top of page

Man is a wolf to man (2020)


The Installation Man is Wolf to Man consists of both experimental (glass)paintings and ceramic models, bringing together recent works that revolve around the themes of war, violence, and spectatorship. Across a wide range of media, Niels Vaes transforms well-known materials and imagery into charged artistic declarations. The artist pulls freely from a multitude of –personal, historical, social, and political– sources, creating a visual language that is simultaneously rich and economical, sensitive and controversial. The wolf image is intended to strike and engage the viewers psyche. The gaze of this historical beast penetrates its assailant through positive and negative conditions intended to leave the viewer on an edge where there is nothing to fear but fear itself. Issues of value, of preciousness, of mortality and immortality can be speculated in attempt to link our organic instinctive ‘feeling’ powers to our thoughts, and to extend our vision further to encompass the lost invisible energies from nature which we have lost contact with. 


Wolves were killed in many areas. So many died that they nearly became endangered.
Recently however, there have been some positive changes, As institutions, entertainment and industries come to a standstill, there will be an inevitable domino effect on our environment. 

This is good news for the wolf(-lovers)! More and more wolves are spotted roaming our woods again. Belgium is a crucial country for the future of wolves in Europe. Even though it is densely populated, there is space for many wolves, especially in the Ardennes.1 The story illustrates how the presence or absence of a top predator can utterly reshape an ecosystem.2


The title of the series, Man is wolf to man (Homō hominī lupus est) is a Latin proverb referring"3 to situations where people are known to have behaved in a way comparably in nature to a wolf.4 The wolf as a creature is thought, in this example, to have qualities of being predatory, cruel, inhuman i.e. more like an animal than civilized. Correspondingly it is strongly associated with danger and destruction, making it the symbol of the warrior on one hand, and that of the devil on the other. Many people are familiar with the big, bad wolf from fairy tales such as "Little Red Riding Hood" or "The Wolf and the Seven Little Goats". Countless times, the wolf is referred to as being wild, tearing, snappish, grim and sanguinary 5(think of the Big Bad Wolf and the werewolf in pop(ular) culture. Although humans often consider themselves elite over the animal kingdom, they nevertheless share animal features, and express themselves in both animalistic and humanistic ways. The percentage of genes we share with various other species is a clear indicator of our common origin; 84 percent with dogs, and wolves are ancestors of dogs (and 90 with chimpanzees and bonobos). When it comes to murderous tendencies humans really are exceptional. Lethal violence increased over the course of mammal evolution. While only about 0.3 percent of all mammals die in conflict with members of their own species, that rate is sixfold higher, or about 2 percent, for primates. 


Dominance is not merely restricted to individuals, it determines how we work in social groups, and how we treat Mother Earth in getting what we need. Human aggressiveness is demonstrated in its inclination towards overpopulation, uninhibited destruction of ecosystems, overharvesting of resources, intolerance towards one another, and expressions of warlike behaviour.6 The artist sees a clear example of our detachment from nature and animal life in the history of the Belgian colonies.Through the institutionalization African artefacts acquired not only a cultural, but also an economic and political value as resources. Cut off from their original meaning, function and magical power, the aesthetic effect an African war masks had on its original user does not correspond to the same norms or ‘aesthetic emotions’ as it does for a Western collector or museum.7 Zwarte Piet is a reference to Congolese masks and the anti-racism campaigns criticizing the continuing Advent tradition of Saint-Nicholas for its negative stereotyping. 

The use of glass in the Man is Wolf to Man series hints to the display cabinets of wonder in the Wunderkammers 8, though in these works the viewers look into rather that at the objects. Vaes questions the relationship between the Wunderkammer and the modern museum, between art and science, and in particular between what wonder had once been and what it might be now. Through his work as an installation & land artist, he aspires to invoke wonder, conveying a sense of uniqueness, invoking an exalted attention engaging the viewer spontaneously. The assemblage of artefacts from his eclectic oeuvre explores how objects can be displayed in such a way as to stimulate an interactive connection between the viewer and the art, encouraging them to forge their own meaning. Man is Wolf to Man contains objects loosely relating to the Wunderkammer's key categories: naturalia (items created by the earth and items drawn from nature), mirabilia (unusual natural phenomena), artificialia (items wrought by man), ethnographica (items from the wider world), scientifica (items that brought a great understanding of the universe) and artefacta (items relating to history). In the Wunderkammers, specimen of dead beasts were displayed, posing no immediate threat. Though still referring to death, Niels's works have a dynamic, energetic character and a clear personal connection with his subjects.


From childhood the artist felt a strong connection with nature. Fascinated by the harsh features of the Ardennes, he later became drawn to the northern light and culture and the way (ancient) northern civilizations venerate nature (especially the Old Norse religion, also known as Norse paganism). Vaes sees a link between Nordic countries ranking highly on the inequality-adjusted HDI and the Global Peace Index and their high valuation of wolves. Scandinavian tradition mainly represents them as the warrior or protector.9 Fall 2020 he will participate the annual expeditionary residential program Arctic Circle, exploring the arctic nature and culture further. 


Games and their symbolism/semiotics have also been a recurrent theme throughout Niels oeuvre, as can be seen in works like  ..10 The local, national and international games we play are worthy examples of our competitive nature (f.e. boxing, hockey, football, baseball, Olympic games and electronic games).11 Drawing on a multitude of seemingly converse and often visually spectacular references and symbols, Vaes highlights the interconnectedness of innate aspects of human behavior, while at the same time challenging passive modes of spectatorship. The use of glass in this series is perhaps an allegory for the ideal of transparent communication and open dialogue. Just as in the comparable ‘verre églomisé’ decoration technique 12, Niels Vaes paints behind glass surfaces. 


The origin of this series lies in the poetic idea of ​​wanting to show the back of a painting. The paint in this series is literally flattened out and yet there is a lot of depth to be observed. This contrast forms the visual basis of this series. Colors and shapes manifest themselves in a completely different manner, because of the way in which the paint reacts to the smooth surface. Colors become more intense and sharper. Vaes made a three-dimensional translation into a series of ceramic sculptures. Despite these works being abstract, they are often reminiscent of transcendent, surreal landscapes that are constantly in motion. Like many forms from nature, the works are created very slowly or sometimes very quickly in an organic way. For the artist, the image is only complete when content and form unite. Elements that often recur in collage form include open animal beaks and cauliflower ears. Abstract shapes such as traces of blood, trails from claws, artifacts or the full moon can also be distinguished.13 Bright colors, drippings and use of spray paint are created under the influence of street art, a phenomenon residents of large cities encounter on daily basis. The paintings are metaphors for the dynamic and violent character of nature. This is a series with contrast, primal in it's imagery, yet thoroughly modern in its use of technology to create objects. These contrasts represent the keys to perceiving and understanding this show. Vaes seems to be telling us that the gap between feelings and intellect, between instinct and reason, and between real and manufactured, can be bridged.


© text Lara van Oudenaarde



1 If more packs establish, it could become a crossroads for wolves in Western Europe, connecting the French-Italian and the German-Polish population. This would be first time the populations could mix again after over 200 years of total separation.

