Social and political upheaval meeting intellectual and scientific innovation spark the tension and vigor that inspire an exhibition in Sarasota.
By LENNIE BENNETT, Times art critic
Published September 4, 2005
[Images courtesy of the Ringling Museum of Art
Ludolf Backhuysen, Ships in Distress Off a Rocky Coast, 1667, oil on canvas.
Abraham Bloemaert, Studies of Two Pollard Willows, 1606, pen and brown ink, watercolor.
SARASOTA - The Dutch went through a lot during the 17th century. Decades of war with the Hapsburgs, their Spanish-Catholic rulers, had left much of the Netherlands in ruins. The Reformation was about a century old and experiencing growing pains, with various factions squabbling over Calvinism. And natural disasters were common - especially flooding, because the country was mostly below sea level.
On the positive side, by mid century the Dutch had won their independence and commercial prosperity was creating a new class of wealthy businessmen. With the Enlightenment just around the corner, science was receiving more respect, especially since its practical applications - better drainage systems, for example - were improving daily life.
No wonder then that, amid so much change, the limits and possibilities of permanence and mortality, the secular and the sacred, were on people's minds. That tension underpins "Time and Transformation in 17th Century Dutch Art," an exhibition at the John and Mable Ringling Museum that gathers 90 paintings, drawings, prints and illustrated books created in the 1600s by Dutch artists.
The art is grouped by five themes: Monumental Ruins in the Dutch Landscape; Rustic Ruins; Time and Travel; Floods, Fires and Other Disasters; and Time and Transformation Embodied. There are some biblical allegories and portraits, but the majority of the works are landscapes, so many that by the time you wend your way through the third gallery, you may begin to feel that they all look alike and speed up your pace. Slow down. Taken as a whole, they create a subtle narrative about a nation that looked to its future by retelling its past.
The landscapes play out a theme common in both paintings and works on paper: that man-made structures have crumbled through time or tumult. They are more nostalgic than elegiac, the castles and cottages in various stages of decay surrounded by encroaching trees and vines. Though nature breaches walls and sprouts through cracks, it is a metaphor of rebirth rather than destruction. People, reduced to dwarfed bystanders, continue about their business, fishing, hunting, herding and scything.
Images of obliterated Dutch buildings were reminders of a heritage nearly lost under foreign rule and conflict. Two drawings make that point eloquently. Hendrick Hondius the Elder's Ruins of Castle Spangen shows a medieval fortress, its upper stories gone, floating on a lake, a mirror image reflected in the waters. Unlike most other works in the exhibition, this one shows no return of natural life. In its stark walls and stillness, it has become a place shunned even by weeds. But in the background are intact cottages, reminders that royal lords come and go but the earth and those who nurture it endure. Jan Lievens' Ruins of the Castle of Brederode is Spangen's opposite, alive with movement. The shell of a castle rises above a hill littered with stones and more castle remnants. The buildings' surfaces are crosshatched, suggesting progressive crumbling. Brush strokes create a shimmering canopy of leaves on encroaching trees.
Peace and prosperity enabled the Dutch to travel beyond their borders, and a trip to Italy was de rigueur. Artists recorded the much older ruins further south, especially in Rome, but usually with a creative interpretation that was less historically accurate than pictorially interesting. Many examples in this group have biblical themes. Joseph is reunited with his father, Jacob, dressed in the regalia of a Mideast potentate and surrounded by a retinue in a fertile countryside dotted with old Italianate arches - about as far away from a desert as one can get. St. John the Baptist preaches to an exotically clothed crowd in an equally unlikely Italian setting. In other paintings, contemporary travelers are depicted amid amalgams of old temples and statuary forged in the artist's mind.
The greatest verisimilitude is found in the art organized under Floods, Fires and Other Disasters. Re-creations of floods and fires served a journalistic purpose. Several paintings and prints deal with the disastrous accidental explosion of a munitions vault in Delft in 1654 that left one section of the city destroyed and killed or wounded hundreds. The site looks like a smaller, older version of New York's ground zero, and in a work painted about 10 years after the event, the area is still unbuilt - a place where two tourists, dressed in Calvinist black and white, stroll quietly.
An interesting anecdote surrounds several prints, one of them made by Jan van der Heyden, a remarkable man who, besides being a very fine painter, was also an engineer and inventor. Rope and Tar Fire in Amsterdam portrays a large conflagration in which smoke covers about one-third of the foreground in coils that could have inspired American modernists. Van der Heyden was much interested in fires, as the city's fire chief for many years and the designer of an innovative firefighting system.
Painters rarely used shipwrecks as a theme; patrons whose wealth derived from shipping would hardly have wanted reminders of potential peril. Though Ships in Distress Off a Rocky Coast may be anomalous, it is one of the most dramatically composed works in the exhibition.
Time and Transformation Embodied is a sort of catch-all section of vanitas paintings and prints as well as nature studies, all created as overt reminders that everything living is in the process of dying. Skulls are much in evidence, sometimes as details in an austere scene where a pious saint or hermit prays in humility and poverty. Many of the artists may be unfamiliar to you, as they were to me, but a Rembrandt etching, one of two in the show, is a lovely little take on St. Jerome praying beneath a wizened willow tree trunk, his lion companion keeping watch. Abraham Bloemaert, another well-known name, is represented by two beautiful pen and ink drawings, one of them also of old willows. Bloemaert's reputation in his day as a leading artist is reinforced by several drawings by other artists "after Bloemaert," who paid him homage.
A remarkable etching in a book is a radically cropped and foreshortened female torso split open to reveal a mature fetus, curled as if asleep, the placenta beside it laid out as a blooming plant. We might read irony into this image if we project our own sensibilities onto it. It is, simply, an adroit anatomical drawing.
Still lifes known as vanitas are clever assemblages of objects that relate to life's fleeting pleasures. Money bags sit beside musical instruments and a celestial globe - hope of an afterlife. Bubbles float above wilting flowers and a skinned chicken hangs over glistening oysters and oranges. In the lush richness of their details, they provide a visceral end to the show.
That and a portrait by Nicolaes Maes of an unknown family closes the Time and Transformation group. The young mother sits with a baby and young daughter outside the entrance to what is clearly a substantial country villa. The catalog explains that this was once a much larger painting that showed other children. Possibly, it speculates, they were lost to plague and cut out of it, but we will probably never know. In the painting, next to his small family, the house-proud father, hat in hand, gestures us to come inside.
And why not, we ask at this point. Gather rosebuds while you may; eat, drink and be merry. Most of all, appreciate life as it is and, for better or worse, might be.
"Time and Transformation in 17th Century Dutch Art," organized by the Frances Lehman Loeb Center, Vassar College, is at the John and Mable Ringling Museum, 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota, through Oct. 30. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. Admission is $15 adults, $12 seniors and free for children 12 and younger, Florida teachers and students with ID. Admission includes the grounds, the Circus Museum and Ca d'Zan, the Ringlings' historic home. The museum only is free on Mondays. A catalog is available for purchase in the gift shop. 941 359-5700 or www.ringling.org