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
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Kitchen set: Yvette Fielding, Patricia Potter, Chesney Hawkes, Sarah Harding and Sheree Murphy
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans has been confirmed as the new host of Top Gear
TV
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.

    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
    Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

    No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

    Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
    Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

    Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

    The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
    Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

    Something wicked?

    Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
    10 best sun creams for body

    10 best sun creams for body

    Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

    Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
    Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

    There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

    The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map