Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Dutch Golden Age

A friend read my thoughts about identity and the Dutch Golden Age and recommended Mariet Westermann’s A Worldly Art: The Dutch Republic, 1585-1718, a kind of coffee table study that is as utterly beautiful as it is thoughtful. My questions arise from visiting some of Holland’s most prized museums, cathedrals, and castles, where I came to understand that the Netherlands experienced, in fact, a real Golden Age.

Westermann’s book is an art museum itself, really, featuring thoughtful analysis of many of the Netherlands’ major art works, including this one—Willem Kalf’s Still Life with a Late Ming Ginger Jar, a painting which offers a thoughtful lesson in understanding the era and the cultural character that it created.

The lighting itself is gorgeous and rich, Mr. Kalf choosing to feature the (literally) worldly treasures brought back to Holland by its fleet of traders—the goblets and the Ming jar. Even the fruits are booty from elsewhere—the lime from someplace tropical, the peach from the Mediterranean. Lots of exotics, lots of beautifully spotlighted glamor.

Yet, what art historians have suggested is that the ensemble itself is quite precariously set on a rumpled floral carpet from India, and seems therefore almost to be tipping from the table itself. In other words, it may soon fall. Beware. Of note also is the open watch, itself not inexpensive; but the Dutch, who were not only accustomed to interpreting moralistic art but even demanded the opportunity to read such art’s moral messages, would not have missed what the open watch said, the symbolism of time’s winged chariot. The gorgeous menu here offered, although beautiful, is also somewhat bizarre. Who would really serve these food items together?

Therefore, critics far smarter than I claim that Kalf’s still life, like others of the era, carry a kind of paradox. While it features the comely booty only a world power could accumulate, treasures from around the globe, it deftly warns against those very riches at the very same time. While it glories in wealth, it also preaches against it. Go figure.

And all of this is centuries before Weber and his famous thesis about Calvinists and the capitalism they created.


I suppose I should take some pride in the inherent Calvinist moralism of Still Life. I would, I suppose, if I didn’t feel even more deeply the very human conflict in the paradox so wealthily displayed within it.

To me, at least, wonderfully interesting.

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