15 August, 2003
CULTURE: Double Dutch, part 2
Emblems, signs and portents
It was hot in the centre of Amsterdam last week, but not as hot as it was in London. The trees alongside the canals blocked out the worst of the sun, and a lively breeze occasionally ruffled the inscrutable bottleglass-green of the water. Only on the northern bank of the Amstel, where the pavements caught the late afternoon sun, or in the crowded Rokin and Damstraat did the heat seem unpleasant — and as much as anything that was the crowds, the smell of cheap fast food and the generalised air of vulgarity. Down along the Herengracht and Keizergracht, in contrast, the usual dignified calm prevailed, broken only by the occasional zing of a bicycle bell or the lazy slooshing of a canal-boat in its moorings, while the admirable Blauw aan de Wal continued to produce effortlessly elegant food despite the overheated madness of the world just outside its fig-lined, candle-lit courtyard.
As I mentioned yesterday, while my Amsterdam does not much resemble that portrayed by Danny Frederick in his Libertarian Alliance pamphlet A Week in Amsterdam: One Libertarian’s Experience of Freedom, nonetheless there’s a striking degree of scope for topographical overlap. For me, the Oudezijds Voorburgwal is a place where three centuries of brickwork, gables, cornices, fenestration and stoeps can be viewed in exhilarating proximity to each other — a happy circumstance, incidentally, due in large part to more than a century of viciously draconian building-regulation and ‘heritage’ policing. The soft curves and diminutive scale of the Zeedijk seem to recall a tough little seaport not a million miles removed from, say, King’s Lynn. And then there is the minor mystery of those tiny, tidy, beautiful little lanes and yards — awash with flowers, populated with rotund old cats and offering glimpses into tidy interiors. These places are seconds away from the noisy squalor of the Red Light District, but at the same time are somehow as clean, fresh and blameless as a genre piece by de Hooch or Vermeer. Due largely to the prohibitive price and limited availability of state-managed parking, the effectively pedestrianised old heart of Amsterdam is a paradise for the gable-gazing, history-reading daydreamer — rather as I expect it would be for the drunkenly stumbling, drug-addled seeker after paid companionship. Wandering through Amsterdam, the sheer presence of the place, its colours and textures, gives enormous pleasure. It looks, somehow, the way one imagines it ought to look. And indeed, these is something ultimately satisfying about those moments in life when the real world seems to resemble most closely the preconceptions about it we have collated, consciously or otherwise, from art, literature, history — or from porn and free-market pamphlets. Here, then, is the most genuine overlap between my Amsterdam and Danny’s — the agreeable sense that Amsterdam means something.
Last week, when I was there, several of the Netherlands’ major public museums — those trusty, hard-working engines of normative schema — were in the midst of various sorts of upheaval. The Rijksmuseum is suffering from the combined effects of an asbestos scare and a long-planned renovation programme, the Stedelijk Museum is in the midst of a general overhaul, while even the sturdy Nederlands Scheepvaart Museum seemed slightly unnerved by the ongoing redevelopment of Amsterdam’s long-neglected waterfront. Meanwhile, in The Hague — in some ways the great anti-Amsterdam — the Mauritshuis was preparing for what will doubtless be a landmark Holbein exhibition, and thus had consigned more than the usual majority of its permanent collection into stores. Not that it mattered, really. Disruptions aside, each of managed to say something about Netherlands, past and present — often, it must be said, very much in the way that seventeenth-century Dutch emblem books, feeding an export-market of art-hungry protestants everywhere, used to try, in a way that was at once abstract and absolute, to make order of the complicated world around them.
The Nederlands Scheepvaart Museum is Amsterdam’s maritime museum. The handsome building that houses it, completed in 1656, was for many years the Dutch Admiralty, from which the nation’s ships were commissioned, repaired, provisioned and sent abroad on their various adventures. A businesslike warehouse dignified by its expensive materials and classical idiom, it still commands the basin of the Oosterdok with paternalistic self-confidence, as if that basin still contained anything more than a modest flotilla of pleasure-craft and a single-masted replica vessel belonging to the museum. Organised around a central courtyard and recalling, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Venetian Arsenale, the building conveys its message with a solidity that is followed through in the succession of low, heavy-beamed rooms in which the collection is displayed. As with all the best museums, indeed, the structure and collection continue to comment on each other, to back each other up in a common didactic purpose. Nor is there anything mysterious about that purpose. The Nederlands Scheepvaart Museum exists to publicise, commemorate and celebrate a major facet of Dutch national identity, which is to say, the Netherlands’ proud pedigree as a sea-going nation.
