The destigmatization of art geography: a preliminary to the study of the Dutchness of Dutch art

For the questioner in the audience who demanded to know why the subject is important.

On March 12, 1941, the art historian J.Q. van Regteren Altena delivered a lecture in the seventeenth-century auditorium of the University of Amsterdam, the Agnietenkapel, entitled “De Nederlandsche geest in de schilderkunst” (The Dutch spirit in painting). His talk was part of an extraordinary series on “De Nederlandschen geest” (The Dutch spirit) that was organized in the academic year 1940-41 by the Contactcommissie van Amsterdamse Studentenverenigingen, an umbrella organization for fraternities and other student groups as well as representatives of the university faculties. The names of the participants were a roll call of great names from Dutch intellectual and political life. Other speakers on the arts were N.A. Donkersloot (Anthonie Donker) on “Nederlandse poëzie” (Dutch poetry) and – with strong religious overtones – Gerardus van der Leeuw on “Ons lied en ons volkskarakter” (Our song [or psalm] and our nature as a people). The venerable theologian Paul Scholten lectured on “De plaats van het geloof in ons volksleven” (The place of faith in our life as a people) while the former Communist Jan Romein spoke on “De geschiedenis van de Nederlandse geest” (The history of the Dutch spirit).[1]

The lecture series was authorized by the German occupation authorities with the proviso that no discussion of political questions, however indirect, would be tolerated. This put some of the speakers under palpable strain. Former prime minister Hendrik Colijn, who was vehemently criticized for his conciliatory attitude toward the occupation, spoke noncommittally on “Nederland overzee” (The Netherlands overseas) four months after the arrest of a former speaker, B.M. Telders, the title of whose lecture – “Recht als element van de nederlandse cultuur” (Law as an element of Dutch culture) – is the most programmatic in the series. Telders later died in a concentration camp.

Van Regteren Altena was able to accept the prohibition on talking about politics without doing violence to his scholarly conscience. In his inaugural lecture as professor of art history at the University of Amsterdam on October 11, 1937, free of any and all duress, he had put forth a philosophy of art history that is perfectly consistent with his talk for the Contactcommissie. There he drew a sharp line between the aesthetic and non-aesthetic components in the appreciation of art. He proclaimed it to be “de opdracht” – the mission – of the art historian completely to eliminate non-aesthetic factors in his judgment, just as the task of the artist is to observe and record what he sees around him as purely and intensely as possible. Intellectual constructions, theories, religious beliefs and ideologies – let alone political convictions, which van Regteren Altena does not even mention – are the enemies of pure perception. No artist can escape his environment, indeed it is his task to translate it into art with all of its unrecurring particularities. The more unmediated “time and place” a work of art incorporates the more authentic it is. Van Regteren Altena took a dim view  of what one might call “denatured” art, art conceived with insufficient input from the local environment. “The importance of place becomes blurred in certain periods: most mannerisms were more or less international,” he said deprecatingly. “The Picassists were spread all over Europe and as far as South America” (p. 19).[2]

This principle provided van Regteren Altena with an instrument for distinguishing the Dutch spirit in art when he was called upon to do so by the Contactcomissie. The proper history of the art of the northern Netherlands began in the late fifteenth century with the rejection of the Burgundian legacy that until then had dominated all art north of Paris and Dijon. In a striking image, van Regteren Altena praises the northern artist for surrendering “the aristocratic ease of feeling at home in that rich Burgundian garb, without for a moment losing his composure” (p. 13 in the published version of his talk). With that gesture of renunciation, they became silent seers of the everyday.[3]

Not all artists of the north were as Dutch as all others. Geertgen tot Sint Jans was “a direct ancestor” of Jan Steen, Cornelis Troost, Vincent van Gogh and Dick Ket, but Jeroen Bosch and Lucas van Leyden were less so (p. 14). “Do we have to choose between the alternatives of the Dutchman who painted and the painter who expressed himself in a Dutch fashion? I would say: not if he was truly a painter, and not if we persist in taking account of the distinction.”[4] In this way, van Regteren Altena equates truth to the art of painting with truth to one’s nature as a Dutchman.

With examples, metaphors and mottos (“de monumentaliteit van het onaanzienlijke” – the monumentality of the insignificant – is the most all-encompassing), van Regteren Altena evokes an image of Dutch art without defining it.[5] But he feels no obligation to do so or to decide whether the image is a function of history or of innate character. We sense it “when we suddenly know ourselves somehow in isolation from that which is not Dutch.”[6] The entire sixteenth century, for example, after the period of “ancestor” Geertgen, constituted a “confusing intermezzo” (p. 17) in which that sense of isolation was depleted.

