Magazine article Artforum International

Pious Reflections: Joseph Leo Koerner on "Dutch Primitives"

Magazine article Artforum International

Pious Reflections: Joseph Leo Koerner on "Dutch Primitives"

Article excerpt

IN THE EARLY 1400s, painters in the Low Countries created a new species of image. With wood panels as their favored support, and handling their medium of oil-based pigments in unprecedented ways, they crafted glazed and layered likenesses the only real-world equivalents of which--optically--were natural reflections. Boasting this by including mirrors in their compositions, these artists astonished everyone who saw their work, including the Italians, who, at the time, recognized the technical superiority of the northerners. This new image technology did more than overwhelm with its mimetic power, however. Constructing virtual realities consistent with the perceived world, it allowed viewers to explore worlds hitherto inaccessible to experience.

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In this culture, painting stood at the service of religion. The virtualities it proposed were mostly those allowing visual access to the divine. Heaven was made a splendid annex of the painting's physical surrounds, while the mundane world itself became the site--once more--of the incarnated God. The convergence of Christian humility with "naturalistic" oil paint techniques will be one of the fascinating complexes on exhibit at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, from February 16 through May 25. Although none of the artists featured are household names (many remain anonymous), they count among the most moving and challenging of European masters.

"Dutch Primitives: Paintings from the Late Middle Ages" (organized by the Boijmans in cooperation with the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam) surveys the "infancy of Dutch painting." "Primitive" is an old label for fifteenth-century Netherlandish painting. It goes back to the Romantics, who, in the wake of Napoleonic secularization, discerned in the aesthetically discredited art of the Middle Ages a new beauty ideal, one that seemed original, autochthonous, and pure compared with the classicism of academic tastes. An early ancestor of modernist celebrations of the primitive, the Romantic rediscovery of Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, and Hans Memling colors contemporary attitudes toward Netherlandish art. Whereas Italian art of the period is termed "Renaissance" and faces forward, northern art--which the Italians themselves recognized as vanguard--is deemed a "late" flowering of the Middle Ages.

The idea of a distinctively "Dutch" strain is vexing, too. In the fifteenth century, the Low Countries--Europe's richest and most urbanized region--were a patchwork of polities mostly ruled from afar, by the dukes of Burgundy. Though overshadowed by Flanders and Brabant, the county of Holland produced important painters (Jan van Eyck's early career began here). But the impulse to distinguish a Dutch tradition started much later, after the division in 1579 of the Low Countries into a Catholic south and a Protestant north (roughly today's Belgium and the Netherlands, respectively). It began with the first historian of northern art, Karel van Mander, who--around 1600--took his hometown of Haarlem to be an artistic cradle. And the impulse resurfaced in scholarship and in exhibitions of the 1930s, infused with fantasies about ethnic character. Though showcasing--straightforwardly--paintings made in the northern Netherlands, the upcoming Rotterdam exhibition will reopen questions about whether "Dutch" was an artistic identity prior to the division of the Low Countries. …

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