It is with genuine pleasure that I write this post for you. The year in pandemic has been a very busy one for me, as I have been preparing an exhibition of a wonderful, largely unknown collection of 17th century paintings. Moreover, the possibility of creating a script based on my own idea, as well as preparing the catalog of this collection gave me a lot of satisfaction and joy, as well as made the months spent in pandemic isolation meaningful. It has also given me the opportunity to work with wonderful people who are co-authors of our collective success – the exhibition “Different Perspectives. Dutch and Flemish Painting from the ERGO Hestia Collection”.
IN PRAISE OF DIVERSITY
In February 2020, as a curator at the National Museum in Warsaw, I received an invitation to organize a show of paintings collected by the ERGO Hestia Insurance Company for over a decade. The collection immediately caught my attention, especially considering that I had never heard of its existence before. Its uniqueness is all the more evident as there is no other similar one in Poland. Polish corporations, in line with the global trend, tend to invest in contemporary art, produced locally. But ERGO Hestia has focused on European Old Masters. The “Different Perspectives” exhibition is the first (and probably only) opportunity to admire these extraordinary paintings and appreciate their value in comparison with the works from the collection of the National Museum in Warsaw.
Searching for a way to present these beautiful paintings, I decided to narrate the story around the development of 17th century Dutch painting in the context of Flemish art. The title “Different Perspectives” refers to the most important role of painting – the reflection of reality, shaped by the artist. No matter how realistic the composition seems, it is always based on the artist’s decision to show it in such a way. The title also explains the layout of the exhibition, divided into seven „perspectives” – sections, constructed in such a way as to make it possible to look at various aspects of this art. This reflection goes beyond the aesthetic aspect and allows for reflection of a historical, social or economic nature.
What is important, however, is that this division is in no way arbitrary. It is an invitation to make oneself connections between the paintings presented at the exhibition and to look at them from one’s own perspective. I see the great value of such “incomplete” but very personal perspectives. I am convinced that they allow us to see more than is offered by a single, coherent and predetermined narrative.
Here are my perspectives on the ERGO Hestia collection.
DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES: Rhythm of Nature
Since always the attention of artists was first directed to the nature that surrounded them. They depicted it as a nourisher, a provider of crops, or a protector, giving shelter on hot days. Winter was a time of fun in the frosty air. In each scene, the beauty of the landscape encouraged reflection on the infinite power of divine creation.
Landscape painting, as a separate genre of painting, developed through the work of the master from Antwerp, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. His large-format compositions depicted seasons of the year, which subordinated the activities of people, busy with seasonal work. Nature became in them a force that determines the cycle of human life.
The genre was developed by painters from the south of the Netherlands, and with the emigration of artists it also developed in the North. Winter views with figures sliding on frozen canals and ponds became particularly popular in Dutch painting.
DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES: Redescribing the Country
The Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648) was very important for the development of painting in the Netherlands. In the course of it, successive truces strengthened the hopes of the Dutch to gain independence in their fight against the Habsburg Empire. During this period the Dutch turned their attention to their homeland’s landscapes. They sought in them a reflection of their own identity as citizens of the same country.
It was in landscape painting that artists created a “portrait” of the new country. The free country is bustling with life. We see villages filled with everyday chores or festival fun. The vast lowland landscape is crisscrossed by roads and canals, where wanderers head for cities visible in the distance. We can identify them by the characteristic silhouettes of churches and other buildings on the horizon.
The adoption of Calvinism as the state religion was also a space of freedom. This meant, among other things, getting rid of religious paintings from churches. Temples became public buildings and testimonies of local heritage. This metamorphosis was portrayed by artists who specialized in the genre of so-called church interiors (kerkinterieurs).
DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES: Maritime Routes
The Northern Netherlands owed its prosperity to water. Numerous canals and rivers crisscrossed the country, facilitating communication and transportation of goods. The Dutch navy was also developing. Its tasks included defending the independence of the country as well as building the colonial empire. This found its reflection in the Dutch paintings of the 17th century.
The creator of this new, independent genre of seascape was Hendrik Vroom, a native of Haarlem. His successors developed various trends of marine landscapes, such as Jan Porcellis, who captured the richness of light effects and atmospheric phenomena in his paintings. Other painters focused on depicting the destructive power of storms. The subject of many works are ships at the mercy of the tempest. These compositions remind of the uncertainty of human life, exposed to the whims of fate. In the paintings of this period we can also see merchant deep-sea ships and warships often depicted in various battle scenes.
DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES: Looking towards Italy
Since the 16th century, Rome has been the undisputed capital of European art. Artists from all over Europe made pilgrimages here. They were inspired by both the art created at that time and the remains of ancient culture. The diversity of these influences was reflected in the works of Netherlandish artists.
The very road across the Alps towards Italy inspired artists from lowland lands with views of inaccessible mountain peaks. Joos de Momper the Younger, one of the most important Netherlandish landscape painters, was fond of incorporating such views into his compositions. However, not everyone could afford the expensive trip to the Apennine Peninsula. For those who did not move from their homeland, engravings reproducing paintings created in Rome, especially by Adam Elsheimer, provided a model. Some artists, fascinated by the sun of Italy, created their own fantasies about its landscape, even if they never got to see it.
The ancient tradition also provided inspiration. Roman sculpture and architecture, as well as literature and mythology were particularly inspiring. In many 17th-century compositions we can see manifestations of these interests, which were supposed to appeal to a humanistically educated viewer.
DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES: The Mirror of Values
The time of wars and religious disputes encouraged reflections on the values important in the life of every human being. They originated in biblical stories, lives of saints as well as abstract concepts such as “love” or “war”. These values were defined in the language of art by artists who painted allegorical pictures. They were keen to portray ancient deities as personifications of certain concepts or attitudes. It required from the viewer the knowledge of many literary and historical references as well as a fondness for deciphering riddles. This entertainment was reserved rather for well-educated viewers.
Also paintings which were more accessible to the viewer were created, which contained instructions for God-fearing Christians who wished to obtain salvation. A special place in them was occupied by the figure of St. Anthony, who resisted the sinful temptations brought to him by demons. Moral lessons were also sought in biblical stories, such as the construction of the tower of Babel. The story was understood as a challenge against God, born of human pride, which ended in human defeat. Allegorical images were popular in both the Catholic South Netherlands and the Protestant Netherlands.
DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES: Accumulation
Displaying the accumulation of many objects in a painting was a way of building the composition of Dutch paintings. Artists used this tool to emphasize the meaning of their works. Bouquets of flowers in glass vases were reminders of the beauty and diversity of nature. The lavishly set tables brought stories of wealth and deep-sea voyages of the Dutch. The combination of collector’s items allowed to better understand the character of their owner.
However, these accumulations often concealed a riddle. They were a puzzle, an intellectual game with the viewer. This artistic procedure was directly connected with the moralistic spirit of the period and the popularity of emblems – representations of concepts and ideas in the form of arrangements of items. The bouquets depicted flowers that bloomed at different times, so it would be impossible to combine them in nature. Food was presented after consumption. On the glass surfaces there were miniature reflections that had to be noticed. The cluttered kitchen objects delighted the viewer with the richness of color and painterly skill in rendering their textures. Deciphering the meaning of these compositions depended not only on the artist’s intentions. The perceptiveness of the viewer was also of great importance. It was the viewer who had to decide what to direct his gaze towards and what content he would find.
DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES: Light and Shade
One of the hallmarks of 17th century painting is the use of dynamic play of light and shadow. This artistic procedure is called “tenebrism” (from the Italian tenebre – darkness) or “caravaggionism”. The second term comes from the works of Roman painter – Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. It was his oeuvre that served as a model for subsequent generations of artists in the South and North of the Netherlands. Artists from the South used the interplay of light and shadow to give monumentalism to the composition. The harsh light brought (often) naked, muscular bodies out of the darkness, introduced expressive drama and dynamized the scene. This effect can be seen in the painting by Jodocus van Hamme.
Painters from the circle of Rembrandt were also indirectly inspired by the works of Caravaggio. They paid much attention to the depiction of the model’s complex personality. Using strong light, the artists drew their characters out of the darkness in order to deepen the psychological characteristics of the figures and build an intimate atmosphere of the scenes they depicted. Thanks to that, when we stand in front of paintings such as “Ishmael” by Barent Fabritius, we have the impression of contact with a real person. That is the reason we have chosen this painting both to greet the viewer to the exhibition, and to close with.
While the exhibition lasts, I invite you to visit it at the National Museum in Warsaw. I hope that you will enjoy these beautiful and unusual paintings as much as I do.