Having regrettably put off writing this review for far too long, I sat down to read through this book with no idea of how many subtle pleasures awaited me. The project of assembling a selection of essays by such a distinguished and influential scholar as Albert Blankert is justifiable in itself, but might easily have been accomplished, as many such volumes are, simply by reprinting a sequence of texts. Instead, Blankert and his editors at Waanders have produced something far richer, more useful, and more entertaining for the general reader as well as the specialized scholar. In this short review I can only mention highlights of the twenty-three essays, spanning nearly forty years, that are brought together in this anthology, but I hope my description will also show what makes this publication so much more than the sum of its parts.
The volume opens with a foreword by John Walsh, who succinctly summarizes Blankert’s career and achievements. Blankert’s most remarkable contribution has been to call attention, primarily through a series of important exhibitions, to significant yet overlooked aspects of Dutch art. Today, it is hard to remember that Italianate landscape painting, classicist style, and the whole genre of history painting were routinely omitted from discussions of Dutch art until Blankert brought them back to life.
As Blankert explains in a short introduction, “to be eligible for selection an article had to present a novelty that has not been refuted since its first publication”. The essays are arranged in chronological order, from 1966 to 2002, and several are here translated for the first time from Dutch into English. (Translations in most cases are by Diane Webb.) Most essays are followed by a short, useful Addendum, dated 2003, citing recent publications or discoveries on the topic. Good quality illustrations, including many in color, appear on nearly every page. The volume is well-priced at 55 euros.
Blankert’s methodology and writing style are lucid, practical, and grounded in careful formal analysis. As a result, many of these essays could fruitfully be assigned for undergraduate research on Dutch art or enjoyed by the “ordinary” reader. Very useful in this regard is the translation into English of the essay published in 1975 as Kunst als regeringszaak…, the handbook for an exhibition at the Royal Palace, once the Amsterdam Town Hall, which offers a succinct account of Dutch politics as well as a valuable survey of the public function of art in the most powerful city of the Golden Age. Other important articles include “Rembrandt, Zeuxis and Ideal Beauty” (1973), the introduction to the landmark exhibition Gods, Saints and Heroes (1980), and Blankert’s lectures delivered at the symposia on genre painting held in Berlin in 1984 (“What is Dutch Seventeenth-Century Genre Painting? A Definition and its Limitations”) and Rembrandt, in Stockholm, 1992 (“Rembrandt and his Followers: Notes on Connoisseurship – its Potential and Pitfalls”).
The seasoned historian of Dutch art may well experience some pangs of nostalgia, as I did, in recalling the events that prompted these publications, while also admiring Blankert’s fearlessly accurate critiques of prevailing assumptions and methods, and noting, for better or worse, that debates on these topics still rage. His review of the exhibition Dawn of the Golden Age (“An Anachronistic View of Dutch Art,” 1995) questioned the whole premise of the show by challenging the geographical boundaries that evidently controlled the selection of artists and objects according to a modern, rather than a seventeenth-century, understanding of what it meant to be a Netherlandish artist. This issue – demonstrated by the fact that not only Van Mander and Huygens, but even Houbraken a century later, often spoke in one breath of artists whom we today would segregate as “Dutch” or “Flemish” – is still in need of serious discussion. (Some readers may recall the workshop I organized around this topic at the HNA conference in Antwerp in 2002; a recent article in Simiolus by Karolien De Clippel, who participated in that session, refreshingly traces links between Dutch and Flemish paintings of everyday life.)
Shorter studies are devoted to individual objects or artists including Caspar Netscher, Pieter van Laer, Hendrick Avercamp, Hendrick ter Brugghen, Jan Brueghel, Caesar van Everdingen, Ferdinand Bol, Pieter Lastman, Jan Vermeer, Michiel Sweerts, and the otherwise unknown eighteenth-century amateur Daniel van Beke. In comparison with Blankert’s overall contribution to the field, Vermeer and Rembrandt are somewhat underrepresented. (A complete list of Blankert’s publications to 2004 is included.) Regrettably absent is an English translation of Blankert’s exemplary iconographic study of representations of Heraclitus and Democritus (Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek Vol. 18, 1967).
One article, first published in Tableau under the pseudonym Beata Verschuur, presents a charming puzzle for the reader as well as an object lesson in the consequences of trying to apply scholarly connoisseurship to a legal case where the monetary value of art is at stake. “A Controversial Flower Still Life” (1993) describes the testimony of several prominent art historians, including Blankert, in a suit to remove from the Dutch government’s list of protected objects (not to be sold outside the country) a still life attributed to Jan Brueghel of which numerous copies exist. The case hinged on close comparison among three versions, and the reader is invited to make up his or her own mind about which version the experts unanimously judged inferior. The answer is revealed elsewhere in the book. The Addendum recounts the eventual disposition of the case in 2001, but I won’t give it away here. As a classroom assignment, this essay might prompt discussion of several important issues.
Another deceptively simple item is Blankert’s short introduction to the first volume of Mercury, the journal published from 1985 to 1992 by the Hoogsteder firm of art dealers (1985-1990 in cooperation with Otto Naumann Ltd.). Blankert sets out the goals of the new journal, one of which is to provide a venue for specific discoveries that might be deemed unworthy of publication elsewhere. We may wonder why such a trifle was chosen for inclusion here, until we read that Mercury aims at “providing knowledge, by sticking to documented truth, and correcting misunderstandings,” but that “information of the following nature will not be welcome”. This is followed by a series of three quotations (unattributed and out of context) whose authors, whatever their justification, have strayed rather far from the object and its documented history. Phrases such as “the ontological categories and values imbedded in the sensuous immediacy of the object-world” were clearly not to Blankert’s taste in 1985, or anytime. In the Addendum, he observes that “earmarking what in my view are undesirable texts in serious art-historical periodicals is just as relevant today as it was in 1985” and proceeds to quote a passage (again unattributed) in which “Vermeerness” and “the semiotic model” figure damningly. These remarks exemplify the no-nonsense approach that has sustained Blankert throughout his career, and is demonstrated throughout this book. One may choose to agree or disagree, but it is difficult not to admire the author’s courage of conviction and the clear evidence of its fruitful deployment over four decades of insightful scholarship.
The volume concludes with a moving tribute to a contemporary artist, Blankert’s younger brother Barend, a figurative painter of the “Magic Realist” school. This essay, which was published in the catalogue of an exhibition of Barend’s work at the Drents Museum in 2002, moves from sound formal analysis to a remarkably frank (auto)biographical description of the childhood tribulations that may have contributed to the artist’s “tragic world view”. Like a modern Theo van Gogh (to whom he draws a wry parallel), Blankert argues, with fraternal pride showing through his scholarly objectivity, that his brother’s work has been unduly neglected by the art world. For proof that this defense was as well justified as any of his historical analyses, we need only consult the handsome catalogue, co-authored by Albert Blankert and Peter Karstkarel, Barend Blankert: Meester van de melancholie (Zwolle: Waanders, 2002). The availability of Selected Writings on Dutch Painting should help to ensure that the elder brother’s art historical achievements also receive the recognition they are due.