Happily, the presiding forces at the Scheepvaart Museum have not seen the need to go the way of our own dear Greenwich, with its interactive screens, distracting video and audio effects and heavy-handed attempts at ‘relevance’. The result, though, is less the vain-glorious shrine that other nations might have preferred than a consciously low-key, down-to-earth survey of Dutch maritime history as told through a careful selection of its artefacts. There are plenty of old maps, plenty of old navigational aids, some superbly good paintings and more model ships — the great bulk of them several centuries old — than most of us had ever hoped to see in the entire course of our lives. Unsurprisingly, the Dutch East India Company takes up much of the narrative, as do the several Anglo-Dutch wars — for some reason maintaining a higher profile in the Netherlands than they do in Britain — and the history of Dutch exploration. Needless to say, there is some overlap with the excellent historical collection in the Rijksmuseum — how could there not be? — but the sheer charisma of the building, coupled with the streamlined character of the narrative, probably matters more than the presence or absence of any single object, be it the (sadly) decommissioned Dutch royal barge or the most modest painting of the so-called ‘herring buses’. Special exhibitions provide an additional attraction. I was particularly pleased, for instance, to see a room devoted to Arnold Borret’s evocative drawings of Surinam, so full of genuine curiosity about the landscape and people of this far-flung Dutch possession.
Stepping out in front of the museum, though, towards the Ij, one confronts what is doubtless the popular high-point of the Scheepvaart Museum — the Amsterdam, a recent reconstruction of an East Indiaman. The original Amsterdam went down on her maiden voyage in 1749. The new Amsterdam, constructed by volunteers, differs in many ways from her namesake. Regulations ensure that she is made of tropical timber rather than of oak, stairs have replaced ladders, the decks are far enough apart to allow visitors to stand upright, while concerns with fire prevention have led to the substitution of synthetic sealants for pitch. A likeable troupe of Dutch-speaking actors struggles to bring the vessel to life, but understandably cannot quite replicate the experience of sharing the ship with 300 or so souls for weeks and months at a time. Equally understandably, there are no overpowering smells, no swearing, no waves and no billowing sails. This is not exactly a criticism — what else could the museum have done? Even in this tidied-up incarnation, a full-size model can provide types of information that no diagram or miniature could match, from the rigging above to the darkened holds beneath. And then there’s the less intellectual, more visceral quality of the experience. Silly though it may be, it is also strangely exciting to sit up in the stern in the reconstructed captain’s cabin and look out through the thickly-glazed little windows towards the old buildings on the shore, or to stare upwards towards the masts, shielding one’s eyes from the afternoon sun, and imagine climbing up there amongst the sails. It is like being in a van der Velde painting — or so one can pretend — taking one back to the Golden Age of Dutch history, reminding us all the time of the brave, outward-looking yet practical people the Dutch were, and perhaps still are.
That, at any rate, seems to be the point of the experience, and on some levels it works admirably well. The Scheepvaart Museum seems unafraid to encourage a degree of romanticism about the whole idea of setting out to sea, chasing gold-laden Spanish galleons or hugging distant shores in search of expensive spices — an experience aimed principally at Dutch visitors, one must assume, given the relative paucity of foreign-language interpretative material. Clearly, this is no bad thing. Internalising the history of one’s own people, through myth and daydream no less than from any other source, is part of the business of constructing an individual identity. We all need our heroes and our templates of what it means to be heroic — individually or otherwise — and where better to find them than a place like this? Some might protest at this point that such a reading of history rests uncomfortably on a doctrine of selectivity — to which I’d reply that no one has thusfar managed to write history that rests on anything else.
Yet there are moments when the nature of that selectivity becomes an exhibition in itself — when what is not shown starts to loom larger than what is there in the display cases, as fascinating and informative as that may be. So it is that at the Nederlands Scheepvaart Museum — and the same is true, by the way, of the Rijksmuseum — it does not take long to become mesmerised by the sheer lack of reference to the slave trade, without which the Dutch could not have enjoyed the their seventeenth and eighteenth century prosperity, without which their maritime past would have looked very different, and indeed without which a great deal of Dutch history would make little sense. It is easy, now to smile at the Dutch decision to trade the future New York for Surinam — although at the time, it was entirely rational, since the Guianas were a near-fantastic source of valuable commodities. That smile quickly vanishes, though, when one remembers the awful cost at which those commodities were bought. In the sugar plantations of Demerara, Essiquibo and Berbice, for instance, in the mid-eighteenth century, it was a simple, practical matter of book-keeping to assume that no slave would live for more than about seven years. It was judged cheaper to import new slaves than to make any provision for childbearing on the part of existing slaves, since pregnancy and nursing took women away from the fields for unacceptable amounts of time. In short, although I personally accept the conventional liberal view that slavery is, per se, in all cases bad and wrong, it is hard to find an example of slavery in action that was worse than what took place in Dutch-run Guiana in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Hundreds of thousands of individuals were torn away from everything that was dear to them, violently mistreated and ultimately worked to death, largely if not entirely at the instigation of the Dutch.
