This anthology, the product of a group effort sponsored by the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study, explores the role of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) as an agent of cultural interaction throughout Asia. The book consists of an introduction by the co-editors assessing the nature of Dutch involvement on the continent and fourteen essays by noted scholars, all characterized in capsule form below.
Gary Schwartz assesses cultural exchange between the Netherlands and Persia, methodically charting various aspects of what little survives. Schwartz colorfully recounts the dashing intrigues of Dutch artists who served the Persian court at Isfahan, and unravels the authorship of the monumental paintings in All Savior’s Church in New Julfa, a suburb created for Armenian merchants during the Ottoman conquest. Amy Landau connects the appropriation of printed biblical scenes by the Persian painter Muhammad Zaman with the use of northern European prints by the Safavid empire’s Armenian Christian community. She believes that Armenian commissions of Europeanized idioms, especially in New Julfa, “strongly reverberated at the Persian court” (66). These works, she believes, related to Sulayman’s campaign to present himself as a devout ruler, and were perhaps made “to exert emblematic power over European compositions of the pre-Islamic prophets” (67).
Martin Krieger hypothesizes that hybrid Indo-Dutch craftsmanship in the colonial context of Coromandel borrowed from ancient Indian sculpture as well as from European sources for Dutch funerary monuments. Ranabir Chakrabarty provides a broad overview of visual traces of India’s artistic exchanges with the Dutch: besides paintings, he notes maps, prints, and globes, and even a town plan long thought to be of French origin. Michael North explores objects in households of Cape Colony and Batavia, drawing upon probate inventories in the Cape (now online through a project called TEPC) and Batavian documents in the Netherlands and Jakarta. He concludes that decorative patterns of Netherlandish art in colonial societies trickled down from upper social strata through the “middling sort” (120). Meanwhile, a Batavian market for Chinese goods – paintings, porcelain, lanterns, etc. – arose as early as the 1620s, versus circa 1700 in the Netherlands.
Peter Nas’s essay finds considerable Dutch influence on Indonesian architecture. Focusing on colonial architecture rooted in Indische culture, Nas resoundingly defends Indische culture (a commingled Dutch-Indonesian result of the particular circumstances in the Indies) as “a local tropical lifestyle in its own right rather than a cultural half-breed” (131). In contrast, Lodewijk Wagenaar’s extensive survey of VOC settlements in Ceylon 1700-1800 concludes that there, “most of the Dutch heritage is just words” (172). Wagenaar registers other Dutch “transplants,” however – in architecture, material culture, and institutional design, among other things.
Marten Jan Bok reports on “The Migration of Netherlandish Artists to Asia in the Seventeenth Century,” where burgeoning digitized resources are facilitating new discoveries. Maps and graphs based on the ECARTICO database show where in Asia Dutch draftsmen, cartographers, and painters were active 1590-1710, their numbers in any given year, and their ages upon arrival. Existing data suggests that one artist per year on average reached Asia from the Netherlands over the course of the century, although, as Bok reminds us, the present list is “probably only the tip of the iceberg” (186). Almost two thirds of the arrivals were trained painters, but most surviving work is neither signed nor attributed. Bok profiles one painter, Hendrick Vapoer, who successfully combined his VOC position with work for Indian courts.
In his essay concerning Dutch impact in China and Taiwan, Kaufmann finds only one Chinese craft that can be linked with VOC mediation: the technique for concentrically carving ivory spheres. Considering reasons for this overall lack, he dismisses the simple explanation of power relations. Kaufmann attributes the Dutch failure to their apparent treatment of all Asians as “undifferentiated Oosterlingen” – for instance, presenting the same gifts to the sophisticated court in Beijing as to indigenous Taiwanese.
Matthi Forrer and Yoriko Kobayashi-Sato review the Dutch presence in Japan, through the long period of Japanese isolation when the shogun had expelled all other Westerners, and the Dutch were instrumental in providing rangaku (Western learning) to Japanese scholars. The authors note that the term sakoku for this isolation policy, though widely used in later scholarly literature, “was almost unknown to the people of the Edo era” (242), and first used only in 1801 by Shizuki Tadao. Forrer also investigates the adaptation of Western linear perspective in Japanese popular prints. Methodically evaluating possible avenues, the author deduces that unlike China, Japan’s most likely source of influence was the Dutch. He traces the rise in Europe of “optical prints,” viewed through devices such as the zograscope (a box with large lens and diagonal mirror), and their popularization in Japan by Maruyama Ōkyo.
Kobayashi-Sato next reviews the gradual Japanese appropriation of Western painting. Gifts sometimes misfired, she shows: the governor of Nagasaki considered a nude Sleeping Venus indecent. But in the 1730s Yoshimune hung two large Willem van Royen flower pieces in his favorite temple; copied and appreciated for “brushwork so perfect it is unsurpassed even in Japanese and Chinese masterpieces” (273), they contributed significantly to both the growing esteem for Western painting and the birth of Akita ranga – Japan’s first serious school of Western-style painting.
Cynthia Viallé tackles VOC gift-giving, focusing on Japan. Eisen(requests for specific gifts) and eisen tot schenkagie (lists of gifts) show that gift items included scientific tools, glass and crystal wares, gilt leather, gold jewelry and gems, mechanical devices, and even toothpicks and lead pencils. Paintings were gifted only occasionally. Viallé reports that gifts were usually given as expressions of goodwill, but sometimes to test a market.
In the book’s final essay, Astrid Erl sketches out a theoretical framework for examining transcultural mediation. She divides the matters requiring investigation into five major categories: production, transmission, reception, transcultural remediation, and afterlife. Drawing upon examples from the volume, she articulates questions under each of these headings. Contending that production is not necessarily the first step in transcultural mediation, she turns to transmission, reconstructing networks involved in moving art objects, tastes, and styles from one socio-cultural context to another. From her valuable perspective within memory studies, Erl concludes eloquently that more than merely circulating objects, transcultural mediation “moulds our worlds of interacting, thinking, feeling, and perceiving” (327).
Julie Berger Hochstrasser
The University of Iowa