Nothing in van Regteren Altena’s theory prevented artists of other times and places than Holland after 1500 or 1600 to record their immediate environments with the same clarity as the Dutch. In his reading of art history, however, no other school was so free of pernicious internationalism, display, intellectuality, and “the mortgage of literariness” and so honestly and single-mindedly devoted to “pure oogenkunst” (purely ocular art) as the Dutch (pp. 17, 19, 27). Because truth to time and place were the most essential values in art, then, and because they were best exemplified in the work of the painters of the northern Netherlands, it follows that they are the best artists in history. Considering the circumstances under which van Regteren Altena spoke, it does not seem fair to isolate that judgment as an example of less than scholarly behavior. The Contactcommissie lectures, unpolitical or not, clearly were intended to bolster the morale of the Dutch listeners. “As I see it, the waves of times are able to push us into closer unity against a beacon: the certainty of our national identity.”[7] When the waves receded, that unity dissolved and uncertainty returned.

* * *

Cleveland, Ohio, October 1989. “The search for national identities in the visual arts could […] be considered a more or less outdated topic which, for obvious reasons, lost its appeal after the Second World War. Now, nearly half a century later, it is not only permitted once again, but has even become a topical issue in the context of the political integration of Europe in 1992. That unification apparently raises fears for the loss of one’s cultural identity, with the result that there is a renewed concentration on the essence of that culture.”

The speaker is Ilja Veldman, professor of art history at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam.[8] She is addressing the Historians of Netherlandish Art at their second quadrennial conference, dedicated to the theme “In search of the Netherlandish tradition in art 1400-1700: patterns of continuity and exchange.” The HNA is affiliated to the College Art Association, the official academic organization of American art historians and university artists, but its members do not have to belong to the CAA. The officers are younger American art historians and the members come mainly from America. In 1989, only a handful of Dutch art historians belonged to the association.

Veldman displayed a certain uneasiness with her subject. Her allusion to “obvious reasons” why it lost its appeal after the War implies that the study of national identity in the arts was tainted by association with Nazi ideas of nation and race. In saying that it “could be considered […] more or less outdated,” she indicates that it may be a non-issue for serious scholars. Her theory that the subject owes its revival to “fears for the loss of one’s national cultural identity” imputes defensive psychological motivations to those who are interested in the subject.[9]

By the use of mild irony, Veldman distances herself from these politically, scholarly and psychologically suspect facets of her subject. She increases the distance still further by suggesting that Dutch scholars in general are more skeptical than others concerning research of this kind. Speaking of the 1933 Congrès International d’Histoire de l’Art in Stockholm, devoted to “Kunstgeographie,” she compared the German art historians who “saw no problems in defining the essence and features of the German artistic production” to the Dutch delegate who had her sympathy: Willem Vogelsang, “who opened his speech with the question of whether it is possible to relate a work of art to a nation.”

As the war approached and broke out, the German approach to Kunstgeographie went from bad to worse, said Veldman. Attempts to “define more precisely the theory and methods [were] typified by a rather ahistorical approach. By means of a direct confrontation with and perception of the formal qualities of a work of art – preferably a masterpiece – they tried to describe and interpret its essence, distilling from that the characteristics of the people and the nation. Style as the core of art and as the main instrument for revealing the spiritual aspect.” She footnotes this statement with a reference to M. Halbertsma’s book Wilhelm Pinder en de duitse kunstgeschiedenis.

If German Kunstgeographie was characterized by “superficial generalizations and stereotypes” and willing to accommodate Nazi racial ideas, American scholarship of the 1980s, Veldman suggests, is naïve. In gossamer-veiled references to Svetlana Alpers, The art of describing: Dutch art in the seventeenth century (Chicago 1983) and Simon Schama, The embarrassment of riches: an interpretation of Dutch culture in the Golden Age (New York 1987), she said no more than that “being a foreigner seems to be a far more advantageous background [than her own Dutch nationality] for the Art of Describing Dutch Art, or for the Interpretation of Dutch Culture without any Embarrassment.”[10]

Bypassing Alpers and Schama, Veldman sums up postwar developments briefly: in the realm of style, “pictorial realism or naturalism, combined with a love of detail” continue to be seen as characteristically Dutch. “And, despite early objections, we were also inclined to consider as specific for the art of the Low Countries the concept of ‘disguised symbolism’ in early Flemish painting and so-called schijnrealisme in seventeenth-century Dutch genre painting. However, in the course of time, more and more scholars have joined the debate about the nature and even existence of symbolic content and concealed meaning, serious controversy being the result. It seems as if we have to start all over again.”

Despite her misgivings, Veldman yet offers a new theory of her own. Her approach differs from that of the German art historians in that it is based not on formal qualities but on meaning; not on distilling an essence out of Netherlandish art but on comparing it analytically to Italian art; not on direct confrontation with masterpieces but on detached observation of a coherent group of works of various media and levels of quality.

In testing “the main conclusion of the Stockholm Conference, namely the proposition that form and style are essential for a national identity,” she discovered that it is difficult to substantiate this for Dutch art in the sixteenth century, a period whose artists she considers to be distinctively Netherlandish. What does present itself as an element of continuity in their work are “patterns of thought …: content, meaning and function.” In particular, she notices a consistent tendency to introduce moral warnings into representations of all kinds. The reception of humanist ideas in Dutch literature offers a parallel case, she argues, to the spread of Renaissance form in the low countries. Just as “Latin literature [in the Netherlands] retained an overwhelmingly moralistic and religious character, because most of the literati were clerics and schoolmen,” so did Dutch art take the subjects of secular Italian Renaissance paintings and fit them out with heavy-going Christian messages. If the artist does not always include in the composition a finger raised in warning, a virtual finger is wagging all the same.

Although Veldman chooses as a foil for her ideas the Kunstgeographie of unspecified German art historians, even implying that she is taking over the baton from Vogelsang in combatting them, it is apparent that she departs just as radically from the notions of van Regteren Altena. The older scholar finds the essence of Dutch art in “purely ocular” painting of the seventeenth century and later, while the younger one – his last Ph.D. student, as chance would have it – singles out the often captioned prints and paintings of the sixteenth century, a period he considers a “confusing intermezzo.” His ideal of Dutch art eschews messages and texts of all kinds; in hers they are the central value. The visual properties of Dutch painting which to van Regteren Altena are uniquely Dutch are in Veldman’s view their least distinctive and most internationally interchangeable features. The Christian morals she regards as a consistently Dutch element in art fall categorically outside van Regteren Altena’s frame of reference for aesthetic discourse.

The values each of them assigns to the study of national character in art are also as different as they can be. To Veldman, the entire enterprise smacks of German badthink, while van Regteren Altena embraces it as an area in which the Dutch shine brighter than any competitors.

The drastic opposition between these two competing accounts of Dutchness, and the specific feelings they release, reveal some of the complications attending our subject. The implicit antitheses of l’art pour l’art versus the contextual study of art, historicism versus humanism, essentialistic versus relativistic modes of scholarship, are powerful enough on their own. Art historians on opposite sides of these temperamental gaps are often unable to agree on the answers to any non-trivial question. But these are matters of right and left in learning that scholars have to live with anyway. They pale into insignificance next to some of the larger concerns that enter the discussion of nationality in art. Van Regteren Altena and Veldman find themselves forced to come to terms with patriotism and nationalism, collaboration and political correctness. These divisive issues generate distorting effects that completely overwhelm ordinary scholarly discipline in the humanities.

The passions of national feeling are compounded by the even deeper ones of religion. Sectarian religion is a factor on its own in the discussion, but supernatural beliefs exert even greater influence as a hyperpotent ingredient of the concepts of nation, art, identity itself.

The anthropologist Benedict Anderson proposes that “nationalism has to be understood, by aligning it not with self-consciously held political ideologies, but with the large cultural systems that preceded it,” of which the foremost was the religious community.[11] Elias Canetti puts it more trenchantly: “In this sense, nations should be viewed as if they were religions. They indeed tend to look that way from time to time. The predisposition is always there, and in times of war national religions take on a  pivotal role.”[12] The discussion of Dutch nationhood is indeed soaked in the blood of Holland’s two great wars, the Eighty Years War and the Second World War. During both, love of country became a religion. Every word spoken by van Regteren Altena, in a wartime setting, was a corollary to that fact. But it is more than coincidence that Veldman, forty-four years after the war’s end, nonetheless brought it into her discussion of nationality in art.

The intermingling of religion and art is closer and more constant than that of religion and nation. J.A. Alberdingk Thijm was exaggerating, but not by much, in calling it “indisputable that the basic principle of art in all times is a religious principle.”[13] In this aspect of the discussion, it is Veldman who lays the cards on the table, while van Regteren Altena alludes to the phenomenon tangentially. Art now pays obedience to nature, he writes, where it once served religion (p. 21). Is the obedience to nature less religious? Hardly. “The painter’s deep, sunken attention strikes me […] as directly comparable to the devotion of the writer of the Imitation of Christ.”[14] At this level, the disagreement between van Regteren Altena and Veldman is a matter of nuance rather than principle.

The insight that the process of identifying oneself with a group is essentially a religious act was put forward by Emile Durkheim and still informs the sociological understanding of religion. “Before all, [religion] is a system of ideas with which the individuals represent to themselves the society of which they are members, and the obscure but intimate relations they have with it.”[15] Every group formation generates representations of this kind, which become moral mandates to its members. This tie is the most significant of all, if only because unlike the others mentioned above the religious motive is apt to be denied by those in its thrall. This unacknowledged sanctity becomes disseminated throughout all the objects and ideas with which it is associated. “When a sacred thing is subdivided, each of its parts remains equal to the thing itself.”[16]

No wonder the art historian finds herself out of her depth. Attempting to answer what seems a simple question – what is Dutch about Dutch art? – she finds herself at the crossroads between three paths to realms where the visible images and readable texts she usually deals with become invisible and ineffable: nation/religion, art/religion, identity/religion. In these pairs religion is moreover to be understood in three different senses: cult, meditation, morality. These realms are far from the corridors of academia as the art historian knows it, and they are distinctly unpeacable kingdoms.

No wonder as well that other art historians attempt to give this crossroads a wide berth. In Cleveland, this was the route taken by Eddy de Jongh, in an erudite and entertaining lecture with the title “Real Dutch art and not-so-real Dutch art: some nationalistic views of seventeenth-century Netherlandish painting.”[17] After a tour d’horizon underpinned by a useful bibliography, de Jongh concludes that there is no such thing as the “Blijvend beeld der Hollandse kunst” (The enduring picture of Dutch art) confidently projected by two directors of the Rijksmuseum, F. Schmidt-Degener and A. van Schendel.

We may fairly state that such a picture, strictly speaking, does not exist. In contrast to what this somewhat misleading title suggests, it is changeable, it alters, sometimes extremely slowly, sometimes quickly. Sometimes it is clear, sometimes troubled.”

Today’s picture of seventeenth-century Dutch art is, I believe, not at all distinct. It is determined to a large degree by three recent, influential publications: those of Svetlana Alpers, Bob Haak [The Golden Age: Dutch painters of the seventeenth century, New York 1984] and Simon Schama, and similarly by the reactions those books have elicited. Echoing the historian Jan Romein we can aptly speak of a ‘vergruisd beeld’ (fragmented picture). The conceptions of the three authors do not coincide at all, and definitely not on the issue of what is home-grown and what is alien. Considering that the Dutch seventeenth-century was itself extremely cosmopolitan and, as far as I know, had no nationalistic problems with what was later to be dismissed as foreign, my personal sympathies lie with the impartiality of Bob Haak, who moreover (wisely, in my view) makes no attempt to pin down the Dutchness of Dutch art (p. 204).

As great a relief as it would be to agree with de Jongh, I am afraid that to my mind he lets himself off the hook too easily. Even if Schmidt-Degener and van Schendel are wrong, and Alpers, Haak and Schama contradict each other, this does not mean that the phenomenon they are investigating does not exist in some form. We could be dealing with five blind men describing an elephant. Nor does the absence in seventeenth-century Holland of “nationalistic problems” with regard to art mean that Dutch art had no unifying characteristics.[18] The consequences of de Jongh’s attitude take him further than, I am sure, he is prepared to go. It implies that the work to come out of a major school of art, recognized as such by contemporaries and posterity, in a relatively stable and demographically homogeneous area of Europe with its own language and its own polity, displays no identifiable elements of continuity or marks of distinction vis-à-vis other schools. Does de Jongh really believe that art is that independent from its environment? This would undermine many fundamental assumptions of art history. There is much more at stake than he lets on. All contextual study of art stands or falls with our willingness to entertain the possibility of significant interaction between art and – without a priori exclusion – everything else in life.

The time has come to take by the horns the bull in our labyrinth: the wild beast of Nazism. Let me begin my discussion of this difficult subject by saying that I use the remarks of Veldman and de Jongh not in order to criticize them, but only because they have been brave enough to put down on paper their thoughts on the matter. Until the present, I shared completely their instinctual aversion to linking art to notions of nation or soil, let alone race. If the association with Nazi and other radical right-wing ideology was not enough of a reason in itself for avoiding Kunstgeographie, there was also my conviction that it opened the door to a kind of mystical speculation which had no place in historical scholarship. I have habitually given preference to a historical (as distinguished from historistic) framework for the study of art, with a place for such circumstantial values as sectarian religion, politics, personal and institutional ambition, and economics, but none for innate values like genetic properties, group unconscious, a Zeitgeist or a bond between a land and its people. It was only while writing the present article that I realized how poor the evidence is linking Kunstgeographie to Nazism, as we shall see in a moment. Having faced that fact, I then asked myself whether an allergy against right-wing rhetoric and mystical theorizing are sufficient grounds for shutting out with no further argument an entire dimension of historical study that has been part of the western tradition of historiography from ancient times.

Nazism. De Jongh is more explicit on the subject than Veldman. In his review of the literature, he quotes two collaborationist Dutch writers, A.F. Mirande and Tobie Goedewaagen. One might have expected Dutch admirers of the Nazis to have praised German art at the expense of Dutch, but that was not the case. Because the Germans annexed Dutch culture rather than expelling it, it was possible to combine Dutch cultural chauvinism with Nazi allegiance, and this is what the two writers did. Mirande, who in 1936 co-edited a reading edition of van Mander’s Lives of the illustrious Netherlandish and German painters, excoriated the author in 1942 for being “responsible for Dutch painters ‘going to suck at foreign breasts,’ as van Mander himself had put it.” Mirande “regarded it as equally offensive that [van Mander] was unable to distinguish the artists’ “volkse karakter” (folkish nature; yet another of those Nazi terms).[…] ‘Van Mander just did not see,'” wrote Mirande, “‘that Dutch painting was a form of culture, of blood and soil, which held its own as at least the equal of that of another people, the Italians.'”

Tobie Goedewaagen, a National Socialist professor of philosophy at Utrecht University who “for some years during the war [was] permanent secretary of the new Department of Popular Information and the Arts […] described Rembrandt as ‘the epitome of a Dutchman,[…] a child of the Dutch national temperament, plain and unadorned,… and so attached to his native soil that he allowed the customary journey to Italy made by all artists in those days to pass him by.'” Rembrandt “threw off the dubious Romanism of his master, Pieter Lastman, ‘in order to embrace the everlasting values of his own people: the atmospheric beauty of the land and its inhabitants, the urge towards the simple life and the life of the simple.'” At the same time, he was also “thoroughly ‘Teutonic in soul and body'” (pp. 201-02).

There is no doubt that to these writers such ideas fitted into a system that also included genocidal xenophobia. But does that mean that the concepts are inherently Nazistic? De Jongh poses the question elliptically. “Van Mander typified in malo as a pseudo-Italian and Rembrandt in bono as a German. That was how it was in many a study on art produced between 1940 and 1945. It becomes most painful when one realizes that some of the crucial concepts, as well as some of the arguments employed by Mirande and Goedewaagen, have obvious similarities with what had been propounded by two generations of worthy and unimpeachable Dutchmen” such as Robert Fruin, Pieter Geyl, and Johan Huizinga. Why should this be “painful,” or any more painful than the unoriginality of Nazi ideas about sport or religion or public finance? Why indeed, unless de Jongh believes that the Dutch thinkers he names, unimpeachable though they may have been, were susceptible to pernicious ideas that were not revealed in all their evil until the Second World War. Although according to de Jongh Huizinga and his colleagues were merely repeating the “slanted ideas” of Conrad Busket Huet and other nineteenth-century popularizers, he leaves the reader with the uncomfortable impression that in doing so they played into the hands of the Nazis. De Jongh does not entertain the converse notion that it was not Huizinga who was somehow guilty, but de Mirande and Goedewaagen who – in art-historical terms – were innocuous. Yet there is a better case to be made for this than for de Jongh’s more conventional view. If a Nazi mouthed a nineteenth-century cliché, did this make the cliché Nazistic? And sixteenth-century clichés? What are we to make of the fact that Dutch humanists of that period cultivated a Germanic tribal bond and praised their countrymen for the possession of Teutonic virtues? J.W. Muller “points out how this sense of Germanness was invigorated by the circumstance that in the sixteenth century Dutch students in Italian universities were incorporated into the “Germanica nacio.”[19] If that is not a long enough lead time for the NSB, we can jump back another millennium and a half to the Romans, for whom the Batavians were one more German tribe.[20]

I am inclined to take the argument a step further. Even had the Nazis coined an original, ideologically inspired art-historical theory concerning Rembrandt or Dutch art, would it not be up to us as scholars to judge the theory on its merits? To discredit ideas by association – even association with absolute evil – is to show lack of faith in scholarship as an institution. On ethical grounds, we can choose to combat the politics and practices of Nazism with any means necessary, but if in scholarship we dismiss the ideas of the Nazis on other than intellectual grounds, we are compromising the integrity of our field.[21] We cannot criticize pseudo-science in political ideology if we do not first discredit it in academic discourse.

In associating Kunstgeographie with right-wing politics, Veldman takes the same shortcut as de Jongh. She comments deprecatingly that “the German art historians at the 1933 [CIHA] conference [in Stockholm] saw no problems in defining the essence and features of the German artistic production” (p. 124). This view has little basis in fact. At the conference, eleven of the 131 speakers were Germans. Only four of them spoke on German art, three in specialist sessions with audiences of fifty or less.[22] A.E. Brinckmann had an audience of 250 at a plenary gathering for a talk on a subject that was custom-made for a German chauvinist: “Der nationale Charakter in der deutschen Kunst des XVIII. Jahrhunderts.” From the viewpoint of a connoisseur of Germanic essence, Brinckmann’s performance was a complete dud: he concluded that the national character of German art in the eighteenth century was to be Italianate in the south and Netherlandish in the Rhineland.[23] His paper, like most of the others at the congress, would not have been out of place at a Congrès International d’Histoire de l’Art such as that of 1992 in Berlin, whose theme was “Artistic Exchange,” or the 1996 congress to be held in Amsterdam, on “National Schools and Cultural Identity”![24]

One of the German speakers did engage in impermissible demagoguery on the subject of German art. That was Wilhelm Pinder, speaking on “Das deutsche Statuenportal des hohen Mittelalters” (German sculpture in [church] portals in the High Middle Ages). What is disturbing about his lecture is however not the content of his theory concerning the nature of German Gothic sculpture compared to French, but the impossible claims he makes for scholarly method.[25] His definition of the problem is tendentious enough: “The task was to show how a single example can prove the existence of a major formal constellation, allowing us to define the expression ‘German’ with nearly mathematical clarity.” [26] But his conclusion belittles scholarship through impossible aggrandization: “The entire expression of national character can be reduced to impeccable formulas and turned from nebulous feelings into clear facts that are beyond any subjective judgment.”[27] Fulminations of this kind – in the service of no matter what thesis, however indisputable – deserve to be combatted immediately and uncompromisingly by the scholarly community. The Actes do not record whether this took place in the discussion following Pinder’s lecture. However, several other speakers at the conference criticized this kind of thinking in their own papers. Ellis Waterhouse pointed to “the grave danger that, in the public mind at any rate, the serious study of pictures will fall into disrepute when the limitations of our possible knowledge are realised.”[28]

Equally germane are the methodological observations by Paul Frankl of the university of Halle. Tackling the problem as a whole in “Die Aufgaben der Kunstgeographie,” he distinguishes between three main determining factors: nature, “Völker und Stamme” and “die Kunstkreise als Teile der Kulturkreise.” Of the influence of “Völker und Stamme” on art, he says simply, but in dramatic contrast to Pinder, that we have no secure methods for gauging it.

* * *

The aim of the above observations is to insist on the need to judge the technical correctness of scholarship without reference to the politics of the scholar. In an area where the philosophy of knowledge, art-historical methodology and scholarly praxis cross over into ideology, politics and the exercise of power, it is essential to identify the elements for which we take primary responsibility and safeguard their integrity.

If we do not draw this distinction, we court increased danger of deceiving ourselves about ourselves. Veldman and de Jongh, for example, both overlook interesting historiographical circumstances concerning their own methods. Veldman writes: “[…] after the war, […] research increasingly focused on the content of a work of art” (p. 124). This happens to be her own specialty, and as we have seen the area in which she locates an element of continuity in Dutch art. She distinguishes it from formalism and “style as the core of art and as the main instrument for revealing the spiritual aspect.” De Jongh too, in a sensitive and nuanced discussion of post-war anti-nationalism and “decolumnization,” (p. 203), singles out the shift from formalism to contentualism in the study of Dutch art. He dates this change to the 1960s, modestly neglecting to add that he played the leading role in it. He links this development to the retreat from nationalism and the reaction against authoritarianism in society at large.

As it happens, a shift of exactly this kind was put into effect by the Nazis. Not in the form of rhetoric by academic sympathizers, but of manifestations sponsored by the Nazi regime itself. From 1937 through 1944, a yearly Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung was held in the Haus der Deutschen Kunst in Munich. The exhibitions were opened by Hitler, who also wrote lengthy commentaries on them. The nature of the exhibitions is characterized thus by Berthold Hinz in Die Malerei im deutschen Faschismus:

As the first of the exhibitions, the ‘1937’ certainly had less profile than the later ones, in which dedicated Nazi iconography, war painting, allegorical and industrial images came more and more to the fore. But the later exhibitions also remain largely thematically linked and are committed to the principle of structure obeying image content. Modernism, which  increasingly sacrificed content in favor of formalizing tendencies, was alien to the model presented in these exhibitions.[29]

If the Nazis looked for the essence of Germanic art in iconography (not style, as Veldman says), then anti-Nazis do not have a monopoly on the contentual approach to art, any more than the Nazis had on racial art theory. To brand one of these approaches as specifically Nazi is no more justified than branding the other.

* * *

In this article I have attempted to destigmatize Kunstgeographie as a scholarly endeavor. Even if my arguments are correct, as I sincerely believe they are, they are not sufficient to obliterate the associations of art geography with Nazi thinking, nor do I think that this should ever be forgotten. However, the phenomenon should be seen as a Nazi abuse of the approach, to be criticized in terms of scholarly methodology, rather than a proper application of a tool which thereby reveals itself to have been Nazistic all along. This opens the way to taking a calmer look at art geography as part of the overall picture of non-artistic influences on the creation and nature of art. The challenge is to pursue the quest with sufficient regard for the powerfully distorting push and pull of nationalism, religion and group bonding. This includes the bond that ties us together as critical scholars, which, precious as it is, has for the last forty years stood between us and an impartial consideration of potentially key factors in the study of art in Holland.