Now, to some readers this may seem an unaccustomed and even unwelcome intrusion of political correctness into the virtual pages of ERO. Surely, as I mentioned above, it is right for nations to express pride in their achievements, with an absolutely minimum of apologetic pandering to special-interest groups? Well — up to a point.
There are at least two reasons why the decision to leave slavery out of Dutch history produces an account that fails perhaps the most important test that history imposes on itself as a literary genre, which is inherent plausibility. First, even if the Dutch spent the rest of eternity conspiring to forget this aspect of their past, it would not work. As long as people read Voltaire’s Candide, Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, John Gabriel Stedman’s journals or old issues of the Gentleman’s Magazine, they will keep being reminded that for a very long time, in the eyes of a far-from-squeamish world, the image of the Dutch consisted less of tolerance, liberalism and lovely paintings, than of being callous, hypocritical and much more interested in money than in anything else. Weirdly, by ignoring this aspect of their history, places like the Scheepvaart seem only to encourage such negative stereotypes.
Second, though, like it or not — and I am well aware that many Dutch people don’t like it — Afro-Caribbean people simply are part of life in the Netherlands now. They are not going to vanish overnight, any more than other legacies of the wider Dutch imperial past will — the molasses-based jenevers and the Indonesian rijstafels, the celebrity footballers, Shell Oil and Droestes chocolate, the boundless opulence of those houses on the ‘golden curve’ of the Herengracht or that vague sense of being a nation of global consequence. That being the case, then, why not a little more transparency about the ways in which these people came, centuries ago, to participate not only in African and American history, but in European history as well? Why not put some effort into creating a Dutch sense of identity that includes slavery too? What is needed is less an apology — for what it’s worth, I don’t believe that apologies by the living for the deeds of the dead carry any weight — than the simple acknowledgement of reality. The thousands of unknown Africans tossed overboard into the Atlantic because they had failed to survive a voyage sandwiched between four-foot-high decks, fed badly and intermittently, shackled one to the other, are every bit as much a part of Dutch history, alas, as is Tromp or de Ruyter or Heyn. The alternative — a vision of the past so painfully at odds with the present — will only float in the calmest of waters.
Re-gilding the Golden Age
Perhaps the strangest thing about the Rijksmuseum is that, although it is known throughout the world for its magnificent collection of Golden Age Dutch art, it is in fact ‘the Dutch national museum’ — something that speaks volumes about the centrality of Golden Age art to Dutch national identity.
Paradoxically, it is generally held that the Rikjsmuseum’s collection, like its sibling at the Mauritshuis, came into being on the orders of Louis Bonaparte in the first decade of the nineteenth century, cobbled together out of works that had previously belonged to the City of Amsterdam, various guilds and to the grander Dutch families; what wasn’t sent off to Paris as imperial tribute was to be displayed before the happy citizens of the Batavian Republic in that new thing, a public didactic museum. The idea survived the short career of its founder. While Willem I preferred the Mauritshuis and Willem II preferred augmenting his own personal art collection, the proto-Rijksmuseum soon attracted a worthwhile amount of public support. Gifts and loans were made. The collection grew. Following a series of peregrinations it finally came to rest in 1885 in the extraordinary confection that presently houses it: a church architect’s attempt to dress the history of the Netherlands in Gothick brick, glazed tile and stone. And no matter how conventionally pretty but soulless the Phillips Galleries may look, or how antiseptic and anonymous the galleries housing the Golden Age paintings, the building still forces visitors, at least for a portion of their visit, to conform to its makers’ vision — its sweeping stairs and high ceilings awash with a clear, perhaps ‘distinctively Dutch’ sort of light.
