"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, June 6, 2020

The Dutch Golden Age - Still Life With Dead Rabbits, The Best Way To Look At America

Dutch artists of The Golden Age of the 17th century were masters of the still life – immaculately realistic scenes of food and flowers.  Not only were these paintings evocative of the times, a look into a particular period of Dutch political and artistic history, they are interesting ways of looking at any social and cultural period –  random elements, chosen for color, line, and texture which have no inherent individual meaning; but when taken together as a composite are suggestive of far more than the immediacy of peonies, lobsters or dead rabbits. 

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Interpretations of the still lifes of the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century are not consistent.  Some critics see the generally somber scenes symbolically through the lens of Christian religious traditions, often underscoring life’s transience (the proliferation of rotting fruit, withered flowers, and slowly draining hourglasses offer sobering examples of memento mori, reminders of death). Other scholars assess the artist’s skill in employing an array of visual effects in these banquet scenes, floral arrangements, or vanitas paintings. But while still lifes are generally thought to be devoid of narrative, certain deeper meanings come into focus once you look beyond the metaphors and showy artistic tricks.

Perhaps most persuasive, however, is the thought that still lifes depicted the prosperous Dutch Golden Age, largely fostered by wealth reaped from overseas trading and colonial ventures. Exotic luxuries from all over the world poured into Dutch ports: fruits from across the Mediterranean; tobacco from the New World; spices and precious gems from India; tea, silk, and porcelain from China and Japan; sugar from colonies in Brazil and Guyana; and slaves from Africa.

As the prosperity of Dutch society increased, the general public became more engrossed with the amusements of everyday life, including education, commerce, and material goods. These changes had enormous repercussions on the art market, and it’s no coincidence that the still life arose as an independent genre in Europe parallel to the birth of early market capitalism and the world’s first consumer society.

Naturally, Dutch citizens wanted to celebrate, and immortalize, the trappings of their newfound luxury. Therefore, from the beginning of the 17th century, Dutch artists started to incorporate these highly valued imports into their paintings. The genre evolved from smaller, modest compositions spotlighting locally available goods early in the century to larger, more sumptuous arrays of predominantly foreign commodities. The paintings became increasingly lavish and elaborate, in step with the growing affluence from trade that the Netherlands enjoyed (Julia Fiore, artsy.net)

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How, then, could such a static although suggestive style be at all appropriate to today’s America?  Its contrivance, however evocative as it might have been in the 17th century, seems far from modern high-energy immediacy.  Images are caught, sent viral with a short half-life, and are forgotten.  Except for a very few – children fleeing napalm bombing in the Vietnam War  – most viral photographs are snapped and posted for immediate impact; flashes of rioters, protesters, walls, immigrants, politicians, and popes.  They are unidimensional, without depth, complexity, or a sense of the unique moment. 

The current protests over the death of a young black man at the hands of police are themselves without complexity and protesters themselves say it is about ‘systemic racism’, ‘police brutality’, and ‘white privilege’.  There is no need to define terms that have become memes, gaining credibility along with currency.  There is no need to reflect on judicial process or to disaggregate racial phenomena into social, economic, cultural, and historical bits; no need to look beyond the quick, assumptive, emotional, and single-minded responses to an event; or to be logically reductionist.  An incendiary image of cop with his knee on a black man is meant to be immediately understood and evocative within the racially sensitive, inclusive zeitgeist of the times – part of an extended meme, something easily viral, repeated. .  A still life, a static, unemotional, reflective depiction of what underlies the event and the history – what is very American, very human, and very existential - might be far more relevant – not a pastiche or a collage of similar inflammatory images, but underlying images.

If a Dutch 17th century still life could suggest the historical complexity of Dutch empire, trade, commerce, and society, then so could a still life of modern America.  It would be a distillation, not a kaleidoscope. In fact, imagine a national gallery of still lifes; a thousand galleries, a thousand thousand quiet suggestive images.

In the paintings there would be no masks, empty beaches, or angry demonstrations to open America.  There would be no collages of politicians and experts, no podiums, lecturing, or yellow police tape.  Not even images of the Corona virus itself.  The paintings would be about fear, panic, hysteria, timorousness, and acceptance.  Even the most evocative ‘static’ image – Picasso’s Guernica – is too violently obvious and political for this new gallery.  It is no different than a Black Lives Matter’s grotesquery of police, or a deliberately manipulative image of a ward full of gasping, desperate Corona victims.  A still life would express what underlies current events.

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Most Americans are tired of being badgered by accusations of racism, privilege, and indifferent elitism; being yelled at for ignoring the plight of the black man, the poor, the underprivileged, the marginalized; being hollered at for not wearing a mask, for insisting on shopping openly, rejecting the idea of hermetic isolation and emotional indemnity.  There is no safe haven, no hermitage, no asylum from the noise, the anger, and the belligerency.  It has all become noise, nothing but the timpani, no violins, no adagio, no pause – the fireworks of 1812 or Firebird without the slow movements.  The country has been radicalized – not in a political way, the final motivation to revolutionary action, but in an inchoate way.  When the screams of protest become loud and immeasurable, there is no recourse but to ignore them – a protest of radical indifference.

Art has always been food for the soul – the one beautiful thing in an often nasty and brutish life. 

It is the abruptness of leaving the carefully crafted world of books and ideas and suddenly facing the gross ugliness of the malls, fast food outlets, chain restaurants, gas stations, and big box stores that a friend found upsetting.  Whereas one might be able to disregard the commercial clutter, it was the contrast with a more deliberate, thoughtful world that was so disorienting.  There could be no equanimity on this road, no tunnel vision or focus to block out the roadside detritus, and certainly no intimacy.  The strip was invasive, hostile, and threatening…except for the powerful, plaintive voice of Jessye Norman singing. “Signore, ascolta! Ah, Signore, ascolta! Liù non regge più!”  

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A gallery of still lifes would have none of Norman’s melancholic passion, no soothing balm; but it would have ‘presence’, something that displayed much with little – subtlety, the very thing missing today.  However the 21st century painter might confect his still life and exchange dead rabbits for something more resonant, he would still be subtle, interpretive, and calm.  As close to a musical aria as a painting can become.

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