For artist Philip Haas, winter is the hardest season, but not because of the weather.
Haas, creator of the colossal plant-and-vegetable heads that appeared this week on the south lawn of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, adjusts his baseball cap as he points at a deconstructed, painted fiberglass tree trunk.
Workers pool around these pieces of “Winter,” the last of the 15-foot-tall sculptures that make up “The Four Seasons.”
“Spring,” with its rose-blossom cheeks and daisy collar; “Summer,” with its zucchini nose; and “Fall,” with its gourd face and grapes for hair, are completed.
The sculptures are based on paintings by the 16th-century Italian Renaissance painter, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, that depict the four seasons as human heads made from fruits and plants.
Haas explains that “Winter” has the most pieces because it was the first one he built. It was exhibited alone at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in Cathedral Square in Milan and in the Garden of Versailles.
When the New York Botanical Garden suggested that Haas do all four seasons, he and his team of 20 welders and builders came up with a system that streamlined assembly for the other three.
Sculpture is the most recent medium for Haas, whose life, education and artistic pursuits have been wide-ranging yet interconnected.
Haas was born in San Francisco and raised there and in nearby Palo Alto before moving to Rome at age 11, where he graduated from high school. He earned a bachelor’s degree in folklore and mythology at Harvard then moved to the U.K., where he became interested in film.
He started with documentaries about artists and eventually made critically well-received feature films but not blockbusters, including “The Music of Chance” from 1993 starring James Spader.
Haas describes himself as a “recovering film director,” but theatricality continues to infuse his work.
The move from movies to sculpture started with film installations. Haas set up screens on either side of a painting with different videos related to the painting playing on each screen.
“People would watch back and forth like a tennis match,” Haas recalls. “You could never experience it twice in the same way.”
For a subsequent film installation, Haas built a giant skull of the painter James Ensor that visitors walked into. “We set up four screens inside the skull,” Haas says. “That gave me an appetite for doing large-scale work.”
“The Four Seasons” started out as an “idea for an idea, the idea being to do something in a garden.” Haas found Arcimboldo’s composite heads powerful because of their connection to the Renaissance and because, later, the surrealists were excited by them. Haas’ work has always had a surrealist element.
The ensemble was exhibited in the United Kingdom, Phoenix, New York, Atlanta and Miami before making its way to Kansas City.
Facing the broad, tree-lined lawn of the Nelson that slopes down toward Brush Creek, Haas said that even though “Shuttlecocks” by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggenweren’t in his head when he made “The Four Seasons,” he thinks they play very well together. The iconic sculptures and Haas’ new heads share a whimsical, pop sensibility and a material: fiberglass.
Turning back to the north and gesturing up the wide steps to the museum’s facade, Haas says, “I love the placement here. Are they trying to get into the museum or are they fleeing?”
Viewing the sculptures upon exiting the museum’s south side reveals the touch of a filmmaker at work. Had the busts been placed in a quadrangle they would have hidden each other from that vantage point. Instead, all four are in view from the top of the stairs, and walking down seems to set the scene in motion.
Placing the exhibit on the terrace immediately below the museum meant having Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker” in the center of the four giant heads.
“I think it’s great. I’m not sure what ‘The Thinker’ thinks of it,” Haas deadpans. The sculptures are on view through mid-October.
Philip Haas will speak at 6 p.m. May 28 in Atkins Auditorium at the Nelson. The event is free, but a ticket is required.
Kansas City’s Big Picnic is 4 to 7 p.m. July 19 in the Donald J. Hall sculpture garden. It is also free. Haas’ exhibit continues through mid-October.
Select Haas’ films will be screened Fridays in July; check nelson-atkins.org for details.