From across the Netherlands and from around the world, people flock to the Rijksmuseum to admire the art of the Golden Age. Part of its appeal — as Walter Benjamin might not have been surprised to have learned — is now the great familiarity of some of its images, if not in terms of actual works then in terms of an overall, ‘Golden Age’ aesthetic. For the British this is perhaps particularly true. One could easily make a case that no other country in the world has loved Dutch art as avidly, acquisitively and persistently as Britain has. (Incidentally I do, here, mean ‘Britain’ rather than ‘England’, since there are plenty of important Dutch paintings that ended up in Scottish and Irish collections — otherwise, why would Russborough be such a fruitful source of ransomable Dutch masterpieces?) As far as that goes, Britain for decades offered sanctuary to Dutch art that had gone out of fashion at home: the big Italianate landscapes of Cuyp, for instance, with their contentended ruminant livestock and butter-milk skies, seen to such effect at Dulwich and elsewhere, had to be bought back from Britain in the twentieth century when they once again became a permissible facet of Dutch history. But this reminds us of something important, if obvious, which is that there is nothing neutral about the sort of art that is the Rijksmuseum, or the way in which it is hung. As the Napoleonic theorists of state-formation must have hoped, the objects in the Netherlands’ national museum are there to make a point about the Netherlands. The fact that this art is so widely loved in Britain, and has been for a long time, is similarly suggestive. What, then, can be said about the pictures in the Rijksmuseum? And by the same token, what can be said about the paintings lining the walls at Windsor and Kenwood and Apsley House?
It is easiest, once again, to begin by saying what Dutch art is not — or at any rate, what the sort of art that became codified as Golden Age Dutch art is not. Stop and imagine the Dutch rooms at the National Gallery for a moment — compared, say, with the Spanish, French and Italian rooms of similar vintage — and what comparisons come to mind? Dutch art, most would say, is not grandiose or bombastic. It concerns itself not with gods and monsters, but rather, with the ordinary stuff of everyday lives — fields, rivers, churches, markets, homes and the things we’d expect to find in them, or perhaps even ordinary-looking, warts-and-all people. It is down-to-earth, modest and meticulous. Most of all, it is ‘realistic’ — concerned with documenting our own world, or rather the world of the Dutch Golden Age, rather than conjuring up imaginary worlds of its own.
To this extent, it was pushing against the tide of most eighteenth-century art theory, in an age where the heroic, historical and ideal had gained precedence over the alternatives. Educated Englishmen who clearly admired Dutch art found themselves condemning it in more or less the same breath as that in which they praised it. Lecturing at the Royal Academy, for instance, and having just expressed regret that Frans Hals never finished his pictures properly, Sir Joshua Reynolds thundered forth:
Others of the same school [as Frans Hals] have shewn great power in expressing the character and passions of those vulgar people, which were the subjects of their study and attention. Among those, Jean Stein [Jan Steen] seems to be one of the most diligent and accurate observers of what passed in those scenes he frequented, and which were to him an academy. I can easily imagine, that if this extraordinary man had had the good fortune to have been born in Italy, instead of Holland, had he lived in Rome instead of Leyden, and been blessed with Michael Angelo and Raffelle for his masters, instead of Brower and Van Gowen [i.e. Brouwer and van Goyen]; the same sagacity and penetration which distinguished so accurately the different characters and expression of his vulgar figures, would, when exerted in the selection and imitation of what was great and elevated in nature, have been equally successful; and he now would have ranged with the pillars and supporters of our Art.
So Dutch painters had technical skill (elsewhere, more privately, Reynolds wrote that ‘Painters should go to the Dutch School to learn the art of Painting, as they would to a Grammar School to learn Languages’) but unlike the French or the Italians, they put it all to ‘vulgar’ rather than ‘elevated’ use. Why, then, has the British market for Dutch art remain so lively, from the seventeenth century to the present?
Historians of taste may well have a better answer, but until I hear it, it seems likely to me that the British enthusiasm for Dutch art arose, as much as anything, out of a distrust of visual art per se, married to an actual enthusiasm for the apparently low goals that Dutch art set itself. Titian’s paintings of the penitent if bare-breasted Magdalene — while also loved in Britain, admittedly — could look idolatrous or salacious, or both. That was the danger of buying the seductive products of Catholic culture. But Dutch artists had, in the main, to work within protestant norms, so that any messages encoded in their paintings were broadly moralistic rather than theological; better still, they tended to refer to the broad, literal business of narrative, rather than to the murkier realms of visual aesthetics, couched in a self-confident, attention-seeking illusionism. Best of all, their works — and here we need to include the thriving Dutch print market as well as the work of painters — were often small, down-to-earth and happy to fit in with their environment, decorating rather than dominating domestic space. Finally, their fat cattle, full boards and family scenes spoke fairly directly to British concerns. To this day, there are British people out there who can stomach neither the frothy devotional exercises of the Roman baroque nor the cold classicised fantasies of the French, who still have a lot of time for Vermeer or Jan Steen.
Such people would be happy in the Rijksmuseum, which for the moment is stripped down to its Golden Age basics. The marvellous furniture collection is limited to a single room; the Phillips Galleries are closed, meaning that Asia art and all ceramics are out of bounds. Thus it is that Dutch painting — particularly Golden Age Dutch painting — reigns supreme. The ‘Gallery of Honour’ remains much as it always was, featuring a frankly breathtaking succession of masterpieces, and if the rooms beyond seem slightly overstocked with bad nineteenth century slosh — well, that still leaves as good a group of Golden Age paintings as one is likely to find anywhere in the world.
