In the series of unlikely summer holiday meditations : the material world at the mercy of human care & destruction
For a supposedly impractical and rather cerebral person, I have an inexplicable passion for the materiality of matter, and for its tactile and visual qualities in particular: the sheer sensual surface fabric of materials, their dullness or gleam, their transparency or reflectivity ....
Think of the differing materiality of stone, copper, wood, iron, steel, tin, glass, cloth, velvet ... or of fruit and leaves – yes, pretty much all of the world’s materials can count on my fond attentiveness (only Plastic is emphatically excluded).
As a species, humans have of course been great manipulators of matter – eternally vacillating between two urges: the careful crafting & conserving of materials throughout the ages versus their wanton destruction in recurring fits of rage.
16th and 17th century stained glass windows making it into the 21st Century
In the cathedral shop (1) I found a brochure with precise information on the stained glass windows and was happy to learn from its colophon that there is even a scientific committee taking care of such patrimonial matters (a committee also organizing colloquiums with alluring titles such as ‘Corpus Vitrearum’). It pleased me, too, that the old man tending the shop carefully wrapped my little brochure in a paper bag, meticulously folding the bag and then sealing it with tape.
At home I read about the (amazingly limited) destruction these windows had gone through in the past : they had suffered from an explosion of a dynamite factory nearby and obviously from the struggles between Catholics and Calvinists. But mostly, these windows had been lucky enough to find many thoughtful caretakers throughout the ages – from respectful restorers and cleaners to the otherwise unknown “Ladon-company, who at the beginning of World War II took out the stained glass windows and stored them in the vaults of the National Bank” .
The polished gleam of craft and knowledge – Teyler’s museum in Haarlem.
Teyler museum in Haarlem is therefore unique – open to the public since 1784 it even now still breathes the spirit of the Enlightenment’s passionate amateurs with their wide ranging interests. As its website rightly boasts : “A visit to Teyler’s Museum is like a voyage through time. A stroll through the museum takes you from fossils and minerals to prints and drawings and paintings, from scientific instruments to coins and medals . [...] It is the only place in the world where such a collection is still on display in its original surroundings!”
The rooms, the show cases, the instruments themselves - they dazzle by the sheer shine and polish of their marble, wood, glass ,copper..... They impress as witnesses of patient craft and still convey the excitement of insatiable curiosity and first-time discoveries . And it all looks so eminently tangible, so within one’s grasp: why yes, one could oneself do that experiment with the phonautograph : sound makes the tout membrane vibrate and then the stylus ticks into the recording cylinder. Or that giant electrostatic generator linked to the Leyden jars, yes one could oneself make the glass plates rotate, inducing friction and thus ‘discover’ electricity!
Alas, later, any budding hubris about one’s innate grasp of , say, the principles of electricity quickly vanishes when perusing a high school physics book and struggling even with the introductory chapters ...
« Pas de science sans diligence » : the material world represented at the Frans Hals museum in Haarlem
A motto which may sound like a curse for the amateur with wide ranging appetites but limited brainpower: never will the amateur have applied enough diligence to any single subject! Never will he (or she) attain true science and mastery! ( for a further development of this melancholy aside from a vainly fluttering- around flâneur – please see note 2).
In the Holland of the 17th Century, and in Haarlem in particular, extreme specialisation in art genres flourished with artists steadfastly concentrating on a single subject and developing astonishing skill in the “craft of representation”. “With a sincere hand and a faithful eye” they rendered still lifes, seascapes, cloudscapes, architectonic interiors, ...
As Svetlana Alpers persuasively argues (3), Italian high art is mostly a narrative one: its paintings stage humans performing significant actions that are related to prior hallowed texts (from the ancients, from the bible) . The Dutch, however, perfected “the art of describing” , an art in which rendering the impressions of the seeing eye takes precedence on the narrative invention – an art of describing the Flemish had started to develop.(3)
Luckily, for a lover of the visual seductiveness of materials, the collection of the Frans Hals museum is not limited to the jolly portraitist Frans Hals, but also shows some prime specimens of Dutch still life and landscape paintings. In the museum’s quiet rooms one can become enchanted by the play of silvery flecks on leaves as captured by the young Jacob van Ruysdael (“Boslandschap met waterplas”), one can find oneself engrossed in the contemplation of bread crumbs, of the luminous reflections in a glass jar in the still lifes by Pieter Claesz or Willem Claesz Heda.
For all its lack of drama, this ‘descriptive art’ is yet an art that moves deeply - beyond admiration for the advanced praxis of painting, beyond the indisputable virtuosity of skill. And surely, its present impact is not derived either from its emblematic content: simple moral messages (bland reminders of vanity, admonishments against wastefulness) or symbols of bourgeois wealth.
So, could it be that the enduring significance of these paintings lays purely in their celebration of visual attentiveness, in their poetics of careful, disinterested observation of the material world around us?
Destruction and its scattered material fragments
But then, war has never been far off in European history – the Dutch 17th C flourishing followed destructive religious wars in the low countries. And many of the artisans and artists who contributed to the Dutch Golden century were in fact Flemish refugees fleeing troubles and persecution at home. As to the peaceful and artistic town of Haarlem, in 1572-1573 it had to endure a gruelling 7-months siege from the Spanish troops, during which no less than 10.402 cannon balls were fired over the city walls (so chronicles tell).
Can military shell statistics measure the depth of horror? The Vaux-fort, near Verdun, was hit by 8.000 shells a day during its siege. And on nothing but the first day of the Verdun offensive, the Germans fired 1.000.000,- shells along the battle lines.
