunuel. “It’s a sculpture of Bunuel tethered to a balloon, actually caught up in rope and being hoisted aloft. The balloon is kind of embedded in the ceiling and it looks like he’s being pulled through the ceiling. Another one is a double-headed bust of the painter Francis Bacon referencing tragedy and comedy. One side, he’s screaming and the other he’s laughing.”
So does he miss filmmaking? “It’s not like I’ve left cinema to be an accountant. There’s a certain kind of scale and theatricality and narrative to these that’s inherent in the kind of movies I was making.”