2 A variation of the proverb appeared as line in the play Asinaria by Plautus: "Lupus est homō hominī, nōn homō, quom quālis sit nōn nōvit", which has been translated as "Man is no man, but a wolf, to a stranger," or more precisely "A man is a wolf, not a man, to another man which he hasn't yet met."As a counterpoint, Seneca the Younger wrote, in his Epistulae morales ad Lucilium (specifically, Epistula XCV, paragraph 33), "homō, sacra rēs hominī", which has been translated as "man, an object of reverence in the eyes of man".
Erasmus included the proverb in his Adagia, writing of the variation by Plautus, "Here we are warned not to trust ourselves to an unknown person, but to beware of him as of a wolf."
The philosopher, theologian, and jurist Francisco de Vitoria (in Latin, Franciscus de Victoria) wrote in one of his Relectiones Theologicae that the poet Ovid disagreed with the proverb: "'Man,' says Ovid, 'is not a wolf to his fellow man, but a man.'" Thomas Hobbes drew upon the proverb in his De Cive, writing in the dedication "To speak impartially, both sayings are very true; That Man to Man is a kind of God; and that Man to Man is an arrant Wolfe. The first is true, if we compare Citizens amongst themselves; and the second, if we compare Cities." Hobbes was describing the tendency of people to act fairly and generously toward other people in the same society and the tendency of societies to act deceptively and violently toward other societies, or as he put it, "In the one, there's some analogie of similitude with the Deity, to wit, Justice and Charity, the twin-sisters of peace: But in the other, Good men must defend themselves by taking to them for a Sanctuary the two daughters of War, Deceit and Violence." Sigmund Freud agreed with the proverb, writing in his Civilization and Its Discontents, "Men are not gentle creatures, who want to be loved, who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus. Who in the face of all his experience of life and of history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion? The primatologist and ethologist Frans de Waal disagreed with the proverb, writing that it "contains two major flaws. First, it fails to do justice to canids, which are among the most gregarious and cooperative animals on the planet (Schleidt and Shalter 2003). But even worse, the saying denies the inherently social nature of our own species." Bartolomeo Vanzetti, after being convicted of murder, along with Nicolo Sacco, in 1927, said that their pending execution would become an emblem "of a cursed past in which man was wolf to the man"

3. Wolves in Aesop's Fables:

4. Grimm (1887) even describes him as being the most evil creature of all animals. While examining the role of the wolf in mythology in more detail, Vaes found that the wolf plays many different (mainly negative!) roles: demonic and devilish, outlawed, worshipped and transformed#. The popular image of the wolf is significantly influenced by the Big Bad Wolf stereotype from Aesop's Fables and Grimm's Fairy Tales. The Christian symbolism where the wolf represents the devil, or evil, being after the "sheep" who are the living faithful, is found frequently in western literature. The Bible contains 13 references to wolves, usually as metaphors for greed and destructiveness. In the New Testament, Jesus is quoted to have used wolves as illustrations to the dangers His followers would have faced should they follow him.

5. Different roles of wolves throughout history and world civilizations: 

a.     Demonic and devilish: In the Edda, the ancient Icelandic sagas, the wolf was a symbol for demonic powers: Odin, the God of war and death was accompanied by two wolves, and the mythical wolf, Fenrir, played an important role during the apocalypse. In Indian mythology, the wolf is described as demonic. Furthermore, the wolf is portrayed as thievish, deceptive and false. In India, the demons were named after the wolf. In Christianity the wolf was even equated with the devil: Jesus Christ advised against false prophets dressed in sheep’s clothing which in fact werewolves. Numerous myths from Eastern Europe, Russia and Scandinavia tell about the creation of the wolf by the devil. During the creation of the wolf, the devil relied on the help of God and it was God’s will that the wolf kills sheep and goats.

  1. Transformed: During the Middle Ages, the belief was widely accepted that men would transform into werewolves. The werewolf, a creature from the devil, obsessed, half human and half animal, roamed the streets at night and, "drank the still warm blood, gorged the bowels from its innocent victims during orgies of satanic cruelty". The belief in werewolves already existed in the ancient world, but during the Middle Ages this belief grew to be much stronger. Mostly women and children became victims of werewolves which, in reality were men that felt and acted like wolves while under the influence of drugs and rituals. It was believed that with the help of the Malleus Maleficarum (the hammer of the witches) in 1489, one could not only recognize witches but also werewolves, which resulted in countless men being burned to death on bonfires as so-called werewolves. To contemporaries it was clear that one would turn into a werewolf through an evil spell or as a punishment for a serious sin. Over the last couple of years the werewolf has re-emerged as a fan favorite, from cinema offerings such as Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, The Wolfman and Red Riding Hood through to TV series' like Teen Wolf and Eli Roth's Hemlock Grove.

