210 Specialism with a human face

The appearance of an outstanding collection of articles by his old friend Albert Blankert brings out sentimental recollections and upright admiration in Schwartz.

One day in the spring of 1967, Albert Blankert and I said goodbye to our women and children and, accompanied by Albert’s poet friend Rudi ter Haar, rode off in his deux-chevaux for the east. We were young art historians specialized in Dutch painting, and we felt that we owed it to our training to see the famous collections in the cities of central Germany. In the course of three intensive weeks, we visited the museums of Bonn, Kassel, Braunschweig, Marburg, Göttingen, Hannover and Berlin, east and west. We assumed that this was just the beginning of a march through the museums of the world, but that memorable trip has remained the only one of its kind I or he ever made.

Albert was even then, at the age of 27, an established authority in one particular field: the Dutch painters of Italianate landscapes. His catalogue Nederlandse 17de eeuwse Italianiserende landschapschilders (1965) was a legendary exercise in “rehabilitation.” An entire class of works that had until then been thought of as inferior was now, thanks to his efforts, the object of fresh admiration. Twice more in his extraordinary career he matched this achievement, in his exhibitions Gods, saints and heroes (1980), devoted to Dutch history painting, and Dutch Classicism in 17th-century painting (1999), on successive waves of a certain kind of stylistic self-consciousness. Before Blankert these kinds of art were considered somehow unDutch and therefore of less value than “typically” Dutch art. By expanding the meaning of Dutchness in art, Blankert has enlarged Dutch culture itself.

When a successful rehabilitation on this scale occurs – there are thousands of Italianate landscapes out there – museum curators are seized with a bout of professional shame. They too undervalued the works concerned, did not devote sufficient study to them and kept them in storage cellars rather than on the gallery walls. At all the museums we visited, the curator would be awaiting us nervously, notebook in hand, ready to take us downstairs to scrutinize the Italianate landscape paintings. Albert would look hard, frown, and then name a name. “No, that’s not a Berchem, it may be by Karel Dujardin.” Or, “The painting you call Jacob de Heusch isn’t Dutch at all. It’s probably French.”

Last month, in a chat with Albert’s wife Alice, I recalled these old memories. “Oh, they still drag Albert down to the cellar with their notebooks,” she said. The occasion was the presentation in the Rijksmuseum of a splendid new book by Albert Blankert, Selected writings on Dutch painting: Rembrandt, van Beke, Vermeer and others. The subtitle is vintage Blankert. Sandwiched between Rembrandt and Vermeer is one of the most obscure painters in the history of Dutch art, a sheriff of Bodegraven, a miserable character by all accounts, who in the early 18th century learned to paint from a professional artist who rented rooms from him.

Daniel van Beke, Landscape with Narcissus, 1717
Sale London (Foster) 16 December 1936, lot 115

In 1967 Blankert published for the first time the only two known works by Daniel van Beke, a still life and a classical Landscape with Narcissus, not even that bad. Although Blankert yields to none in his appreciation of the giants, even arguing forcefully for the application of the discredited concept of personal genius to Rembrandt (Schwartzlist 140), he is implacably opposed to an art history that lavishes all its attention on them.

The new book collects 23 of Blankert’s most important articles, long and short, in excellent English translations and in far more attractive typography than usual for collected essays. It is a treasure. Its 24-column index in small letters will lead art historians to wonderful nuggets that you find nowhere else. (Do Willem-Alexander and Maxima know that Vondel found the first Amalia in their family, Amalia van Solms, so beautiful that he was sure Paris would have chosen her above Venus in the famous beauty contest?) All students of the Dutch 17th century will need the translation of Blankert’s essential text “Art and authority in seventeenth-century Amsterdam,” first published in 1975 as Kunst als regeringszaak. Everyone who enjoys reading good art history will delight in Blankert’s gift for making everything he touches fresh and interesting.

The most remarkable essay in the book is the final one, “Barend and I.” Albert is the brother of the painter of still-lifes and interiors Barend Blankert (Schwartzlist 160: “Figuratively painting”). Dropping his scholarly guard, Albert compares Barend favorably to Pieter Claesz. and Zurbaran, Claude Monet and David Hockney, placing him as a 20th-century artist on the level of Francis Bacon, Balthus, Lucian Freud and Anselm Kiefer and their superior in avoiding sex and violence. The moderate relativism that marks Albert’s historical judgment is discarded in favor of an absolute scale of quality in art, on which Barend excels. The essay contains painfully revealing information about the brothers’ parents, with theories on how family relations guided the choice of profession of the father’s favorite (Albert) and the mother’s (Barend). Albert relates the “tragic view of life” in Barend’s art to his seriously disturbed relation with his father. Without drawing conclusions concerning his own view of art from his autobiography, in this disarming memoir Albert nonetheless provides the reader with materials for judging his scholarship in terms of his life. This too makes the cool-sounding Selected writings on Dutch painting an exceptional book.

One other point deserves mention. Many of the Selected writings as well as the book itself were sponsored or financed both by universities, museums and government agencies and by art dealers. The acknowledgments on p. 10 are an honor list of institutions, galleries and individuals who do themselves credit by supporting the work of this independent-minded and uncompromising art historian.

Albert Blankert and Gary Schwartz, 15 April 2004

Albert Blankert and Gary Schwartz leaving the Rijksmuseum after the presentation of Blankert’s book, 15 April 2004. Photo by Albert’s son Anne Blankert.

Albert Blankert, Selected writings on Dutch painting: Rembrandt, van Beke, Vermeer and others, with an excellent Foreword by John Walsh, Zwolle (Waanders) 2004. ISBN 90-400-8932-9

© Gary Schwartz 2004. Published in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad, 22 May 2004, p. 25.

