Why Are We Celebrating Dutch Imperialism in 2024?

ATLANTA — Does adding a one-line disclaimer to the end of a wall text do enough to offset images that glorify violence and exploitation? No. 

Organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Dutch Art in a Global Age is a massive survey of Netherlandish art from the mid-to-late 1600s centered on the formation and expansion of the Dutch East India Company. The first multinational private company, it amassed huge profits by importing and exporting products from Asia and Africa, as well as transporting as many as 1,135,000 enslaved people. This exhibition marks the founding of this company as the beginning of globalism, but relishes in the opulence of the objects it produced while only lightly and disingenuously acknowledging the destruction it wrought on unpictured shores. 

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Each room is dedicated to a different subject within the artworks that covertly flouts the rich influence of the Dutch East India Company: still lives, ports and seafaring, markets and trading, religion, landscapes, and quotidian life in the Netherlands. Within each room, a didactic text introduces the subject matter, describing the newly imported goods and nearly always ending with a short sentence alluding to the violence, extraction, and exploitation that made such expansion possible. However, the exploration of the nefarious side of globalism begins and ends with these one-sentence allusions.  

The exhibition begins, for instance, with a room dedicated to still lives. Marigolds, tobacco, sugar cane, and Chinese porcelain overflow tabletops in paintings by Rachel Ruysch, Willem Claeszoon Heda, Jan Daviszoon de Heem, and more. A luminous and delicate visual feast, the mix of goods both local and international signifies the competitive worldliness of wealthy individuals seeking items from increasingly disparate and faraway places to serve as status symbols.

This fetishization of exoticism includes people, a practice seen clearly in “The Young Archer” by Jan de Visscher. The engraving is categorized as a “tronie,” or a character study, and depicts a young Black sitter as a rural hunter. Part of the work is an inscription below the image that labels the subject “the Moor.” The accompanying curatorial text explains that this was “a term Europeans used to stereotype Muslims of North African descent in what is now Spain” that would go on to become a “common description of Africans or those of African descent.” Yet, the curatorial text writes off both the publisher and the artist’s clear intentions of depicting this figure negatively, justifying the work’s inclusion in the show by granting the work of art an agency likely not afforded to its subject via an interpretive sleight of hand: “The image resists this [stereotype], though, preserving the subject’s presence and likeness in a way that goes beyond the artist’s original intentions.” 

Without more robustly emphasizing the injurious processes that led to these sumptuous paintings, these one-liners in the works’ accompanying text feel like a vague and failed attempt to hedge against any potential criticism. In practice, the exhibition glorifies the actions of Dutch colonialism by glorifying its objects. In the room dedicated to seafaring and ports, a catalog is conveniently placed on a glass coffee table between two full-sized white leather sofas, encouraging visitors to luxuriate in the presence of the assembled Dutch masterpieces, imagining themselves as one of the lounging aristocrats seen throughout the show. 

In whole, this exhibition fails to seize an opportunity to reshape oppressive historical narratives and instead reinforces complacency. As it continues its multi-city tour beginning in Boston, it is important to remember: Not all that glitters is gold, and the human cost of luxuries cannot be written off by lip service alone — and half-hearted lip service at that.

Dutch Art in a Global Age: Masterpieces from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston continues at the High Museum of Art (1280 Peachtree Road Northeast, Atlanta, Georgia) until July 14. The exhibition was organized by Anna C. Knaap, assistant curator of paintings; Frederick Ilchman, curator of paintings and chair of art of Europe; and other colleagues at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Source: Hyperallergic.com

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