Any list of highlights would be otiose — they are easy enough to find elsewhere — but it is perhaps worth commenting on the stupid predilection of most gallery-goers for a tragically narrow range of work, reaching all the way from Rembrandt to Vermeer to … well, back to Rembrandt, anyway. Is it just me, or is it an odd experience to enjoy a good five minutes virtually alone with a first-rate Ruysdael view of Haarlem, while a few feet away, dozens and dozens of aged North Americans circle the three Rijksmuseum Vermeers like a host of excited gannets? But then, as much as I love cavalier asymmetry and stubborn inconclusiveness of the ‘Little Street’, I have never had much time for the ‘Maid Pouring Milk’ — its precocious pointilism always striking me as an arid little exercise in technique for its own sake — so perhaps I am not to be trusted on these subjects. Other slightly overlooked masterpieces include Hals’ ‘Marriage of Isaac Abrahamsz Massa and Beatrix van du Laen — bravura black-on-black brushwork aside, it’s as powerful and persuasive a portrait of a companionable, convivial marriage as has ever been produced — or the near-abstract brilliance of Saenredam’s ‘Interior of the Church of St Odelphis in Aseensdelft’, all assertively flat planes and honeyed tonalities. This is Calvinism at its aestheticised best, austere and grippingly sensual all at once. Given that Saenredam basically depicted his own tomb in it, it is also personal, intimately anecdotal, and surprisingly moving.
Meanwhile, downstairs lies the Rijksmuseum’s excellent Dutch historical collection. One of the highpoints here is certainly an all-but-illegible crumpled piece of pewter encased in clear plastic. Apparently it once marked the point at which a Dutch trading expedition, blown off course, struck ground in what became Western Australia. The fact that the plaque looks, naturally enough, like something Dutch from the seventeenth century, while coming from literally the other side of the world, is somehow poignant — as were the very ordinary-looking seventeenth century Dutch slate gravestones I once saw on Fort Island, a vine-choked, muddy, forlorn old ruin far up the Essequibo river in what is now Guyana, the memory of which will remain with me to my dying day. But for a British visitor, the other unforgettable artefact is surely the highly-ornamented stern of the English flagship the Royal Charles, seized by the Dutch in June 1667 during their highly successful raid on Chatham. The unicorn has lost his horn, but the Garter crest remains proud and recognisable despite its bleached wood and faded colours. Surrounded by excellent portraits of Tromp, de Ruyter and others, the distinctively Dutch air of mild, understated triumphalism is more than a little relieved by the sad realisation, passing through the succeeding galleries, that no matter how well things went in Java or Surinam, that raid on Chatham took place in the long hot Indian summer of Dutch global power. Things would never be this good again. But perhaps that is the point?
There is, then, nothing casual in the selection of items on show at the Rijksmuseum — now less than ever. Indeed, its selection criteria have long been unusual enough to be interesting. Whereas the Louvre had its start as the repository of ill-gotten imperial plunder, and whereas our own National Gallery soon evolved into a connoisseurs’ collection drawing together the best examples from the best representatives of the best national schools, the point behind the Rijksmuseum has always been very different. Its holdings, for instance, of non-Dutch European art are virtually non-existent, whereas its collections of Japanese and Chinese art, formidable though they are, are pretty obviously not there because the works themselves are beautiful (although they are), but rather because of the historic connections linking the Netherlands with the Far East. The displays of furniture, ceramics, glass and silver are there to tell a story about Dutch history, while the history collection downstairs reminds us once again — this is the Museum of the Netherlands, not — for its dozens of world-class masterpieces — a Museum of Art.
