227 Senseless sensibility

Two exhibitions of Dutch genre paintings take competing approaches to the interpretation of these irresistible depictions of everyday life. One show, in Haarlem and Hamburg, interprets them as moral warnings to the viewer; another, in Rotterdam and Frankfurt, sees them as nothing more than fun subjects. Schwartz introduces into the discussion the ideas of the literary historian René van Stipriaan, whose theories about farces for the stage open new possibilities for interpreting paintings as well.

Last year Dutch museumgoers were spoiled with two overlapping exhibitions of some of the most irresistible art ever made, Dutch seventeenth-century paintings of everyday life. The Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem gave us Satire en vermaak: het genrestuk in de tijd van Frans Hals (Satire and jest: Dutch genre painting in Haarlem in the age of Frans Hals) and Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam Zinnen en minnen: schilders van het dagelijks leven in de zeventiende eeuw (Senses and sins: painters of everyday life in the 17th century). The overlap covered the general theme and several of the paintings on display. When it came to interpreting the art, however, the two exhibitions opposed each other to the point of mutual exclusion.


Willem Buytewech, Merry company, mid-1610s, Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen

A perfect demonstration of the deep antipathy between Satire and jest and Senses and sins is provided by the texts on a painting that featured in both shows, a Merry company from the 1610s by Willem Buytewech in the Boijmans Van Beuningen. The example is nearly an emblem in its own right: Buytewech was active in the very two cities where the exhibitions took place, Haarlem and Rotterdam; the Haarlem catalogue dates the painting to his Haarlem period, in Rotterdam it is claimed for that city.

The painting shows four young men dressed in fancy, expensive clothes, in a state of mild dissipation. Drinking and smoking, three of them are slumped in their chairs, while the fourth has absented himself from the table with a chamber pot into which he is preparing to piss. They are served by a woman with a tray and are apparently being addressed by the sixth and final figure in the scene, excluding the greyhound in the foreground: a balding, ruddy-faced older man with an unfashionable chain of sausages around his neck.

In the Haarlem catalogue, Cynthia von Bogendorf Rupprath applies to the painting the moralizing interpretative techniques pioneered by Eddy de Jongh in the 1970s. Identifying the older man as Peeckelhaering, a ne’er-do-well from stage farces, she writes: “The presence of Peeckelhaering in this group of frolickers is a sign that they are wasting their time on foolishness and empty-headedness.” She assigns hortatory, negative moral meanings to the wine vessels, tric-trac board and tobacco and reprehensibly erotic ones to the sausages and to the artichokes on the serving woman’s tray.

The Rotterdam catalogue will have none of this. The entry on the same painting, by Jeroen Giltay, curator of Old Master paintings of Boijmans Van Beuningen, is offhandedly dismissive of such notions. “Many elements in this composition have been interpreted in a certain way. People have claimed to find representations of the five elements here, but that seems unlikely. … In most current literature it is assumed that Buytewech is castigating the foolish young men and warning them of the transitoriness of mortal existence.” Giltay does not believe this. “These are true-to-life characterizations of idle young men, depicted with humor.”

Nearly thirty years after Eddy de Jongh’s exhibition in the Rijksmuseum, Tot lering en vermaak (To instruct and entertain), it is still possible for art historians who are not convinced by his conclusions simply to lay them aside. Apparently the arguments in favor of the “instruction” in Dutch paintings of daily life are not sufficiently compelling to force the issue. Throughout the text panels and catalogue of the Rotterdam exhibition, one hears a sigh of relief that intellectual exertion is no longer expected of the viewer (or curator): “jolly amusement … to make contemporaries laugh. A fun subject.” The helpless museumgoer is caught in an annoying quarrel between specialist proponents of instruction or fun.

While art historians have allowed themselves to be locked into this unfortunate bind, one literary historian has shown an intriguing way out of it. In 1996 René van Stipriaan published a stimulating study of farces on the Dutch stage, under the title Leugens en vermaak (Lies and amusement). Van Stipriaan’s predecessors, like art historians interpreting genre paintings, tended to regard farces either as dumb entertainment or moral tales. As the title of his book indicates, van Stipriaan redefined the question. Did a Dutch audience of 1620 really have to be taught the difference between right and wrong at the theater? Answering that question with No, he writes “These plays do not testify to any explicit moralistic objectives.” Rogues often go unpunished; rectitude is seldom to be found.

This sounds like solace for skeptics like Giltay, but it is not. What van Stipriaan does find, in farce after farce, is at least as significant as moral judgment, namely entertaining examples of pretence and deceit. The dupes who are victimized are not altogether innocent. They are cheated because they allow themselves to be carried off by their passions or – and this is the crux of the matter – because they are uncritically and irresponsibly gullible. The stage farce, writes van Stipriaan, is intended not to castigate vice, but to show how convincingly falseness can masquerade as fun or profit.

This offers a promising new avenue for the interpretation of genre paintings, quite close to de Jongh’s approach. What van Stipriaan calls “the preoccupation in Dutch Renaissance culture with deceit, illusion, ambiguity, and fiction” applies to much visual imagery as well. Instead of assuming that genre painters are either entertaining viewers or admonishing them to be good, let us try out the idea that at least some genre painting is a non-moralizing lesson in detecting deceit. In the case of the Buytewech, the lesson to the golden youth would be: take a good, hard look at Peeckelhaeringh (which none of them is doing) and don’t be misled by his gab.

With regard to the Haarlem and Rotterdam exhibitions, one thing must be said. Von Bogendorf Rupprath (and the exhibition curator Pieter Biesboer) might not be right, but Giltay is certainly wrong. The idea that the abundance of suggestive situations and details in the work of a sophisticated artist like Willem Buytewech is nothing more than “fun” is irresponsibly uncritical.

© Gary Schwartz 2005. Published in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad, Amsterdam, 28 January 2005.

Both exhibitions were also mounted in German museums, with the catalogue translated:
Vergnügliches Leben, verborgene Lust: Holländische Gesellschaftsszenen von Frans Hals bis Jan Steen (Pleasurable life, hidden desires: Dutch genre scenes from Frans Hals to Jan Steen; Hamburger Kunsthalle, 31 January-16 May 2004).

Frankfurt, Städelsches Kunstinstitut und Städtisches Galerie, Der zauber des alltäglichen: Holländische malerei von Adriaen Brouwer bis Johannes Vermeer (The magic of the ordinary: Dutch painting from Adriaen Brouwer to Jan Vermeer; 10 February-1 May 2005).

The Rotterdam exhibition goes too far in pushing its case. The title of the show, Zinnen en minnen, refers to a famous emblem book by Jacob Cats, Sinne- en minnebeelden of 1627. (A beta version of a somewhat unhandy but very useful web edition is available on the site of the Emblem Project Utrecht at http://emblems.let.uu.nl/emblems/html/c1627front.html.) Sinne- en minnebeelden translates unproblematically as Emblems and images of love. The English name of the Rotterdam exhibition is however Senses and sins, a misleadingly tendentious use of the famous phrase that eliminates the intellectual game at the heart of Cats’s enterprise.

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