[1]. Amsterdams Universiteitsmuseum, Agnietenkapel, Archief van de Contactcommissie der Amsterdamse Studentenverenigingen, map nr 19. With thanks to Ditke Schwartz for locating this information.

[2]. J.Q. van Regteren Altena, De opdracht: rede uitgesproken bij de aanvaarding van het ambt van buitengewoon hoogleraar in de kunstgeschiedenis der middeleeuwen en van de nieuweren tijd aan de universiteit van Amsterdam op 11 october 1937, Haarlem (Joh. Enschedé en Zonen) 1937.

[3]. J.Q. van Regteren Altena, De Nederlandsche geest in de schilderkunst, Zeist (Uitgeverij Ploegsma) 1941. “… dat aristocratisch gemak van zich thuis te gevoelen in het bonte Bourgondische pak, zonder een oogenblik zijn beheerschte rust te verliezen.”

[4]. “Behoeven wij thans nog te kiezen in het alternatief tusschen den Nederlander die schilderde en den schilder die zich op Nederlansche wijze uitdrukt? Ik zou zeggen: als hij waarachtig schilder was, en mits men zich van het onderscheid blijft rekenschap geven, niet” (p. 15).

[5]. P. 30. This thought seems to be a rhetorically upgraded version of C. Neumann’s aperçu that the Dutch were great in the depiction of small things.

[6]. “[…] de Hollandsche landsaard [knoopt] de wezensverwantschappen zoo onverbrekelijk vast tot een beeld (dat ge mij om ‘t even geschiedenisbeeld of karakterbeeld moogt heeten), dat wij ons toch plotseling ergens in een isolement jegens het niet-Hollandsche weten” (p. 16).

[7]. “Ik stel het mij zóó voor, dat de golven van den tijd in staat zijn ons nauwer aaneengesloten te drukken tegen een baken: de zekerheid van ons landeigen” (p. 7).

[8]. Ilja M. Veldman, “Elements of continuity: a finger raised in warning,” Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art 20 (1990/91), pp. 124-41.

[9]. This notion was out of place in Cleveland. The theme for the conference was announced long before “1992” began to exercise European imaginations. In any case, whatever fears the American organizers may have had concerning their cultural identities cannot have played a central role in their choice of the theme. The more immediate reason is that having staked their careers on the study of a small European culture, they felt the need to reinforce the central thread of their specialty. Veldman’s talk certainly contributed to this aim, if some of the remarks in her introduction did not.

[10]. It seems unfortunate that Veldman dismissed so flippantly the two books that had the greatest impact on the reputation of Dutch art in America in the 1980s, a matter of immense importance to her audience.

[11]. Benedict Anderson, Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, London 1983, pp. 19-20.

[12]. Elias Canetti, Masse und Macht, Düsseldorf 1960 (ed. Frankfurt am Main 1980, p. 186). “Es sollen also die Nationen hier so angesehen werden, als wären sie Religionen. Sie haben die Tendenz, von Zeit zu Zeit wirklich in diesen Zustand zu geraten. Eine Anlage dazu ist immer da, in Kriegen werden die nationalen Religionen akut.”

[13]. J.A. Alberdingk Thijm, “De kunst en archaeologie in Holland,” in De kunst in Nederland, Nijmegen 1855, p. 10. “… ontwijfelbaar is het, dat het grondbeginsel der kunst ten allen tijde een godsdienstig beginsel geweest is.”

[14]. P. 18. I suspect that van Regteren Altena was influenced by anti-Catholic feeling when he disqualified Lodewijk van Deyssel, the son of the Catholic lay leader J.A. Alberdingk Thijm, as an interpreter of Rembrandt’s Prodigal son (pp. 19-20).

[15]. Emile Durkheim, The elementary forms of the religious life, trans. Joseph Ward Swain, London 1915 (ed. New York and London 1965, p. 257).

[16]. Durkheim, op. cit., p. 267.

[17]. Published in Simiolus 20 (1990/92), pp. 197-206. Reworked in Dutch for the Koninklijke Akademie der Wetenschappen.

[18]. There is in fact a passage in Samuel van Hoogstraten’s Inleyding tot de hooge schoole der schilderkonst concerning the “eygen landaert in de konst,” which I hope to discuss in another context. The marks of distinction Hoogstraeten singles out are portability and exportability.

[19]. J.W. Muller, Over Nederlandsch volksbesef en taalbesef, Utrecht 1915, quoted by H. Kampinga, De opvattingen over onze oudere vaderlandsche geschiedenis bij de hollandsche historici der XVIe en XVIIe eeuw, ‘s-Gravenhage (Martinus Nijhoff) 1917, p. 111, note 7.