Walking today around the Verdun battlefields, one may get fooled by the apparent peacefulness of the woods. But looking closer you see craters and craters everywhere. And pieces of rubble and rusty, twisted steel. Photos taken during and after the war show a barren moon landscape with craters, a terrain strewn with fragments of dead bodies (humans, horses) and of military materials, also some blackened tree trunks. Entire villages have been simply erased . The land has been re-wooded after the war because the many unexploded shells still laying about made it unfit for culture.
Even today, shells are still routinely found by forest workers ( and indeed, during a leisurely tourist walk in an innocent wood, we noticed a stray rusty shell laying nonchalantly near tractor wheel tracks where forest workers had been busy).
The local war memorial is morbidly called an “ossuary” – a fitting term for the remaining human fragments, one realises, also when seeing after- war photos of the huge heaps of bones that had been collected from the bombed out battlefields. All in all around 10 million people would have died in WWI, history books say. After which an even more deadly 2nd World War followed. Immer wieder.
Does history teach thoughtfulness?
In case you’d ask, I must admit that I in fact don’t know why one would go and take stock of these past horrors when there are already so many contemporary horrors vying for our powerless attention. Syria, for instance, with its mounting toll of destruction & death, its bombed out cities, its poison gas attacks.
Unless knowing the history of past horrors would teach us once and for all the value of peace, the value of care and of thought-fullness? Well, I don’t know – the kids running around those Verdun memorials were mostly excited by the historical guns on display and by the reconstructed trenches where they could play soldiers – “bang bang” they shouted joyously.
Does analysing the causes and the course of the 1st World War help us to avoid the repetition of atrocities , to prevent outbreaks of war? (4) Or does a historical conscience merely leads to an ultimately pessimist conclusion – politics and dialogue can only go so far in reconciling opposite interests and in containing the lust for absolute power.
In the end, might is right, and the violent have their way, not the thoughtful.
But at least the thoughtful have the final notes
(1) what a strange word combination indeed – cathedral and shop. When hearing the cash register ring, one imagines Christ chasing the money lenders out of the temple. In small country-churches, whose architectonic interest attracts more tourists than faithful, one can observe the rather touching habit to put at the disposal of visitors some (unprotected) postcards or leaflets. They are only accompanied by a sign to 'take as needed' and an appeal to deposit a suitable amount of money in the parochial offertory-box.
(2) Ah, the melancholy renunciation of universality because it is specialisation that yields tangible results and drives progress . Our capitalist successes are built on specialisation.. Max Weber brilliantly formulated it in his essay on “protestant ethics and the spirit of capitalism” : « se borner à un travail spécialisé, et par suite renoncer à l’universalité faustienne de l’homme, telle est la condition de toute activité fructueuse dans le monde moderne ; ainsi de nos jours, ‘action’ et ‘renoncement’ se conditionnent fatalement l’un et l’autre. »
Even in humanist quarters the renunciation of universalist dilettantism is hailed: the 19th C aesthete Walter Pater, in his essay on the 18the century forerunner of art history, Joachim Winckelmann, judged that it were specialisation and single-mindedness of purpose that were the conditions of Winckelmann’s success – in his typical19th century highfalutin language he writes: “But often the higher life is only possible at all, on condition of the selection of that in which one’s motive is native and strong; and this selection involves the renunciation of a crown reserved for others” .
(for the economists amongst us: this passage echoes the Ricardian notion of comparative advantage Ricardian notion of comparative advantage (a nation should only do that at which it is 'most best' – even relinquishing those activities at which it is better than others, but to a lesser degree. Specialisation and exploitation of comparative advantage between nations, coupled with trade, are supposed to drive global economic prosperity)
(3) Svetlana Alpers, a startlingly imaginative art historian specialised in the Low countries, substantiates brilliant intuitions with painstaking erudition. Her "The Art of Describing" offers illuminating insights in the profound difference between the Dutch and the Italian artistic ways. She convincingly grounds the Dutch “art of describing” in a culture of experiment and observation , a culture of praxis and of craft which contrasts then with the humanist-narrative culture prevailing in Italy.
Italian paintings show us ideal human figures who are performing significant actions as if on a stage, the whole structured and proportioned according to an a priori design (disegno). The Dutch observe the world, they meticulously draw and paint “things after life, as they appear” and their paintings offer images as if directly projected on the retina, as if without a prior viewer who stages and composes a mental image.
By way of explanatory context for the peculiarity of Dutch art , Svetlana reconstructs a Dutch 17th C culture obsessed with optical experiments, lenses and microscopes, a culture which views pictures as actual worldly descriptions and not as representations of hallowed knowledge (there’s the word in the Bible for that). Alper’s “descriptive mode” need not be in contradiction with the supposed symbolism of 17th century art (sometimes called “schijnrealisme” because it would be full of moral symbols and admonishments ; just as Panofsky called early Netherlandish art “disguised symbolism” because so many painted details had a symbolic, religious meaning). These moral messages may very well be there, but they are not what really distinguishes Dutch art – the moral meanings are but simple, bland messages that are in no proportion to the efforts spent on representing, they are no match for the dazzling skill displayed in rendering and evoking visual effects.
(4) The intricate play of military and economic interests, old resentments & lust for vengeance , the shady alliances between countries : it was a complex whole that led to the first world war, with the main actors starting something of which they could not foresee the horrific consequences.
The 21st C Syria-conflict is of course of a very different nature than that early 20th C war between nations - and yet, reading today’s analyses of the political, military, ideological and economic stakes of the different actors, there’s the uncanny feeling that there’s really not that much new under the sun.
And take that cover by The Economist (an ashen Assad against a background of poison gas victims in bodybags) – a piece of war-propaganda that morbidly recalls how the gruelling WWI Ypres poison gas attacks were used to sway US public opinion to enter the war.