Scholarship on seventeenth-century Dutch art has tended to be conservative, for the most part sticking to the well-trodden paths of archival research, iconography, and Stilgeschichte. On the rare occasions when it has ventured into large thematic questions that cut across individual genres, symbolic conventions, or local schools, the results have generally been mixed, or at least controversial. Witness Svetlana Alpers’s The Art of Describing (Chicago 1984). Susan Kuretsky’s exhibition Time and Transformation sets a new standard, however, both in its broad scope and in the flexibility and expansiveness of its guiding ideas. The show, which is still traveling (it will be at the J.B. Speed Museum, Louisville, KY, January 10 – March 26, 2006), ranges across the whole corpus of Dutch art, touching on nearly every genre, medium, and mode from the beginning of the century to its end, and including a wide variety of artists, from famous to very obscure. There are Dutch and Italianate landscapes, pastoral and picaresque visions of country life, biblical and journalistic narratives, allegories, still lifes, portraits, scientific illustrations, and more. A lifetime’s experience with objects and collections has gone into assembling Time and Transformation. Indeed, the catalogue’s cover illustration of Delft in Ruins by Daniel Vosmaer was the topic of Susan Kuretsky’s first publication as a Vassar undergraduate.
Given the scale of the undertaking, the big subject of Time might easily have fallen prey to fuzzy thinking. But Kuretsky has dodged that hazard by focusing primarily on ruins, which turn out to be commoner and richer in meaning than one might have thought: a true master theme in their way. Through ruin and decay, time “thickens,” as Bakhtin would say, and generates layer upon layer of association and memory. Inevitably, some of those layers carry the familiar vanitas messages that have been a stock in trade for generations of iconographers. Yet moral platitudes seldom strike the dominant note here. The breakdown of forms and boundaries intrinsic to the ruination process also can dissolve stable distinctions between nature and culture, as well as between art and reality. One of Kuretsky’s major themes is the way such transformation lends itself to new forms of aethhetic consciousness, as the description of dissolution breaks down into more or less autonomous lines and brush strokes. On the broadest level one might argue that the mutability of all canons and conventions, be they social or formalistic, is in some sense latent in the ruins theme. In that respect, it might even be considered integral to the realist enterprise as a whole.
Kuretsky divides her subject into five headings: “Monumental Ruins in the Dutch Landscape;” “Rustic Ruins;” “Floods, Fires, and other Disasters;” “Time and Travel,” which mainly deals with Italianate images of classical ruins; and a final section, “Time and Transformation Embodied,” that expands into other forms of transience and ruination: hermits and outcasts, dissected, “ruined” bodies, vanitas still lifes, and a fascinating family portrait by Nicolaes Maes. Accompanying her long, thoughtful Introduction are five catalogue essays by colleagues with special expertise of one kind or another. The last of these, by Eric P. Löffler of the RKD, provides an interesting twist by surveying the state of Dutch ruins today. The others focus on the first four headings in the catalogue. Each is useful and informative in its own way, but some authors seem to have been less ready than Kuretsky herself to break with the methodological habits of the past. For example, Lynn Federle Orr’s essay, “Embracing Antiquity,” takes a rather conventional, survey approach to Dutch Italianate artists’ treatment of Roman ruins. Issues of descriptive accuracy vs. fantasy and the picturesque predominate, leaving little time for deeper questions about what drew these artists to the subject in the first place. She effectively ignores David Levine’s important work on the Bamboccianti’s paradoxical inversions of classical ideals, which offers critical insights into the meanings of ruins. Fortunately, Levine was able to speak for himself in a lecture at the symposium for the exhibition at Vassar last spring (other speakers were Walter Liedtke, Ann Jensen Adams, Celeste Brusati, and Seymour Slive, with Mariët Westermann as respondent).
Arthur Wheelock’s piece on “Accidents and Disasters” delves more deeply into the issues his subject poses, noting that pictures of contemporary disasters are relatively uncommon in Dutch art, which usually treats the “here and now” in terms of recurrent patterns of everyday existence. Where catastrophic events do provoke art, he sees a native tendency to find moral and providential meaning beneath the chaos. No doubt this is true, and he may also be right to tie such optimistic attitudes to a widespread vision of seventeenth-century Holland as a “Golden Age.” Then as now, however, arcadianism cannot bear close scrutiny. Wheelock seems to be looking too hard for cultural unities in a subject more naturally prone to confusion and contradiction. It might have been more profitable to probe what appears to have been a growing split in the period between allegorical and journalistic modes of historical interpretation, the one rooted in retrospection and convention, the other bound to the present moment in all its openness and specificity.
On the other hand, Walter Gibson’s discussion of rustic ruins in “Bloemaert’s Privy” is built on distinctions and contradictions. Unlike the “noble” ruins of medieval castles or Roman temples, ramshackle peasant shanties and privies have no history. They belong to the anonymous, unpoetic realm of low-life. But rather than seeing all these scenes as moralizing, as others have, Gibson proposes some positive readings, based on pastoral visions of the simple life or the aesthetics of the picturesque. There are certainly subjects where this view holds up, particularly those involving shepherds or hermit saints. But where privies are involved, there is plenty of room for laughter too, as Gibson acknowledges. What he might have stressed a little more, though, is that rustic ruins are inherently equivocal. All pastoral entails a reversal, seeing the low as high, the bumpkin as poet. And with inversion comes at least the possibility of irony. Sometimes low may just be low after all.
The best essay in the book is Catherine Levesque’s “Haarlem Landscapes and Ruins: Nature Transformed,” which is likely to become indispensable. Her subject is narrower than the others: landscape prints in the city from Goltzius to Segers. But because these are brilliant artists working at a critical, defining moment for both Dutch history and the realist mode in art, she is able to turn this sharp focus into profound observations about the meaning of ruins for Dutch art. Scenes of cultivation and rebuilding amidst historic castles demolished by Spanish invaders make for meditations on past and present, time and diligence, death and renewal. Levesque also points to a subtle, many-sided interplay between art and nature in these prints. Rebuilding projects aside, dissolution lends itself to regeneration as art when the forms of ruin and nature merge in a shared vocabulary of fluid line. Her discussion of the inspired and eccentric Hercules Segers is especially fine in this regard. A final section on “The Necessity of Ruins” discusses how Dutch ruins and the prints about them opened up a new way of thinking about history itself. Just as importantly, the essay offers special insights into the reflexive qualities inherent in the realist project in general. It is not just a matter of descriptive fidelity, and it never was.
Time and Transformation is in many ways a new kind of show, offering new ways of thinking about Dutch art and its meanings. Susan Kuretsky has given us a model to imitate and to build upon.
David R. Smith
University of New Hampshire