In the exhibition Fake News & Lying Pictures: Political Prints in the Dutch Republic, curator Dr. Maureen Warren brings together 101 works on paper demonstrating what viewers knew about the events of their day and how they learned about them. The concerns are political, religious, geographic, and colonial in scope. This is an unprecedented opportunity for the public to see prints together in a way that builds appreciation for early modern printmaking and knowledge production but is even more exciting for specialists, who will recognize the significance of these works in context. While Dutch political propaganda seems like a topically niche interest, the themes addressed are of immediate concern to all audiences. It is an exhibition which both requires and deserves slow and careful examination by students and specialists alike.
Sixty-three works from the Krannert, all of which were acquired by Warren for the collection, form the core of the exhibition. Loans from the Morgan Library (such as an excellent impression of Rembrandt’s portrait of Jan Six on Japanese paper), Atlas van Stolk, Rotterdam, and private collections extend the scope. Seemingly disparate images are connected by the overarching themes: The Dutch Lion and animal imagery, Founding and Fallen fathers, Spoils of the Seas, The Face of the Enemy, and Men of Honor/Women of Virtue. Perhaps the most unexpected theme is the long overdue rehabilitation of Romeyn de Hooghe as a brilliant satirist. More than twenty of De Hooghe’s prints constitute the last themed cluster, allowing for careful study of his compositional development and the range of subjects lampooned by his wit. De Hooghe has not historically drawn the level of critical inquiry or appreciation that have earlier figures such as Claes Jansz Visscher and Crispijn van de Passe. Echoing recent scholarship from Henk van Nierop and Meredith Hale (https://hnanews.org/hnar/reviews/the-life-of-romeyn-de-hooghe-1645-1708-prints-pamphlets-and-politics-in-the-dutch-golden-age-the-birth-of-modern-political-satire-romeyn-de-hooghe-1645-1708-and-the-glorious-revolution/), Warren presents De Hooghe as a significant voice in political imagery.
Instead of focusing on authorship or a traditional definition of a fine art print, Fake News explores the diversity of print media. The show includes multiple exquisitely painted examples, prints of unexpected sizes and unconventional shapes, books as well as loose leaves, and images that maintain a relationship between text and image. Goltzius’s Funeral Procession of William of Orange (1584, The Hearn Family Trust) lines a back wall of the exhibition, presenting an unusual opportunity to view the whole work in an uninterrupted expanse. Hand-colored impressions of Sailing Cars by Willem van Swanenburg (after Jacques de Gheyn II) and Romeyn de Hooghe’s Murder of the De Witt Brothers (both Atlas van Stolk) reveal how the use of color transforms printed material. Other works make apparent the stages of the printing process. Prints by Visscher show the artist working through the layout of his scenes documenting the execution of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt. Also on display are pages of illustrated almanacs prior to the addition of their accompanying printed texts.
Some juxtapositions bring unexpected personal satisfaction: Visscher’s Leo Belgicus (1609, Atlas van Stolk) is exhibited across the room from Rembrandt’s Phoenix (1658, Morgan Library and Museum) – the latter work here convincingly interpreted as containing a reference to Willem III. The familiarity of Visscher made, for me, an enjoyable contrast with the strangeness and ambiguity of Rembrandt. On another wall, two different approaches to the proverb Big Fish Eat Small Ones sit side by side. In one, Bruegel’s original is reworked as a commentary on Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, demonstrating the flexibility of familiar motifs over time. The republican imagery of the States Party is balanced by portraits of and propaganda about the House of Orange, giving voice to the complexity of the seventeenth-century political landscape.
Broadsides and prints were text-heavy, communicating with both literate and less literate viewers. Fortunately, many of the works exhibited retain their texts; Claes Jansz Visscher’s Profile of Amsterdam, one of only two known surviving copies to include all the texts and subsidiary images, here shines in a room dedicated principally to maps of colonial holdings and other ways of viewing the world. To see so many of these objects with their texts as they may have appeared to their original audiences raises new avenues for inquiry, particularly in cases where conflicting accounts of the same event sit side by side and where breaking news can be followed through multiple works. Most viewers will be drawn to the multiple factions surrounding the execution and dismemberment of the DeWitt Brothers. I was personally fascinated to learn about coup organizer Hendrick Slatius who, it is said, would have gotten away with his infamous deed had he just finished his beer. His crime, flight, capture, execution, exhumation, and posthumous dismembering are documented across three different Visscher broadsides. That the events surrounding one figure of relative obscurity should be chronicled in multiple images suggests just how much ephemera of this type may have been lost over time. The exhibition is full of the unusual, the challenging, the complicated, the obscure, the everyday, and the hilarious.
The challenge of presenting such a specialized topic to a general audience is substantial. To members of HNA, the appeal of works by the likes of Joan Blaeu, Crispijn van de Passe, and Claes Jansz Visscher needs no justification, but to the average museumgoer, not to mention the largely student population served by the Krannert, these are likely unknown names. Appropriately, the wall texts are aimed at a non-specialist audience. They make the dense visual allusions and historical events feel accessible. A specialist audience will be surprised and gratified by the range of subjects, the quality and rarity of works displayed, and the breadth of issues raised throughout the exhibition. Fake News goes past showing elite objects and works by renowned masters to explore modes by which people of the day learned about events and the perils of partisanship. In our own increasingly polarized age of competing news cycles, the early modern Dutch world and its pictorial strategies seem startlingly relevant. What we know and how we know it emerges as a pressing concern, for the distant past as well as our own lived present.
A companion volume of essays, Paper Knives, Paper Crowns (forthcoming via Artbook DAP in November but not yet available at the time of review) will offer further depth and focus. A smaller version of the show will travel to University of San Diego and Smith College Museum of Art next spring and fall.
Illinois State University