[20]. “De Renaissance had nl. ‘in de geschiedboeken van Caesar en Tacitus het volk en den naam der Germanen teruggevonden’, en ‘bij de geestelijke aristocratie der geleerde humanisten het historisch besef gewekt van saamhorigheid tusschen allen, wier sprake hen als “Germanen” openbaar maakt’ […]. We zagen reeds hoe Snoy en de andere nederlandsche humanisten den duitschen patriotten van dien tijd in verheerlijking van oud- en nieuw-Germanië niets toegaven, en hoe de trots op een germaansche afstamming zich openbaarde in een opsomming van alle germaansche voortreffelijkheden.” Kampinga, op. cit., pp. 111-12, in the section on “Germaansch stamgevoel.” Were Muller and Kampinga influenced by sympathy for the German cause in the First World War, during which they wrote?

[21]. In saying this, I do not mean to idealize scholarship (well, perhaps a bit), but mainly to enunciate a principle, realistic or not, that I have been taught to respect as essential to good scholarship. There are more important things in life than the integrity of art history as a discipline. But if we allow them to override our scholarly consciences, we should at least acknowledge that to ourselves.

[22]. The proceedings of the Congress, including the complete texts of several lectures, were published in Actes du XIIIe Congrès International d’Histoire de l’Art, n.p., n.d. (Publiés par le Comité Organisateur, rédigés par Johnny Roosval). Abstracts of the other lectures are to be found in Résumés des Communications présentées au Congrès (XIIIe Congrès International d’Histoire de l’Art, Stockholm 1933), n.p., n.d. (publisher: Le Comité Organisateur du Congrès).

The talks by two of the four Germans speaking on German art, Brinckmann and Pinder, are discussed in the text. The other two were by Karl Heinz Clasen of Königsberg, on “Der Deutschenordensstat Preussen als mittelalterliches Kunstgebiet” and C.G. Heise of the Lübeck museum, on “Die Gregorsmesse in St. Marien in Lübeck: Untersuchungen über die Grundkräfte der norddeutschen Malerei um 1500.” Both speakers stressed the great significance of the local tradition they were discussing in the usual kind of art-historical boosting. Neither refers in doing so to a German essence.

[23]. Résumés, pp. 15-16. By all appearances, Veldman’s information on the Congress derives entirely from Marlite Halbertsma, Wilhelm Pinder en de Duitse kunstgeschiedenis, Groningen 1985, a fascinating and pioneering piece of work which is however inadequate for Veldman’s purposes.

[24]. The speakers in 1933 who went straight at national essences in art tended to come from Slavic and Scandinavian countries. See for example Nils-Gustav Hahl, “L’Art moderne finlandais et son caractère national” (Résumés, p. 20): “Tyho Sallinen (1879) est le maître hors concours de la peinture. Dans quelques grandes compositions il met à nu les forces primitives de sa race: l’exaltation religieuse, la violence d’ivresse, l’humeur inerte.”

The information on the theme of the 1996 conference is from Prof. Wessel Reinink of the university of Utrecht. The theme has not yet been officially submitted and approved by the Comité International d’Histoire de l’Art.

[25]. Actes, pp. 152-58.

[26]. “Die Aufgabe war: an den Einzelfall eine wichtigen Formengruppe zu erweisen, dass der Ausdruck ‘deutsch’ bis zugelegentlich fast mathematischer Deutlichkeit geklärt werden kann.”

[27].”Das gesamte Ausdruck der nationalen Charaktere lässt sich auf einwandfreie Formeln bringen und aus nebelhaftem Gefühle heraus auf klare, jedem subjektiven Urteil entzogene Tatsachen stellen.”

[28].”The scientific examination of pictures and attributions,” Résumés, p. 255. This excellent paper, objecting to the notion that it is “the legitimate end” of the scientific and scholarly study of paintings “to establish for certain that […] pictures are by Van Dyck, Raphael, Rembrandt or one of the other great names,” has unfortunately lost nothing of its currency in the past sixty years.

[29]. “Als die erste der Ausstellungen hatte die ‘1937er’ sicherlich noch weniger Profil als die späteren, in denen dezidierte NS.-Ikonographien, Kriegsmalerei, Allegorik und Industriebilder mehr und mehr in den Vordergrund traten. Doch auch die späteren Ausstellungen bleiben weitgehend thematisch gebunden und sind dem Prinzip des Aufbaus unter der Gliederung nach Bildinhalten verpflichtet. Der Moderne, der die Inhalte zugunsten formalisierender Tendenzen zunehmend verlorengegangen sind, was das vorliegende Modell, wie es sich in diesen Ausstellungen selbst präsentiert, fremd geworden.” Berthold Hinz, Die Malerei im deutschen Faschismus: Kunst und Konterrevolution (Kunstwissenschaftliche Untersuchungen des Ulmer Vereins für Kunstwissenschat III), Amsterdam and Munich 1974, p. 44.

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