The vision of perfection

An exhibition of still-lifes in Amsterdam offers a rare chance to take guiltless pleasure in the material world. By Gilbert Adair

Perfection, paradoxically, is a minor quality. The supre-mely great artists - the Beethovens, the Shakespeares, the Prousts - were too overarchingly ambitious, too awe-inspiring, just too damn big, to be contained by any conventional criteria of aesthetic perfection.

Or consider, more specifically, the history of art. Who, confronted with a Cezanne, a Rembrandt or a Picasso, would regard it as an adequate response to sigh: "Isn't it perfect!" These artists were visionaries - they were better than perfect. Similarly, calling the Sistine Chapel ceiling "perfect" would be like damning it with faint praise. We tend to keep the adjective for those great but nevertheless inferior artists who elected to work on - figuratively, if not always literally - smaller canvases.

I'm thinking of such fastidious masters as Corot, Balthus and Klee, whose works inspire coolly reasoned admiration rather than eyeball-distending awe. Only Vermeer, the greatest of all, miraculously contrived to marry the describable with the ineffably indescribable, the finickily bejewelled with the transcendent.

Currently, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is hosting a major exhibition of "Still-Life Paintings from the Netherlands 1550-1720". Co-curated with the Cleveland Museum of Art and boosted by loans from private collections and such off-the-beaten-track galleries as the Museum of Art in Raleigh, North Carolina, it's the most comprehensive collection of Dutch still- lifes ever assembled in one venue. It's equally what I'd describe as a perfect exhibition - not just because it's exactly the right size for a visitor's physical and spiritual comfort (there are around 70 works on display) but also because most of the paintings are both superb and, at least from the very loftiest of overviews, minor.

Of extremely diverse inspiration, yet all curiously similar, these still- lifes exhaust the range of subject-matter we've come to associate with the genre: vases of flowers; sumptuously laid tables of fruit, vegetables, walnuts, oysters, and dry, parchment-thin wafers; cascades of meat, fish and freshly slaughtered game; monkishly minimalist goblets of red wine; or else, if the artist happened to be of a more metaphysical frame of mind, such instantly legible mementoes of life's fragility and ephemerality as a skull, an hourglass, a bust and a butterfly.

And they're nearly all paintings by artists whose names are no longer widely conjurable. Who, outside of specialists in the field, has heard of Osias Beert or Ambrosius Bosschaert or Johannes Torrentius? Hence the show might also be thought minor because it contains few works by recognised masters.

Yet, in this particular instance, it scarcely matters. The appeal of the classic Dutch still-life depends little on the reputation of the artist. I used the term "subject-matter": maybe I ought to have referred to "object- matter". Even with those paintings whose iconography is intended to carry a symbolic charge (in my view, the least effective), what one is aware above all of the textural materiality of the content. Only rarely is one tempted to glance at the adjacent plaque to discover the artist's identity - which I offer as a compliment to the thematic fascination of the works, not as a criticism of their stylistic anonymity.

To employ an incongruous word for paintings that are so anchored in the real, the preternatural "thereness" of this object-matter has an almost hallucinatory quality, as though it were truer to life than to paint: a slab of cheese by Floris van Dijck; a frosted beaker of foaming beer by Pieter van Anraadt; a bunch of pinkishly transparent gooseberries by Adriaen Coorte; a brioche by Pieter Claesz that isn't just a brioche but is the Platonic archetype of all brioches from the dawn of time; a plateful of oysters, as priceless as pearls, by Osias Beert; and by Willem Kalf - who was, for me, the revelation of the whole show, an artist with something of Vermeer's genius for alchemically transfiguring whatever his brush has touched - a broiled lobster as splendid as the crown jewels in its glamorous crimson carapace, and a glistening open-plan lemon with a twisty, corkscrewy rind looking precisely as you'd imagine a peeled emerald might look.

As I say, you've probably never encountered the names of any of these artists, yet the exhibition is irresistible. Why? The overall high quality apart, I would propose two reasons. There is, first of all, the fact that one can study for a good long time, and derive real pleasure from, the sheer iconographical luxuriance of a mediocre or even frankly feeble figurative painting; whereas, when an abstract or near- abstract daub is bad, then it's completely without interest or distinction and you wouldn't want to spend 30 seconds in front of it. Even the weaker pictures of the Rijksmuseum exhibition (there are a few) arrest the attention if only because of the painterly panache of a single detail. "Get a load of that onion!" one says to oneself. Or: "You could almost pick up that walnut!"

This, for me, is their main difference from the ascetically beautiful and arguably superior Spanish school of still-lifes, of which a recent retrospective was held at the Royal Academy. So manifest in that exhibition was the school's morality, its ethic of purity and abstinence, that an arresting detail remained a detail of style rather than of substance. In Amsterdam - and, I have to say, what an enormous relief it is - one is allowed to simply and guiltlessly luxuriate in the good things of life, one of which is the work of art itself.

The second reason, umbilically related to the first, is that the show represents the revenge of subject- matter over the ever-encroaching tyranny of the signature. For connoisseurs, naturally, the identity of each of the various artists is a crucial factor in their comprehension of his work. For a well-informed but non-specialist visitor, on the other hand, the pleasure is one of pure, uncomplicated gratification in the craft of painting, a pleasure rendered virtually obsolete in the feverishly hyped atmosphere of the contemporary art world.

With an Andy Warhol, for example, the "signature", the supposedly inimitable but in fact easily imitated "touch", is instantly identifiable, which is its primary and sometimes sole merit. In the case of a Kalf, a Claesz or a Beert, by contrast - all of them, as far as I'm concerned, indisputably finer artists than Warhol, even if I'd never heard of any of them before I entered the Rijksmuseum - it is, rather, what they paint that is instantly identifiable. Their work genuinely is a window on the world. They are what might be called the plagiarists of God.

`Still-Life Paintings from the Netherlands 1550-1720', Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Open daily, 10-7. Until 19 Sept. Information (in English): 0031 20 6747 047 (24 hrs)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone