Book Reviews -- Dawn of the Golden Age: Northern Netherlandish Art, 1580-1620 Edited by Ger Luijten and Adriane Van Suchtelen

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Dawn of the Golden Age: Northern Netherlandish Art, 1580-1620

Exh. cat. Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum with Waanders Publishing, Zwolle, 1993. Distr. Yale University Press, New Haven. 718 pp.; 100 color ills., 1,080 b/w. $90.00

The era of the large exhibition as an eye-opener to an exciting, hitherto unexplored domain of art seems to have ended in Holland. The recent shows of Vincent van Gogh (1990) and Rembrandt (1991-92) attracted huge crowds that included the most fastidious connoisseurs. At the time of writing, the same is expected for the Mondriaan show (1994-95). Such exhibitions, though useful, are the opposite of daring exploits. And had the artist's gender not made them politically correct, the handful of preserved paintings of uneven quality by Judith Leyster would certainly not have inspired their pretentious exhibition and voluminous catalogue (Haarlem, 1993).

Viewed in that context, "Dawn of the Golden Age: Northern Netherlandish Art, 1580-1620," held at Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum in 1993-94, was a unique and heroic enterprise. This time the organizers did not, as with the Rembrandt, Leyster, and Mondriaan shows, "go Dutch" with one or more museums abroad. All by themselves they succeeded in mounting what may well have been the most copious exhibition ever held in the country. Paintings by artists much less familiar, yet here often as good as Rembrandt, van Gogh, or Mondriaan, abounded. Most conspicuous by their vast size and instant impact were the many history paintings, such as Abraham Bloemaert's visionary 7-by-8-feet Death of Niobe's Children (cat. 31). Landscapes ranged from Esaias van de Velde's Landscape with Gallows (cat. 339), whose "naturalism" would not be equaled until the 19th century, to the most "deformed" scenery prior to modern art, by the maverick Hercules Segers.

These and many other kinds of painting were interspersed with sections on drawings and prints, where the Grandvillean grotesqueries by the obscure Arent van Bolten were the big surprise (cat. 65-69). Equal space and attention were devoted to splendid displays masterpieces of sculpture, silver, furniture, and tapestries, with the best of the best in the fields of tiles, gloves, saddles, and armor adding to the luster and variety.

The show was presented as a treasure house, cleverly designed by Wim Crouwel, and was very successful with the public. The diversity was such, however, that the general effect was bewildering, even (or mainly?) for the specialist. The truly handsome 718-page English-language catalogue is a gold mine of valuable information. Yet none of its interesting introductory essays, nor any of its 347 entries addresses the basic questions: What was the subject of the show? What were the criteria for the selection of artists and objects How are we supposed to make head or tail of the kaleidosopic variety offered as the present views of the country's main museum about the "Dawn of" its "Golden Age"?

The only clue to go on--the exhibition's subtitle "Northern Netherlandish Art, 1580-1620"--was nowhere explained. The sole way of searching for the recipe of this pudding was to eat it. We found Bloemaert's Niobe embedded in a group of even larger paintings by Cornelis van Haarlem, displaying similar contorted life-size figures. The catalogue informs us that both artists borrowed the twisted postures of their figures from the inventor and undisputed champion in this elegant "Mannerist" style: Bartholomeus Spranger. Cornelis tried again, Bloemaert much more successfully, to emulate Spranger. Why then was the productive painter Spranger himself represented with only one drawing, in poor condition at that?

Spranger was born in Antwerp, stayed for a time in Italy, and subsequently made his masterpieces at the court in Prague. Bloemaert came from Gorinchem and lived mainly in Utrecht. Cornelis lived and worked in Haarlem. Viewed from today's perspective, the latter two were "Dutch," while Spranger was a "Belgian. …