As for the way in which the collection has been shaped, edited and presented, that is too large a subject to be treated adequately here. Two significant figures will have to stand for the rest. The first was the art critic Theophile Thoré who, in his Musées de la Hollande (1858) and other writings, did much to shape the way in which Dutch art is understood to this very day. In the Dutch context. Thoré is now most famous for ‘rediscovering’ Hals and Vermeer, and to some extent this hints at what he loved most in Dutch art — a sensibility that necessarily overlapped with what was happening in French art, and French culture, at the time. He sometimes wrote under the pseudonym ‘W. Bürger’ — ‘citizen’ — which nicely expressed his political inclinations. Thoré, an early champion in other contexts of Courbet, Millet and Manet, explicitly desired an art that was ‘for the people’ — democratic, accessible, concerned with ordinary folk, their work and play — and did a skilful job of projecting this preference onto the art of another century. The second important figure was Frederick Schmidt-Degener, senior director of the Rijksmuseum during the years 1922-1941. While Schmidt-Degener was very much of his time in emphasising the importance of aesthetic impact over other art-historical concerns, at another he was anxious to present ‘a lasting image of Dutch art’, with the familiar handful of well-known masters playing the lead roles. ‘Naturalism’ and ‘realism’ were prized; foreign influences were discouraged. According to Schmidt-Degener, as long as Dutch painters ‘avoided the main-stream of European art, their creations were always fresh and new’ — and hence, good. Mannerists, Caravaggisti, the Italianate painters, ‘fine painters’ and classicists were, on the other hand, seen as corrupters of pure indigenous genius. And although Schmidt-Degener made his case on aesthetic rather than ideological or historical grounds, this may only have strengthened its subliminal force, not least in a climate where ‘race’ and ‘nation’ were very much the concepts of the moment.
Time passes; tastes change; it would be wrong to suggest that the Italianate painters and Caravaggisti are not, at some token level anyway, offered parity of esteem by present-day Rijksmuseum curators. As I mentioned earlier, there a lot of eighteenth and nineteenth century Dutch art on show. Still, these works are not what formed English views regarding Dutch art, or their views about the nature of the people who produced that art. Nor are they, in the main, what the long queues of people outside the Rijksmuseum every morning are waiting so patiently to see. Instead, the images that spring insistently to mind the moment someone says ‘Dutch art’ remain, for most of us, the sort of images that Thoré and Schmidt-Degener would have recommended — Rembrandt’s homeliness, Hals’ spontaneity, Vermeer’s quietness. What is more, by making this selective sampling our definition of ‘Dutch art’, we reinforce what we believe, consciously or otherwise, to be the defining qualities of Dutchness itself. So does this — those genre scenes of markets and buyers, drinkers and smokers, whores and readers — in any way inform the notion that Amsterdam is, somehow, a place in which freedom is likely to be found, in a way that a Bronzino portrait or one of Fragonard’s frivolities would not? It’s a point to which I’ll return in due course.
Let the sunshine in
There are moments when one may well have had enough of that Golden Age and its trappings, at which point a visit to the Stedelijk Museum — the Netherlands’ premier collection of modern art — is very much in order. The Netherlands have, self-evidently, not exactly done badly out of modernism. On one hand, there is Piet Mondrian with his grids, theosophical fads, jazz references and Lego colours; on the other, there is Willem de Kooning, whose whole super-sexy ambience and vatic pronouncements, as much as his ‘slipping glimpses’ and smeary probing brushwork, seduced a generation-and-a-half of American abstract expressionists — at least until the drink, Altzheimers and his implausible late work (if indeed it is his) caught up with him.
That, anyway, is an American-inflected view of Dutch modernist achievement — the Netherlands as seen from a longish, trans-Atlantic distance. But even the casual visitor soon recognises the Dutch familiarity with modernist idioms, and the grace with which these idioms are manipulated: in the drive from Schipol to the centre of Amsterdam; in the model housing promiscuously thrown up in the 1960s and 70s, much of which is actually relatively attractive and functional; in the laid-back elegance of so much Dutch design when it comes to quotidian things such as kitchens, bathrooms, trams and so on. And then there’s the strange fact that, when viewed from the air, the land around Schipol might as well have been painted by Mondrian, so full is it of tidy grids, simple planes and the most basic of colours. So once again, it is possible to auto-generate a string of conclusions in which visual culture turns into political culture laid bare, as one notes the way in which, here on the flat, amongst a pragmatic and down-to-earth people, a demotic and relaxed sort of modernism appears to flourish to a degree unthinkable across the Channel, yet also appealing free of les tres grandes projets mentality present elsewhere in Europe.
Such generalisations are, needless to say, precarious structures at best. When I visited the Stedelijk Museum on a weekday afternoon at the height of the Dutch holidays, it was all but deserted. The man who made me decant my handbag into a clear plastic carrier was absolutely charming, and I’d gladly have chatted to him all day; ditto the tall, amusing, headscarf-festooned women to whom my handbag was consigned; all the same, it was a bit disconcerting to encounter only another two or three people during the rest of my two or three hours in the museum. Was it the hot weather? There is a lot of natural light in the Stedelijk’s upper reaches, and no obvious air conditioning. It was indeed very hot. Or did it have something to do with the tendency of great museums to be full of tourists, and for tourists to associate the Netherlands with Rembrandt, Vermeer and — after a bit of special pleading — with Van Gogh, but not with modern art? Either way, it made for a strange viewing experience, as I strode through the deserted, pale-walled, high-ceiling spaces, accompanied only by the echo of my own footfalls.
