After Iconography and Iconoclasm: Current Research in Netherlandish Art, 1566-1700

By Westermann, Mariet | The Art Bulletin, June 2002 | Go to article overview
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After Iconography and Iconoclasm: Current Research in Netherlandish Art, 1566-1700


Westermann, Mariet, The Art Bulletin


Like so many fields of art history, the study of seventeenthcentury Netherlandish art was energized two decades ago by a new awareness that business as usual-Berensonian connoisseurship, Wolfflinian history of style, Panofskian iconography-would no longer do. With hindsight, it is obvious that these three founding investigative modes of our discipline were bound to lose some efficacy in the historical moment when all structures of analysis that mask their Western, middle-class origins with essentialist claims about their objects of study and with universalizing assumptions about their methods had become suspect. It was inevitable that the explicit identity politics of the 1970s would affect the study of human artifacts in the broadest sense. Consciousness of the constructed nature of class, race, nationality, and gender eventually reshaped Netherlandish art history, but the field has been retooled more slowly and less fully than, say, studies of nineteenth-century painting or modern photography.

That this delay has had little to do with the greater historical distance of early modern art from the analytic disciplines that conditioned the new art history (literary criticism, semiotics, psychoanalysis, neo-Marxism, cultural anthropology) is clear from the thoroughgoing introduction of those modes of thinking and writing into medieval art history and other areas at a farther temporal remove.1 In good measure, the belatedness of serious engagement in Netherlandish art studies with social "context" in its various senses or with the close reading of works pioneered in literary criticism resulted from institutional constraints, particularly in the Netherlands and Belgium, where the major collections and archives are preserved and where almost any study of Netherlandish art must have its starting point. An assessment of the current state of the history of early modern Netherlandish art necessitates a prefatory look at the institutional and scholarly situation of the 1970s and 1980s, whose outlines Egbert Haverkamp-- Begemann charted lucidly in an essay for this journal in 1987.2

Authority and Meaning in Dutch Art: The 1970s and 1980s

In Netherlandish art history of the 1970s and 1980s, methodologically diverse attacks on the old art historical regime were levied at two primary targets: a connoisseurship narrowly concerned with the establishment of verifiable catalogues raisonnes for individual artists and an iconography that located the contextual meaning of paintings underneath or beyond their realist surfaces, often imputing moralizing intention to the works. These issues were debated around or against two landmark enterprises: the Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings being defined by the Rembrandt Research Project and the interpretation of schijnrealisme (apparent realism) in genre and still-life painting by Eddy de Jongh and numerous scholars indebted to his work. Although the historiography of early modern art in the southern Netherlands did not experience such heated challenges, it, too, underwent critical revisions in this period, discussed in the next section.

In the 1980s the Rembrandt Research Project, founded during the Rembrandt tricentennial celebrations of 1969, became the most public of art historical endeavors. Its stated goal was to determine once and for all what the master painted and which pictures should be relegated to students, followers, and modern pasticheurs. The publication of its first three volumes (in 1982, 1984, and 1989) occasioned heated discussions about its methods and, in the press, about its power to make or break the value of paintings confirmed or rejected as Rembrandts.3 Almost immediately, the methodological discussion in professional journals and conferences became narrowly focused on the project's system. Could its five Dutch members be trusted to come up with a more compelling consensus than connoisseurs working singly? Why did they initially not publish any, and later only few, color photographs?

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