The 2010 issue of the Netherlands Yearbook for History of Art, edited by Stephanie Dickey and Herman Roodenburg and devoted to ‘The Passions in the Arts of the Netherlands’ and several other recent publications, often tributary to David Freedberg’s 1989 ‘The Power of Images’, have paved the way to this exhibition. These scholarly books tackle a subject that is treacherous by nature and which in art history is complicated even further, as the artistic process involves both the recognition and reproduction of real and fictitious emotions on the one hand and the embodied emotional responses of period and contemporary viewers to those images on the other. Moreover, scholarly work on the subject is heavy on art theoretical writing, early modern philosophy, hermeneutics and more recently neurology (touched on in a brief catalogue essay by Machiel Keestra), while often coming to Shakespeare’s depressing conclusion that “There’s no art to read the mind’s construction in the face.” An exhibition can approach the subject of emotions through objects that are easily and immediately accessible rather than through the intellectual debates that shaped those objects. This one offered a stimulating selection from the visual catalogue of human emotion that is Dutch painting of the Golden Age, arranged around emotions ranging from despair over rage to rapture.
The exhibition’s introductory room presented a visually attractive selection of early modern books on emotions available to Dutch artists, from Giambattista della Porta and René Descartes to Charles Le Brun. As might perhaps have been expected from guest curator Gary Schwartz, Rembrandt’s iconic etched self-portraits took center stage here, symbolic of one artist’s attempt at visually charting the realm of human emotion. More surprisingly, his presence further on was marginal. Vermeer is another usual suspect omitted from the show, and the suggestive interiority of his women reading or writing letters was missed amongst the more violently emotional scenes on display. A weeping Heraclitus and a laughing Democritus provided Johannes Moreelse with an opportunity to display his artistry, famously needed to distinguish laughter from crying in painting. The pair also hints at prevailing stoic theories of emotion as discussed in Schwartz’s essay and with that advice Moreelse sends the viewer off into a rollercoaster of emotions.
The complicated history of viewer response was playfully evoked throughout the display. In the inevitable and markedly more crowded section on ‘desire’, a small copy on panel of Arnold Houbraken’s The Painter and His Model (cat. 37), shows a visitor to the artist’s studio ogling a naked model. This titillating variation on the theme of Apelles and Campaspe was hidden behind a curtain, inviting and trapping willing viewers into complicit voyeurism. For this author, the main thrills perhaps came with paintings not seen before, such as Jan Miense Molenaer’s 1639 Christ Mocked and Crowned with Thorns from the Catholic church of St. Odolphus in Assendelft (cat. 22), his largest work, dramatically positioned in the section on ‘suffering and despair’. ‘Mourning’ included an exceptional 1634 family portrait by Cornelis and Herman Saftleven from Slot Zuylen (cat. 32). ‘Desire’ featured illicit viewing of pictures by Hendrick Goltzius, Gerard de Lairesse, and Werner van den Valckert from private collections (cat. 33, 38, 39), the latter a literally striking image, as the viewer is aimed at directly by cupid.
Throughout, such examples of forced self-awareness kept one attentive to one’s own emotional response. In a discipline that demands discreet scholarly objectivity from its practitioners, focusing on an instinctive gut reaction to a painting made for a pleasantly unmediated experience. By far the most startling image in the exhibition was Christiaen Gillisz. Van Couwenbergh’s 1632 A Black Woman Being Raped from Strasbourg (cat. 49). The scene is emotionally confusing and unintelligible to contemporary viewers and besides causing feelings of shame and disgust it provokes the immediate question of how Van Couwenbergh’s contemporaries responded to the same scene. Schwartz’s essay provides tentative answers to such questions through references to, for example, theatrical conventions, political thinking and religious and moralist admonitions. Other pictures, such as Salomon de Bray’s stunning Jael, Deborah and Barak (cat. 57) simply invite the viewer to empathize with the protagonists and to relate their expressions to the biblical stories that inspired them. The mixture of resolve and revulsion evident from Jael’s face is particularly arresting.
The last exhibition room was the Emolab, where visitors could test their ability to recognize emotion in others and to mirror it convincingly themselves. A reel illustrated the Kuleshov-effect, which has us reading the same bland expression of a man as ‘hungry’ when shown with a bowl of soup and ‘horny’ when shown with a girl reclining on a sofa. The experiment established that our interpretation of facial expression is heavily impacted by context, a conclusion to which Dutch painters of the Golden Age had come intuitively. The interactive displays in the Emolab were very popular with visitors and as they came unglued from their audioguides and responded to them, they were observed by others in a mirthful atmosphere quite in tune with the Frans Hals group portraits in the next room.
Spectacular work by Maarten van Heemskerck and Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem, further on in the museum’s permanent collection, added to the theme. Their mannerist and high-strung emotionality came as somewhat of a surprise after the subtler viewer interactions provoked by seventeenth-century paintings in the exhibition. Such practical limitations are easily overcome in the main catalogue essay, where Schwartz respects chronology. With another mesmerizing permanent digital display on The Hals Phenomenon, one came away with the sense of having covered more than the ‘survey of a small sample of Dutch paintings with emotional content’ claimed by the exhibition’s curator. By happy accident or wise policy, the nearby Teylers Museum staged the concurrent exhibition Op het eerste gezicht, which explored the supposed relation of the more permanent features of the human face to innate personal character. Picking up in the eighteenth century, where Emotions left off, the line-up of sketchy physiognomists, craniometrists, and anthropological criminologists formed an often gloomy contrast and complement to the relative innocence, brilliance, and joy with which Dutch painters of the Golden Age captured the most fleeting elements of life.