One of the wonderful things about exhibition catalogues in Europe is their combination of seriousness and scope. America is so obsessed with blockbuster exhibitions and mega-catalogues to accompany them that a serious, smaller scale presentation of a truly art historical topic rarely gets staged. Yet on the Continent, often in smaller muse ums, thematic exhibitions with scholarly essays in modest publications find appreciative audiences who enjoy the art and its subjects, even if the names of canonical culture heroes do not dominate the wall labels. Braunschweig featured similar prior exhibitions on thematic issues of scholarly topicality, including Dutch emblem imagery and reproductive engravings.
Before this catalogue the subject of Netherlandish carnival images had also been examined usefully but within a wider time frame a decade earlier in another catalogue, Vastenavond-Carnaval (Charles Mooij, ed.), mounted in ‘s-Hertogenbosch (Noordbrabants Museum, 1992). Of course, Raupp’s magisterial Bauernsatiren (Niederzier, 1986) forms the essential background for any analysis of peasant scenes. And at the outset of any and all observations stands the famous Large Feast (ca. 1540, cat. no. 1) by the celebrated, anonymous Brunswick Monogrammist (often identified as Jan van Amstel).
This Braunschweig catalogue begins with two excellent essays by its organizers. Gatenbröcker examines the origins and meanings (especially as cultural symbols) of the genre of peasant weddings and village kermis scenes. Her focus is the Flemish tradition, highlighted by Bruegel, in both paintings and prints before 1600. This fine analysis and the exhibition in general remind us anew of how much of what is normally taken to be essential to Dutch genre imagery in the seventeenth century actually began in the prior hundred years, with roots in German graphics as well as Flanders.
In the related second essay Andreas Vetter studies the bounded pleasure garden as a sanctuary of festivity, carved out of the wider world, just as a festive day or wedding event is carved out of the annual calendar. Aristocratic celebrations form his cultural focus. Both ancient authors and olympian gods as well as the shepherds of pastoral appear in his significant literary citations. The French court of the Valois tapestries also offers a touchstone, as do the Dutch aristocratic ‘merry companies’ in a garden park, the turn-of-the-century innovation of Vinckboons and Esias van der Velde in Holland (now see the new monograph by Rodney Nevitt, Art and the Culture of Love in Seventeenth-Century Holland, Cambridge, 2003; reviewed in this issue), here interpreted chiefly as moralizing, still connected to the traditions of the love garden and the five senses.
The exhibition itself ranges beyond the essays, starting with German prints and extending to both seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish artists – unusally, the largest number of works were produced by (or after) David Vinckboons and Sebastian Vrancx. Unlike many studies, which attend primarily to the anonymous figures of the lower classes in village settings, this exhibition and essays also include festivity among members of the upper classes, noting as well the frequent presence of prominent and prosperous guests at the occasions of either kermis or wedding. There is also a kind of inverted relationship between these peasant festivities and the emerging theme of ‘merry companies.’ Though confined to an exhibition catalogue, this revisit of these complementary themes offers the most thorough interweaving of their rich relationship while also working well as an insightful and engaging encounter with a wide range of works, mostly graphic.
University of Pennsylvania