The Stedelijk has a rather good collection, at least in terms of names, although one suspects that some of the work is there more for the labels than for any aesthetic thrill to be garnered from the work itself. (Their solitary Jackson Pollock is a wretched affair which Peggy Guggenheim was right to give away, while a Van Gogh — ‘Zundert 1857’ — really did look like the sort of thing that might be passed over — rightly, too — in a suburban jumble-sale.) There are also some rather strange purchasing decisions. Fair enough to show a de Kooning bronze or two — shown alongside a beta-plus sort of de Kooning painting, one at least gets a sense of what these unappealing objects might, without any great success, be trying to achieve — but does one really need a whole room of the wretched, inchoate things?
But that is an ungracious response to a gallery that also holds a number of striking works that I was glad to have seen. No one who is stuck in the United Kingdom will have seen enough van Doesburg, enough Penck, enough Baselitz, and hence we should all be glad to see more. And when it comes to minimalism — European or American — the Stedelijk delivers with some style, not least in a flurry of good work by Brice Marden, Carl Andre and someone entirely new to me named Stanley Brouwn. The hanging strategy, as is the style these days, eschews national or chronological groupings in favour of arch little formal jokes. Some of the pairings come off, whereas a few blind dates end up in boredom if not unsightly rows. All of this notwithstanding, UK visitors may be amused to learn that Brit Art — for this is an up-to-the-moment collection — has been given a room of its own, where an excellent Mark Quinn (a sort of waxen cast, hanging like a skin) cohabits with an unusual (literally rubbish-filled) Hirst, a classic (fluorescent tubing) Emin and an okay-if-you-like-that-sort-of-thing (stained glass, scatological references, um, sorry, didn’t really look more closely) Gilbert & George. I wonder what they thought would happen if Brit Art had to share a room? Elsewhere a boring Bruce Nauman that tries to look like a garish artefact from a peep-show is undermined, terminally, by its surroundings. My favourite things, oddly, were a set of Kirchners which, although leached of colour by the blinding natural light, still had a spikiness and a sexiness that worked despite obvious limitations.
It would be stupidity itself to complain about the fact that the Stedelijk Museum is a museum of modern art — that comes with the territory. Still, as I left, I was struck somehow by the contrast with the Rijksmuseum. There, I had been annoyed by the devout, aged American art-lovers gazing voraciously at the Rembrandts — here, I was all but alone. Why? And why did nothing in this large, in some ways excellent museum touch me in the way those Ruysdaels or Saenredams had done?
The problem, evidently, lies in modern art itself. Some would lament its failure to rise to the challenges of genuine popular appeal; here at ERO we’d only congratulate it on that, were it anything like true. Rather, on reflection, what I regretted most was an issue of tone. Old Dutch painters may have set out not only to describe the world, but to tell us things about it — to provide a commentary on how we should see it, what should be valued, what should be discarded. But such painters still were part of that world, at some level loved it, engaged with it and fought with it, admitted that it was their world, too. Whereas when I left the Stedelijk (having recovered my handbag) it occurred to me that the single most annoying feature of twentieth century art — a large claim, I know! — is its disingenuous pretence that an artist must always be a critic, viewing life from a great height and passing an arch, rather scornful little judgement upon it. So much recent art shares this negative, carping, superior stance, while not really postulating anything alternatives, giving it an unpleasantly sterile feel. Is there really nothing about our own times that should be celebrated as avidly as van der Aest enjoyed flowers and shells, as Coorte delighted in fruit, as Saenredam saluted the beauty of protestant liturgy or as Ruysdael celebrated the lowland horizon? Well, no, it would seem.
How paradoxical, then, that the most genuinely enjoyable part of my visit to the Stedelijk was a special exhibition called ‘Revolution in the Air’ which surveyed the protest art of the late 1960s. Although there was a degree of Dutch emphasis, a sort of international style of protest rhetoric was very evident in the art. Much of it, needless to say, was painfully dull — notably, the rooms full of inconsequential snaps that were supposed to make some sort of trenchant radical point but in fact simply showed one naked, skinny, badly-groomed woman after another — and much of it was simply silly. One photograph of a student protester encountering a line of police (Paris, 1968) was rather let down by the details, e.g. the several other photographers hovering to capture this ‘dramatic’ confrontation, and the faintly bemused smiles on the faces of most of the policemen, almost as if they felt the moment slipping away from them, out of the realms of public order and into the realms of legend. On the other hand, it was good to see some of those iconic images in their original formats — Ron Haeberle’s ‘And Babies, Too?’ a slightly tattered poster rather than an illustration in an academic text — as well as touching to note the recurrent nature of anti-war, anti-American graphics, from the 1960s all the way up to last spring. The stylised doves and bullets, the phallic military hardware, the Stars’n Bars morphing awkwardly into a swastika — those tropes were already familiar more than a generation ago, although the urge to inflate the language of suffering, persecution and paranoia to the point of meaninglessness is far, far older still.