  2. Outlawed: The word wolf is widely common in the Indo-European roots of language and often not only stands for the animal but describes in the old Germanic languages the bandit, murderer, slayer, defied criminal, the banned and the evil ghost. In particular, the Old High German word "warg" was equated with evil itself. Outlaws were called "wolves" and the verdict "thou art a warg" declared the condemned as officially excluded, and forced to live in the wilderness. It was said to be forbidden to provide the "warg" with food and shelter. Even a condemned man’s own wife was not allowed to care for him, otherwise she herself would be condemned as a "warg" (Grimm 1887).

d.     Worshipped: Many different cultures worshipped the wolf. For the Egyptians the wolf symbolized the god of the empire of the dead. The Mongols saw in the wolf their first ancestor and for the Romans the wolf was the symbol for Mars, the God of war. The combination of the wolf with war was not meant to be negative but, instead, correlated it to the glorious death of a warrior or emperor. Furthermore, the fighting heroes were compared with furious wolves. Examples of wolf worshipping can be found in the combination of proper names with the word wolf attached: Wolfgang, Wolfdietrich, Wolfram, Wolfhart. The wolf is also worshipped as the protector of human beings. The most famous myth may be the one of Romulus and Remus, the founders of the city of Rome, who were abandoned as small children. A wolf found them and raised them as her own cubs. The Luperkaliefest (celebration in honor of fertility) is celebrating this myth, during which the female wolf is worshipped each year as the symbol for motherly sacrifice and fertility. The "Jungle book" has a similar theme as the main character, "Mowgli", is raised by wolves.

6. Over long periods of time humans have changed from an almost totally animalistic existence into one in which they have become more technologically advanced. As such, humans have exploited the Earth to obtain materials for which they can use their technological prowess. With a population that is steadily growing beyond its environmental carrying capacity, humans overexploited some of Earth's resources, and its animal competitors, causing major changes in the ecosystems of the playing fields to which they belong. As human population progressed from an animalistic period, the species eventually became the most intelligent, dominant and aggressive, deceptive and vertebrate animal that has ever roamed the planet.  

Since males, in general, have been more dominant than females, they possess more power. Most high-status positions are still held by males. Prejudices beliefs, such as racism, sexism and classism, are all manifests of the same social hierarchy. Since humans are social creatures, it is difficult to discuss aggression without exposing  their cooperative nature as well. 


7. The numerous masks and ‘fetishes’ brought from Africa to Europe by explorers starting in the 15th and 16th centuries to be presented as curiosities are clear examples of decontextualization. So-called ‘ethnographic’ artefacts, brought to Europe and the USA from Africa during exploratory and evangelising missions, are also decontextualized objects. sacred objects play a part in a very specific action within the social relations of their original African context. 


8. Wunderkammern, or cabinets of curiosities, arose in mid-sixteenth-century Europe as repositories for all manner of wondrous and exotic objects. In essence these collections—combining specimens, diagrams, and illustrations from many disciplines; marking the intersection of science and superstition; and drawing on natural, manmade, and artificial worlds—can be seen as the precursors to museums.


9.Wolves are important animals in the traditions and stories of most Native American tribes. To Native Americans, wolves often represent bravery. The animals also are signs of strength, loyalty, and success at hunting.


10. In sports, manifestations of aggression and violence often go hand-in-hand with verbal insults and provocations without any visible manifestation, emphasizing the obsessive interest in drama that lies beyond the game itself.


11. Competition and dominance establishments are also part of more serious forms of behaviour when considering such as survival, politics, jobs, killing, and other violent behavior, such a s war-time games. 


12. Verre églomisé is a French term referring to the process of applying both a design and gilding onto the rear face of glass to produce a mirror finish. The name is derived from the 18th-century French decorator and art-dealer Jean-Baptiste Glomy(1711–1786), who was responsible for its revival.


13. Along with the vulnerability to the silver bullet, the full moon being the cause of the transformation only became part of the depiction of werewolves on a widespread basis in the twentieth century.

bottom of page