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
Tuesday 29 June 1999
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)
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