In the P.S. to Schwartzlist – ¦ I announced the cessation for the time being of postscripts to the column. However, I miss writing them, and as a time-saving compromise I have decided to publish a summary cultural journal for the period since the previous column. We’ll see whether this formula takes.

10 May: Visit to Peter Hollander, retired executive of accounting firm KPMG, who responded to my appeal to readers of Schwartzlist 205 (“The Vincent account”) to review the figures in the publication The account book of Theo van Gogh and Jo van Gogh-Bonger. We decided to collaborate on an article concerning this aspect of the material, which was neglected by the editors of the publication.

11 May: Meeting with Wouter Kloek at the Rijksmuseum, in preparation of round-table discussion on 26 May regarding the Rijksmuseum and (Dutch) national identity.

12 May: Evening boat trip in the harbor and canals of Amsterdam to visit spots that the 19th-century artist Willem Witsen drew, etched and painted. The narrator on board was Freek Heijbroek, who last year, as curator at the Rijksmuseum, organized two outstanding exhibitions on Witsen in Amsterdam and Dordrecht. The trip was the beginning of an Eendragt evening (Society of Utrecht booksellers, established 1 July 1853) that ended at the Wilhelmina-Dok Restaurant on the northern shore of the IJ River. We made a lot of noise; I was sorry for the other people in the restaurant, but they did not seem to mind. We ate rather well.

Freek Heijbroek guiding Eendragt

Freek Heijbroek guiding Eendragt to Witsen locations in Amsterdam, 12 May 2004. The lost profile on the right belongs to Kees van der Hoek, publisher of Thoth Publishers, Bussum, who brought out Heijbroek’s catalogues.

13 May: Spoke on CODART at the annual dinner of the Association of Fine Art Dealers in the Netherlands in the Industrieele Groote Club on the Dam. Achieved the aim of introducing CODART to this influential group. Carried out bravura stunt of starting the lecture with a live Internet session on screen, in which I entered the search term “Dutch art” in Google. CODART came up as number 1 of 4,200,000 hits. It was a bit of a risk, as this is not always the case. Sometimes we’re number 2 or 3.

13 May: After early buffet dinner with the art dealers, attended a reading by the American novelist Paul Auster at the John Adams Institute. Although I retired from the board a few months ago, I was given lifelong free admission to the lectures, a privilege I use whenever I can. I admire Auster greatly, and was not disappointed by this evening, moderated by Pieter Steinz. He did something he never did before: he read the first two pages of his eleven books. It revealed recurrent obsessions as well as tricks and mannerisms, but this only added to the interest of the demonstration.

14 May: Visited Albert Eckhout exhibition in the Mauritshuis. Excellent presentation of the paintings from Copenhagen, with impressive catalogue, taking the space needed to explain the exotic details in the work of this artistic interpreter of the peoples and plants of Dutch Brazil. Was powerfully reminded of visit to the print room of Jagiellonian University Library in Kraków last month, where I saw extraordinary drawings by Eckhout (more properly called Eekhout). Heard rumors that they were not lent to the exhibition in The Hague because the Poles are afraid of claims by Germany for the return of the albums in which they are contained, which until 1945 were in the Berlin print room.

14 May: Attended presentation of sculpture by my friend Ram Katzir, an Israeli artist who has lived for many years in the Netherlands. The sculpture was commissioned by Amnesty International. It is a young ash tree in a stainless-steel cage. The living tree is intended to combat and defeat the unrelenting force attempting to contain it. The inspired title of the work, Amnestree, was invented by my son Baruch in a brainstorming session with Ram. The location is in front of the new train station of Maarssen. The opening was a classic small-town event, with poems by schoolchildren and dances by rehabilitating 80-year-olds.

16 May: Treated by Saam and Lily Nystad and Sotheby’s to a dinner in the midst of the viewing of the Unicorno Collection, in advance of the auction on 19 May (Schwartzlist 210).

17 May: Visit by Monumentenwacht, a special service for the owners of buildings on the national monument list of the Netherlands. Our 18th-century house in Maarssen is deservedly on the list. The team from Monument Watch clambered all over our roofs and attics and cellars and discussed their findings with us.

18 May: Appeared in a prominent Dutch tv news program, NOVA, which follows the 10 o’clock news on public television. The original idea was a discussion on Iraq between four people from America who had lived in the Netherlands for a long time. In the event, there were only two discussants – me and a patriot named Charles Ruffolo, who on his business card calls himself a “Professional Networker.” He came out with what I thought were shamelessly demagogic judgments. (“If it weren’t for America Gary would not be free to sit here and express his critical opinions”; “The abuses in Abu Ghraib were the work of seven soldiers; the fact that they are going on trial is a proof that the system works” etc. etc.) I combated him as well as I could in the six minutes or so for our item. Felt a bit used by the media, but I would do it again. Got some nice reactions from viewers. [Six years into the war, after the election of Barack Obama, I ran into Ruffolo at a crowded reception. With admirable sportivity, he called out for all to hear, “You were right and I was wrong.”]

19 May: Woke up with much better answers to Ruffolo than the ones I uttered.

The auction of the Unicorno collection was a great success, bringing in 2.3 million euros, a million more than Sotheby’s projected. (High collection premium?) Did not attend; our friend Ron Spronk from the Straus Center in Cambridge, Mass., was over for dinner on his way from Groningen to Thessalonika. I’m not the only art historian who gets around.

20 May: Viewing day at Bubb Kuyper auctioneers in Haarlem for upcoming sale of books, prints and drawings. The offerings are not that exciting, and the copies of the antiquarian books in which I was interested were not in great shape. Nonetheless I will be entering a few bids, the numbers of which I will not reveal at this point.

Responses to Gary.Schwartz@xs4all.nl

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