The American Association for Netherlandic Studies (AANS, pronounced like the Bostonion version of ‘aunts’ by those who love it) is to HNA what a lavish rijstafel is to a warm bowl of hutspot. Attend one of the biennial Interdisciplinary Conferences on Netherlandic Studies (ICNS) organized by AANS, and you can hobnob with specialists in contemporary Afrikaans poetry, colonial New Netherlands history, or medieval Dutch music. Art historians are in the minority, but the current president, Amy Golahny, makes sure that their interests are not forgotten. In addition to pulling off a stimulating conference every two years, AANS publishes selected papers in a series called Publications of the American Association for Netherlandic Studies (yes, PAANS). Printed by University Press of America, these volumes are modest in format, with thin paper and black-and-white illustrations. They are unlikely to end up on anyone’s coffee table, but the scholarly contents offer something for any reader seriously interested in Netherlandic culture. PAANS Volume 13, the subject of this review, contains a characteristically broad selection of essays addressing aspects of Dutch linguistics, literature, history, religion and art from the middle ages to the twentieth century. The nineteen articles were developed from papers presented at the eighth ICNS, held in New York City in June 1996. Admittedly, the turnaround time of four years between conference and published papers could stand improvement, but like many such endeavors, this one depends upon the voluntary labor of its team of editors and peer reviewers as well as the authors themselves. The result is a unique series that is both highly specialized and diverse in scope. (It should be noted, for the record, that although this writer has served on the PAANS editorial board, she was not consulted in respect to the volume presently under review.)
The thematic focus of the 13th PAANS volume is travel, discovery and early relations between the Netherlands and other cultures. According to the introduction, by Johanna C. Prins, the articles showcase a variety of methodologies and include contributions from native Dutch speakers and citizens as well as those commenting from outside (which turns out to be mainly from the US). Nineteen essays are too many to summarize individually in the scope of this review. For the sake of readers who are wondering whether a purchase is worthwhile, here is a list of the topics addressed. The remainder of this review will focus on those contributions specifically relevant to art history.
The volume begins with Frits van Oostrom, “Reflections on Literary History and Netherlandic Cultural Identity in the Medieval Period.” Also addressing medieval times is Scott D. Westrem, “Dutch ‘Discovery’ of the East during the Late Middle Ages.” Linguistic studies include Anthony F. Buccini, “Swannekens Ende Wilden: Linguistic Attitudes and Communication Strategies among the Dutch and Indians in New Netherland;” J. Van Donselaaer, “On the Vocabulary of the Dutch in Their Seventeenth-Century South American Colonies” and Robert S. Kirsner and Vincent J. Van Heuven, “Wie het kleine niet eert: Intonation and the Pragmatics of Dutch Final Particles.” Analyses of literature from the eighteenth century to the present constitute the largest category in the volume: Willem Burger, “Rediscovering the Eighteenth Century Rediscovering Early Discoveries: André Brink’s Novel ‘On the Contrary’;” Katherine Ebel, “Reality and Fiction: J. Slauerhoff’s ‘Het verboden rijk’ and Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’;” W.F. Jonckheere, “Worlds in Discourse in F. Springer’s Novels;” Bertram Mourits, “Poetry and All That Jazz: The Composed Improvisation of J. Bernlef;” Luc Renders, “Masters and Slaves: Europeans Encountering Africans in Recent Historical Novels about Early White Settlement in Southern Africa;” Johan P. Snapper, “From Westerbork to Auschwitz: The Function of Travel in the Diaries of Etty Hillesum;” Thomas Vaessens, “‘The Downtrodden Christ in Each and Every One of Us’: Metaphysical Aspirations in Paul van Ostaijen’s Poetry and Poetics;” and Louise Viljoen, “Leipoldt and the Orient: A Reading of C.L. Leipoldt’s Travel Writing in the Context of Orientalist Discourse.” Social history engages Marybeth Carlson, “Down and Out in Rotterdam in 1700: Aspects and Functions of Poor Relief in a Dutch Town” and Oscar E. Lansen, “Welkom Yankee Bevrijders: Soldiers and Civilians during the Liberation of the Netherlands 1944-1945.” The tables are turned in Olf Praamstra, “E.J. Potgieter’s and Conrad Busken Huet’s “Views of the United States” (a dream to one, a nightmare to the other). Religious history is addressed in characteristically solid form by Andrew Fix, “Atheism in the Early Dutch Enlightenment.”
While many of the essays just mentioned will be of interest to art historians, two articles are directly relevant. Appropriately, both embed the objects they discuss in their socio-cultural milieu, and both explore interactions between the Netherlands and the outside world. John S. Hallam, “The Portrait of Cornelis Steenwyck and Dutch Colonial Experience in America” focuses on an unusual portrait of the distinguished New Netherlands merchant by Jan van Goossen (an otherwise unknown artist who was the sitter’s brother-in-law), now in the New York Historical Society. The portrait situates a somewhat naively painted bust of Steenwyck in front of a landscape and above a predella-like panorama of New Amsterdam. Hallam argues that this format ‘position[s] Steenwyck as a kind of dynamic mediator between the town and the far-reaching countryside’ (p. 81) and, thus, emphasizes his colonialist aspirations.
The more substantial essay by Julie Berger Hochstrasser, “Seen and Unseen in the Visual Culture of Trade: The Conquest of Pepper,” builds on the author’s dissertation research on the social implications of Dutch still life painting (Berkeley 1995). Setting aside the usual generic polarities of conspicuous consumption and virtuous abstinence, Hochstrasser considers how the proud display of exotic ingredients, notably pepper, in Dutch still lifes elides the moral ambiguities of practices such as slavery that brought these rich commodities to the Dutch table. Reminders of factors such as the appalling loss of life suffered by the V.O.C. (two-thirds of all sailors who embarked on overseas missions never returned) and the insensitive subjugation of native populations are enough to dampen one’s appetite for these sumptuous pictures, yet, as Hochstrasser points out, the large majority of collectors were merchants and traders themselves. The parallel with modern American consumerism does not go unnoticed in Hochstrasser’s thought-provoking account. The decline of the Dutch Golden Age, as an overblown economy (fueled by colonialism) collapsed under its own glittering weight, seems even more relevant in today’s uncertain climate.
These essays present an impressive array of approaches to the history of Dutch interaction with, colonization and understanding of other cultures. While their specific topics may often appeal primarily to specialists, their collective richness reminds us of the uncanny impact that a tiny country and its obscure language have continued to exercise around the world. The fact that only two of these papers deal directly with art does not fully reflect the engagement of art historians in AANS and its conferences, which typically field at least one full session devoted to visual culture. A collaborative venture between our two organizations – in the postmodern spirit of cooperation rather than colonization – would surely yield some interesting fruit. (For further information about AANS and its links to other venues for the study of Dutch language and history, visit their website, http://polyglot.lss.wisc.edu/aans.
Stephanie S. Dickey
Herron School of Art
Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis