Tom Otterness’ extraordinary public sculpture, ‘SprookjesBeelden aan Zee’, or Fairytales by the Sea, is a major landmark along the glorious coastline of The Hague. In reality, not one but a series of twenty-three interrelated sculptures that, at first glance, seem like harmless fun. Yet these amusing characters hide a grim secret.
Look closer at the sculptures and it’s as if Hoffmann’s terrifying Struwwelpeter children’s tales have come to life. The sculptures are based on Dutch and international stories, and are a big hit with children (and not a few adults). Yet beneath the fun-filled veneer there is something disturbing at work. This may not come as a surprise, Otterness is no stranger to controversy.
Some characters are bound around the legs and arms, some incarcerated in cages; one goes to the hangman’s noose, another sits, head in hands, in despair; a captured bear is tied up with rope. This not a terribly pleasant children’s playground, and underscores the not very nice message of many children’s tales.
Hansel and Gretel are found in a cage; a sculpture of Swedish fairytale ‘Oh Lars, my boy’ features the hangman’s noose and scaffold; ‘Crying Giant’, despair personified, is meant to represent the United States after 9/11; Moby Dick eats a human-being as Captain Ahab flails around on the whale’s back; Gepetto and Pinocchio add some normality to the scene. What could be more normal than a wooden boy with an extendable nose?
All this weirdness is interspersed with (mythical) heroes like Hans Brinker, the ‘little boy who put his finger in the dyke’, and Humpty Dumpty sitting on his wall. On second thoughts, that didn’t exactly end well. Not for Humpty at least. The Three Wise Monkeys make an appearance, although in Otterness’ style they become Three Wise Cube and Cone Shaped People. All-in-all, the picture is a bleak one.
The sculptures come in all shapes and sizes, from the tiny people clinging to the other sculptures, to the Crying Giant. Overshadowing all though, is the centrepiece of the whole thing, The Herring Eater.
Anyone who has spent time in the company of Dutch people, will know the relationship with the herring runs deep – the national comfort food. Dutch people happily gulp down raw herring in a white bread bun topped with chopped onion any time of day or night. Many will wax lyrical about its virtues given the chance.
The herring trade made the Netherlands wealthy, and Scheveningen was one of the major ports for the Dutch herring fleet. It’s this history that is celebrated by The Herring Eater, which is essentially a sculpture of your average Dutch person – exceptionally tall with a taste for raw fish. If you’re in The Hague, don’t miss Scheveningen’s Fairytales by the Sea.