The Cheerfulness of Dutch Art
Doornspijk, The Netherlands:
From Chapter V: Painting Nudity and Other Delights
. . . . I am now arguing that many histories and allegories should
be read down from the official hierarchy as being in effect
genre paintings or still lifes or landscapes slyly disguised though
anything but concealed.
It is of course evident that the genuine, credible seriousness of many Renaissance or Baroque histories and allegories is safe from such skepticism. When Rembrandt painted a Raising of Lazarus or a Deposition from the Cross, he was not joking with us. Neither are lesser histories like Govaert Flinck’s Marcus Curius Dentatus who scorned his enemy’s gold and chose a meal of turnips instead (Koninklijk Paleis op de Dam, Amsterdam) dishonest in their claims, whatever additional side-issues we may choose to read into them. And this is true all the way down the artistic ladder, as for instance in a routine etching like Cornelis Anthonisz’s Allegory of transitoriness(1537) with its skeleton, hourglass, bearded Everyman, and its crowd of warning and edifying texts — but I will turn to Vanitas allegories at a later point.
In many instances, however, the seriousness of histories and allegories is at least in part bogus — a façade behind which artists felt it was safe to display scenes more or less “indecent” or otherwise vulnerable to moral reproof. As might be expected, at the top of any list of indecencies (other than outright pornography) stood eroticized nudity, or rather eroticized nudity in everyday, contemporary guise. The Dutch repertory of marketable genre paintings included numerous erotic works, but complete undress was exceptional. Clearly, in the seventeenth- century Netherlands it was not normally permissible to portray one’s own Tanneken or Gertruy as a seductive wench in the nude, much less in the act with an equally naked lover. What to do? The Dutch liked naked bodies and pienty of sex as much as we do, and were as determined as people have always been to eke out by means of paintings, sculptures, literature and even music the perennially felt insufficiencies afforded by raw life itself. Fortunately the problem was not difficult to solve. European artists had been solving it for a long time. One simply sought the protection of allegory, the myths of ancient Greece and Rome, history, legend, or the Old and even the New Testament. All of them gave one the licence and authority needed to wink at the moralists and merrily undress one’s personages — mostly good- looking girls, but without forgetting well-muscled males in the nude. It was a most satisfactory arrangement.
Indeed, I would argue that the extreme decline of historical and mythological motifs in the century of Bellmer and Mapplethorpe was made possible by our nobly enlightened regime of “anything goes”. Fancy disguises are no longer needed.
. . . .That modern scholarship has so little to say about the obvious and delightful trumpery of such pictures would be surprising if we were not accustomed to the smileless modern academic manner.
Some of the severer moralists of the past were less gullible. They were heard to protest against portraying a naked Venus, for instance, since a picture of this sort would result in “fiery sensuality, burning desire and hot passion” (Coornhert in 1586); they warned against unchaste subjects like Lot and his daughters, David and Bathsheba, the Rape of Europa, Leda and the Swan, and so forth (Cats in 1625); and thought representations of Mars and Venus discovered by Vulcan, Diana in her bath, and Joseph and Potiphar’s wife “unsuited to public display in a gallery of paintings” They realized, in short, that these works were in effect erotic genre pieces trying to palm themselves off as instructive and moralizing art. And they would have understood why our museums own a hundred pictures of David watching Bathsheba at her ablutions to one (as far as I know) of the Hebrew king despatching poor Uriah to the front to be killed by the Ammonites.