Yet if this ‘art’ — and the line between art and graphic design, art and journalism, art and anything else vanishes here — seemed to have more life in it than in all the rest of the Stedelijk’s collection, this was almost certainly because some sort of engagement with life, however wrong-headed and misdirected some of that engagement now looks, rescued it from death-by-sterility, from the stifling self-regard and sclerotic pointlessness that afflicts so much of what turns up in contemporary galleries. Like it or not, one had to look — to shake one’s head or sigh, perhaps — but at least to make some sort of connection. Whereas elsewhere, there was a lingering sense of mental lists being ticked, names being spotted: ‘Look, there’s a Brice Marden. I wonder whether there’s a Sean Scully? Look, there’s a Sean Scully …’ It is hard to imagine that the art of the twenty-first century will ever be able, a few centuries hence, to delight and fascinate once those labels have become misplaced, the attributions muddled and the modernist myth-making stripped away. Somehow, the anonymous ‘Master of the Colourful Girders’ doesn’t really have much of a ring to it. Whereas ‘And Babies, Too?’ will still make a recognisable, if sadly unremarkable, point about the world around it.
All of which only leaves the usual questions hanging in the air. What does all this have to say about Danny Frederick’s Amsterdam, exemplar of freedom in action? And what does it have to say about my Amsterdam, that different but in some ways related place?
Libertarians, perhaps more than anyone else, have a difficult time over the 1960s. (As for modernism per se, I have personally never met more than two or three libertarians who had a good word to say for it, and out of those, I am not sure how many still would use the L-word by way of self-definition.) On one hand, so much appeals — the ‘free’ love, the drugs and birth-control, the anti-authoritarian and anti-war rhetoric, the cutting-free of the bonds imposed on them by family and faith — even the fact that so many of them were, as it happens, young and happy in the 1960s or soon afterwards, and are thus able to contemplate it through slightly rosy-tinted retrospect.
There was a lot of freedom about, and a lot of fun to be had with it. On the other hand, there is a lot about the 1960s that good anarcho-capitalists feel honour-bound to condemn — the ‘property is theft’ refrain, the squats and the sit-ins, the distrust of individualism that always flanks communitarianism, the sentimental attachment to ‘heroes of freedom’ like Chairman Mao and Castro — let alone the general obliviousness to the fact that all this student leisure and self-expression was probably only possible, and certainly only took place, within the context of a booming capitalist economy. As for what Danny makes of any of this, though, I have no idea, never having discussed it with him. Personally, while I obviously regret the distrust of tradition that the 1960s encapsulated and promoted, I can never bring myself to get worked up about hating it in the way that some conservatives do. It happened — in fact it is now part of the ‘traditional’ structure of the world in which we live, part of a past that in some ways seems more innocent, hopeful and appealing than the present, hence its periodic revivals as a reassuring ‘retro’ style — and while all sorts of wickedness came to fruition in its wake, virtually all of that wickedness sprouted from ancient seeds.
There are a thousand different ways in which the same story could plausibly be told, but it is not hard to construct a narrative in which Danny’s Amsterdam was born in the 1960s. Those were the great days of the playful protests around the Lieverdje monument, of the squats and communes and plentiful drugs, of the thousands of foreign hippies flooding into Amsterdam to join the fun and the police choosing to look the other way. The deplorable Yoko Ono and her unspeakable IRA-enthusiast husband ensured that cognisance of the Amsterdam Hilton became general throughout the Anglophone world. Confessional religion appeared to collapse, sending people off in search of anything, everything to believe. So while one conventional story bracketting Amsterdam with freedom could site the origins of this coupling in the schematised Netherlands of the Scheepvaart Museum and the Rijksmuseum — the down-to-earth practical and entrepreneurial virtues of a burgerlijk yet outward-looking people — another sort of story would point instead to the Amsterdam of the 1960s, and to the various contingencies that led, in an indirect kind of way, to its eventual mythic stature as libertarian utopia — all the while recognising that this latter narrative, like the former one, involves a strong dose of much that is neither tolerant, permissive or libertarian.
So what justification, is there, if any, for the contention that there is anything particular free about Amsterdam — or to put it another way, that individual freedom in action would produce something that looked like the centre of Amsterdam? And if not, why did the idea emerge that either of these things might be true?