September 6, 2011

Souvenirs From an Age of Conquest

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The latest Johnson Museum Exhibit, The New and Unknown World: Art, Exploration and Trade in the Dutch Golden Age is showing on the lower level through Oct. 2. Mostly arranged according to the area being explored, it is a sprawling exhibition of paintings, etchings, artifacts and relics that document an explosive cultural period for the Netherlands: Their frontiers were pushed, and their vague conception of the distant world was brought into focus. In the seventeenth century, as the Dutch experienced marine and mercantile liberation, they grappled with this new world and their place amidst it, and as their psychological maps and understandings were revamped and reworked, they coped with this newness, confliction and intrigue by creating art.

Kinetic paintings of cannons being blasted across choppy seascapes beside etchings of vexed scholars seated with globes. Worn pocket-sized travel books and tentative cartographers’ renderings of the ‘world as we know it.’ Hundreds of people are crammed into Costumes of the Different Nations of the World, a claustrophobic etching indicative of the culture-shocked scope shift the Dutch experienced — “Costumes of the Netherlands” might have been a bit more spacious.

“So much to show and so little space to show it” seems to be a common sentiment of the era — one book lies opened to a drawing of apparent “men of science” as they survey what appears to be their eccentric marine biology lab or storehouse — fish, crabs and one giant crocodile attached to the ceiling and walls for display or reference. Biological exploration is well-represented in the exhibit; paintings and illustrated books document a journey fueled by the Dutch’s insatiable thirst for knowledge.

An interesting light is shed on the Dutch’s place in the dynamic slave trade and the East India Trading Company’s exploits — in the way only art is capable of. We get evidence that outward expansion wasn’t the only kind experienced by the Dutch — a beautiful (and I mean beautiful) oil painting on canvas by David Bailly, Vanitas Still Life with Portrait, is evidence of a corresponding exploration inward. A black man seated at a cluttered table stares bug-eyed and with subtle despondence at a portrait of a man who is presumed to be the patron of the painting. Melancholic icons of time and death are scattered across the desk along with musical instruments, paint brushes and art. Amongst images and relics of imperialism, Bailly’s painting is a tactful reminder that sometimes the most chaotic environment to live in is one’s own head.

And, of course, there the are ships. An elaborate model of a Dutch ship is the first piece that is encountered when entering the exhibit, and appropriately so. Etchings and paintings of ships dominate most of the exhibit, and make clear the Dutch’s intimate relationship with the sea. Some paintings skew perspective or use unusual angles to make the ships appear larger than life, and Ludolf Backhuizen’s I 1701 etching, “Personification of Amsterdam Riding in Neptune’s Chariot,” is something of an elaborate political cartoon — unicorns pull an overfull sea-toboggan through the waves and between shadows of ships the size of cities.

As the Dutch encroached on their past frontiers and surpassed them during the Golden Age, their psychological construction of the world was questioned and rearranged. The rawness of what came next — a reevaluation of their world and their role in it — can only be captured in the creative medium, and the rendering that was produced is presented in the Johnson’s arresting arrangement. The masts of dense fleets obscure the skyline — like a great Dutch fence being edged farther and farther towards the horizon.

Original Author: Nathan Tailleur