Friday, 22 December 2017

Reflections on the Dutch masters at the AGNSW

I chose a painting from the show, which I visited yesterday, by Aelbert Jansz van der Schoor titled ‘Vanitas still life’ (around 1660-65) to begin this review of a big exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW that notably includes a number of works by the more famous Rembrandt. The van der Schoor painting reflects the ascendancy of a hard-nosed community of patrons who knew the value of money and had a realistic outlook on life. Youth might fade but gold lasts forever, the typical art patron and solid burgher of Amsterdam might have believed.

The flourishing of Dutch painting happened quickly as a result of political and economic changes in the region. The Republic of the Seven United Provinces had only been in existence since the end of a war that started in 1568, when the Dutch revolted against their ruler, who was the Spanish king, Philip II. The republic was established in 1588 (and lasted until the time of the Napoleonic Wars in 1795). The Dutch East India Company was established in 1602. The middle classes thus empowered – with their own Protestant religion and their global businesses – were customers of Dutch painters using oils. Rembrandt died in 1669 but his realistic style was already considered unfashionable by the time of his old age. By that time, a more classically pure, international style was gaining the ascendancy amid a new generation of artists. (It was this latter pan-European style that the English Pre-Raphaelites would recoil against 150 years later in the mid-19th century.)

So like the United Kingdom, the Netherlands in the 17th century was powerful and rich, but ultimately you have to ask to what end. Its enormous navy was at the command of capital protecting its businesses trading between Asia and Europe but, so? In the end all, it is unspeakably true, is vanity. Which makes what Sydney’s Arthur Stace did for 30 years – scrawling the word ‘Eternity’ again and again on the capital’s streets and buildings – so intriguing.

Even if you’re not religiously-motivated, as Stace undeniably was, you still have to consider a justification for your own life. It behoves us all to do this. Contemplating the notion of eternity should make us all reflect on the meaning of what we do each day. If we’re just exhibiting “characteristic behaviours” is that enough? How justified are we in continuing to live, and to consume the products of this overburdened earth? What of the other lives – the apex predators, for example, whose habitat is continually being encroached upon by expanding populations everywhere where it still exists?

The next painting I’ve chosen for this blogpost is a lovely little scene by Pieter de Hooch (‘Three women and a man in a yard behind a house’, circa 1663-65, below) and in its cosy quotidienness it might represent the typical Dutch life of the 17th century. So, if we talk about characteristic behaviours, such as farm animals exhibit in their natural habitat, we can talk about what typical Dutch people did during their lived hours. Cows graze on grass and chew cud. Chickens peck at the ground for insects and scraps of discarded food. But what of humans?

Here we have a prosperous, relatively free society and these paintings represent the acme of the national cultural product. But each was completed in a style that is largely interchangeable with the next, although art critics can no doubt find differences between different generations of artists, and even between artists working in different towns. But nothing constrained these artists to paint in the realistic style they used apart from fashion, which they followed voluntarily. Willingly, even. Even the works of the great Rembrandt are merely the best of a single type of thing. There’s nothing especially original in even the great painter’s works. So, the question remains: if even the artists are only exhibiting characteristic behaviours, what end does the culture serve? To allow people to share experiences? To enable them to display their wealth? To give them subjects to talk about, and thus in a real way to serve a social function?

And there’s more food for thought in the show. Also featured in the exhibition are some paintings, such as this ‘View of Batavia’ (1650-55) by Hendrick Jacobsz Dubbels, depicting the East Indies, from whence much of the republic’s vast wealth ultimately derived. And look at what happened to the colony in the end. The Indonesians couldn’t wait to get rid of the Dutch. So, what were these Dutch people so proud of? And now? Are the paintings enough to outweigh in the balance all the discrimination exercised on subject populations by the colonials?

The painting above is different in one respect from the others in the exhibition because the painter did not actually go to Batavia in order to make the work. The scene of the colony was taken from other sources, with the ships added in in the studio. You can see in point of fact that the ships are viewed from a different angle from the colony behind them, giving the picture an odd cast. What you see in all the other paintings is a fierce dedication to realism, the dominant style of the time.

Despite my misgivings about this exhibition, I have to say that what is remarkable here is how political and economic changes that had emerged soon fostered a powerful flowering of art production in this place at this point in time. A similar thing had happened a couple of generations earlier in England, where the Reformation had ushered in the Renaissance, as is present in the works of Shakespeare and Marlowe (among others), where the concerns of the individual are for once privileged over traditional political and religious concerns. (Spaniard Cervantes was a coeval of Shakespeare, as well.) In short, a change in the social underpinnings of the society had fostered a flowering of culture through the arts. A similar thing would happen, later, in England (again) after the American Revolution when the Romantic poets began looking at different things in the world and writing about them in new ways. And later, after WWII, there would be a rapid flowering of the visual arts in America.

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