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)

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor