Sunday, February 13, 2011

notes on the 17th century dutch genre paintings

I like the 17th century Dutch genre paintings. They are interesting because they appear to say something about the discourses of today's image, film, and theater. For example, how to stage the actors: Willem Buytewech's Merry Company and Jan Steen's The Dissolute Household show that the actors attending the messy parties are showing off what they are doing to the viewer; Dirck Hals's Woman Tearing a Letter shows a woman angrily tearing a letter, staring at the air, exhibiting her expression to the viewer; Caspar Netscher's The Lace-maker, Pieter de Hooch's The Linen Chest appear to show the idea of "the fourth wall"; and then Nicolaes Maes's Idle Servant and the series of "eavesdroppers" show that the actors break this fourth wall, saying to the viewer, "Ou la la, this girl is sleeping," or "Be quiet, I want to see this"--like the actors talking to the audience in Woody Allen's Annie Hall; many of Johannes Vermeer's are like a Minimalist novel: the actors don't explain much and exploit the ambiguity.

The genre paintings are rather about the social fantasy than about the social reality. Like in fashion magazines, the characters often wear things too extravagant or too exotic or too obsolete to wear in real life. Also they depict things you fantasize but you actually do not act. In his Dutch Seventeenth-Century Genre Painting, Yale University Press, 2004, Wayne Franits explains about Gerrit Dou's Kitchenmaid with a Boy in a Window:

His depictions of pretty kitchenmaids in niches, such as the one illustrated here, must be understood within the larger context of contemporary biases against female domestics. In farces and jest books, maids humorously and stereotypically embody a plethora of vices, chiefly sloth and lust. [....] Note that Dou's kitchenmaid has rolled-up sleeves and that her blouse is untied thereby providing a casual glimpse of her cleavage. [....] Dou's comely lass is surrounded by various foodstuffs and creatures, many of which seventeenth-century viewers would have recognized as crude metaphors for fornication, genitalia, and so forth. And below the ledge Dou has depicted a calligraphic relief of Venus and putti: as Eric Jan Sluijter has pointed out, wanton women were given nicknames during this period such as "Venus wench," "Venus animal," or "Venus moppet." In sum, genre paintings of sexy maids and the texts they mirror, entertained their audiences by appealing to popular prejudices largely divorced from the social realities of actual mistress-servant relationships in the Dutch Republic.(p.p. 118-9)

Adriaen Brouwer painted smokers, drinkers, and the poor people, and Adriaen van Ostade peasants, and then Jan Miense Molenaer freaks. Brouwer is, for me, like Charles Bukowski. And also those of the Utrecht Caravaggisti, such as Dirck van Baburen, Hendrick ter Brugghen, and Gerrit van Honthorst painted brothels. Prostitution existed, but was not tolerated in Dutch Republic, Wayne says. The Utrecht's elite buyers wanted their paintings as risqué art. You may not want to have a relationship with a young girl you've met at a seedy cafe who is the most beautiful in town, exotic, a cutter, and flirts with everyone, but you appreciate that fantasy (Bukowski, The Most Beautiful Woman in Town). That those painters painted raw life and the low class doesn't mean they were sympathetic for, or familiar with such people. Rather, they were aliens for those painters and the buyers. Ostade's Peasant Family in a Cottage looks warm, sympathetic, and profound, but painting this, Ostade might have idealized the peasants' lives. What he painted was likely to be a moralistic idea. Franits says:

Rather, by 1650, notions of civility were becoming so well entrenched that certain patrons sought to demonstrate superlative taste and, consequently, good depictions of less raucuous subjects such as peasants acting responsibly and sedately within domestic settings. By comparison, older paintings of boisterous peasants, where the frenzied action often occurs in barn-like hovels, must have struck some buyers as brutish and tasteless. (p. 138)
"Class was the deepest mystery: the inexhaustible glamour of the rich and powerful, the opaque degradation of the poor and outcast," says Susan Sontag in her On Photography (p. 54):
Poverty is no more surreal than wealth; a body clad in filthy rags is not more surreal than a principessa dressed for a ball or a pristine nude. What is surreal is the distance imposed, and bridged, by the photograph: the social distance and the distance in time. Seen from the middle-class perspective of photography, celebrities are as intriguing as pariahs. Photographers need not have an ironic, intelligent attitude toward their stereotyped material. Pious, respectful fascination may do just as well, especially with the most conventional subjects.(p. 58)

But Sontag appears as if she says about the genre paintings. The difference between photography and those paintings is that photography usually needs models. A photograph comes across as "the very emanation of a body, as a skin detached from its surface (Jacques Rancière)." And also, photography usually uses the device(camera)'s eye, which means that things are often inadvertently captured. And that's why Roland Barthes could play the game of pointing out the punctum. I think it is difficult to do so with the paintings (Barthes avoids picturesque photographs). On the other hand, the painters paint ideas. Even when, say, Molenaer presents his picture as a depiction of his studio, he hasn't staged his models the way he has depicted. It is rather about a painter's fantasy and creativity. And the paradox is that photography, passing off itself as the emanation of a body, also is simultaneously being about ideas. Often how this idea emerges is ambiguous like Vermeer's paintings. So those documentary photographies are not always simply the emanation of the social realities.

The nature of photography is the pose, says Barthes, "by attesting that the object has been real, the photograph surreptitiously induces belief that it is alive, because of that delusion which makes us attribute to Reality an absolutely superior, somehow eternal value; but by shifting this reality to the past ("this-has-been"), the photograph suggests that it is already dead. (Camera Lucida, p. 79)" The people in a family photo are shadowed by the death. This man in the picture would have been dead: it is well-known Barthes has said that "the punctum of Alexander Gardner's photo of Lewis Payne who was awaiting to be hanged "he is going to die." In such a time, I feel that this photograph may work simultaneously in two ways in between the viewer and the image: as the fact of "this man would be dead" and the idea of "this man would be dead." And it is possible for painting to send the same idea to the viewer even when the painting is not a portrait. Caspar Netscher's Two Boys Blowing Bubbles shows that the idealized beautiful children (almost like the Pre-Raphaelite) are blowing bubbles in a window and one of them is staring at a bubble in the air: the nature of this painting is the pose. Franits explains:

The motif of bubble blowing in Dutch art is traditionally associated with the Latin expression, "Homo Bulla" (Man is Like a Bubble). This refers to the ephemerality of human existence: like a soap bubble which quickly bursts, life is fleeting. The connection between children blowing bubbles and life's brevity is explicitly made, for example, in a late sixteenth-century engraving by Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617) with the inscription "Quis Evadet" (Who Escapes It; fig. 100). On the level Netscher's painting is certainly informed by this tradition, but on another level, at least for knowledgable cognoscenti, it subverts it. Real bubbles are completely evanescent but bubbles depicted in paintings are permanently fixed to the canvas or panel, forever immutable. Seventeenth-century Dutch art theorists stressed the capacity of painting to immortalize all that is transient in nature, thereby bestowing fame upon the artist and imputing value to his work.

Franits may be correct. I don't know. But, I feel somehow he rationalizes too much: his reading of the painting is too utilitarian. I don't care if Netscher wished his eternal fame. For me, on the one hand there is codified message: "Life is too short." And on the other hand, there is the pose. And additionally, though I may tend to forget this, I somehow imagine that: these children are dead. This painting affects me the similar way the freeze-frame that closes Truffaut's Quatre cent coups does.

By all this, however, I don't mean "The 17th-century Dutch paintings are great because they foresaw today's images." The order is reverse. As Marx put it that "Human anatomy contains a key to the anatomy of the ape," in examining today's images we can examine the images of the 17th century Netherlands.

No comments:

Post a Comment