RON MUECK at Museum Voorlinden in The Hague/Wassenaar

The invention of photography in the mid-19th century released painters from just being recorders of people, places and events and gave them the freedom to express themselves, to use paint for its own sake. They went from being skilled craftsmen to artists and the break-out, the first true manifestation of this new-found freedom was Impressionism in the 1870s. As the years went by painting became freer and freer, going through the various forms or expressionism and abstract art until, in the 1960s, it took a strange turn. Pop Art reverted to clean lines, hard edges and to a greater or lesser degree, realism. Photorealists like Richard Estes and Chuck Close amazed people by recreating photographs with paint, Estes with street scenes and shop fronts, Close with giant faces showing every pore and whisker. But, apart from the technical wizardry and patience involved, what was the point? Did Estes’ view through a shop window say more than, say, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks just because it was like a photo? Of course it didn’t. Photorealism was a bit of a party trick, impressive but in the end, so what? In principle, with enough patience, anyone could copy a photo, so why bother?

There are those that would say that Pop Art, Photorealism and even Surrealism made people look at everyday objects in a different light, to focus on something that was so commonplace as to be almost invisible. And therein lay its value. Monet made you look at a lily pond differently; Andy Warhol did the same for the Coca Cola bottle. But how do you make people look at themselves differently without just being clever?

Size is the answer or, at least, one of them and Australian Ron Mueck uses this expedient to create pieces which certainly make you look at things, mainly people, in a whole new light. Looking at one of his, literally, larger than life human figures is what it must be like for a cat or a dog gazing up at its owner – in fact there is a group of three giant black dogs so you can really find out what that feels like.

But they are not only giants; there are several pieces where the people are about half-size, like the naked man sitting forlornly in an old wooden rowing boat or the lonely refugee-like woman with a baby held under her coat.

The figures are totally lifelike with every pimple and nasal hair in place. One feels like a guilty viewer in a freak or peep show – intrusive and even perhaps a little embarrassed. But the giant figures exist in their own private Lilliput, gazed at by people only a quarter of their size, and they don’t care. Whether they are the gargantuan elderly Couple Under an Umbrella or the young lady In Bed, lying on a six meter mattress, they are oblivious to the spectator’s prying gaze. However, the four-meter-tall Wild Man does seem a little self-conscious and vulnerable as he sits, bearded and naked on a wooden stool, his penis pointing accusingly straight in the eye of anyone who stands too close. And disturbing too, like the room full of giant human skulls or the three meter newly dispatched chicken, plucked and hanging from a hook with its throat cut.

Ron Mueck’s work certainly makes you look at things differently, proving conclusively that size does matter. The human race has created a whole world to its own scale so everything fits neatly into a framework of somewhere under two meters, a world in which these giant figures would not be able to function. They could not go through doorways or sit on a bus. They would be outcasts, strangers in a strange land – and that says a lot about the human condition.

Oh, and there’s a bonus. A visit to Voorlinden is always a great pleasure, not only the world class museum, but there is a lake and beautiful grounds in which to wander and, of course, a splendid café. But hidden away up a winding path up through the trees behind the house one is surprised to find oneself in the dunes with the high-rise blocks and big-wheel of Scheveningen in the hazy distance. And, sitting proudly at the highest sandy point, strangely out of place, are the museum’s two newly acquired Anselm Kiefer concrete towers. You may think them incongruous and a blot on the tranquil windswept landscape until you realise that only a few meters away, half covered in ferns is an old German bunker from the Second World War. Kiefer is nothing if not apposite. And the amazing thing is, we were completely alone up there. The museum, the grounds, the shop and the café were crowded, the car parks full, but the dunes, only five minutes away, were deserted. That says a lot about the human condition too.  Michael Hasted    10th July 2024

Ron Mueck at Museum Voorlinden continues until 17th November