On ViewKunstmuseum Basel
October 31, 2020 – February 14, 2021
On ViewMuseum Barberini
March 13 – June 27, 2021
Rembrandt was not a traveler. He never left his native Holland. But because that country became, during his lifetime, a global power, with Amsterdam the leading European trade center, a great deal of non-Western art and artifacts passed through its prosperous marketplaces. Thanks to adventuresome traders, Holland was a culture of abundance. And so, you find depicted in Dutch artworks fans, Japanese and Chinese lacquerware, parrots and other exotic animals and plants, Persian carpets, spices, and walking sticks.
Presented in nine galleries on the second floor of the new wing of the Kunstmuseum Basel, this large display encompasses 120 works, including paintings and works on paper by Rembrandt, and also by Ferdinand Bol, Jan van der Heyden, Willem Kalf, Pieter Lastman, and Jan Lievens. It is a visually effective presentation of Holland’s 17th-century colonialist cultural encounters. The “Orient” in this exhibition encompasses the territories on the Dutch trade routes, the Mediterranean sites controlled by the Ottoman Empire, as well as Persia, India, and the Far East. But it doesn’t include the Dutch travels to the Americas, which are another story.
Early in the 20th century Henri Matisse and then, 50 years later, Sean Scully visited Morocco. Matisse’s decorative designs and Scully’s stripes are a direct response. But such travel was often not available to 17th-century European artists. Only minor Dutch artists accompanied trading ships on their lengthy, very lucrative, but extremely perilous journeys. And there are surprisingly few images showing the Dutch colonial possessions and hardly any serious attempts to present exotic visual cultures (Frans Post, who traveled to Dutch Brazil and painted idealized scenes, is a notable exception). Indeed, Rembrandt, who depicted Jews in Biblical paintings, also included Black figures, presumably because he supposed that they too lived in ancient Palestine. He did in 1642 help ransom a Dutchman enslaved by the Berbers. Some Dutch artists showed terrifying ship battles. But Rembrandt never depicted such scenes.
In Rembrandt’s David with the Head of Goliath before Saul (1627), turbans and precious fabrics give the Biblical setting an “Oriental” touch. His drawing, Men in Oriental Apparel and Two Half-Length Studies of a Beggar (1641–42), shows non-Western dress. A Tronie of a Bearded Old Man in Middle Eastern Dress (1635), by him and his workshop, depicts studio models dressed in Eastern attire. Rembrandt was interested in picturesque bric-a-brac. Thanks to the record of his bankruptcy sale in 1656, we know that he owned two East Indian boxes, an East Indian powder compact, a Japanese helmet, a bird of paradise, six fans, a large selection of sea snails and sea plants, non-European weapons and clothing, and two lion skins. He produced many drawings and paintings with such props.
Other artists, too, depicted Asian and African subjects. Willem Schellinks’s Parade of the Sons of Shah Jahan on Composite Horses and Elephants (1665–70) was inspired by Indian miniatures. Sometimes, as in Gerbrand van den Eeckhout’s Portrait of an Unknown Governor of the Dutch East India Company (1669) we see colonial landscapes. And Jan Baptist Weenix’s The Dutch Ambassador on His Way to Isfahan (1653–59) shows a Persian setting. Some paintings, the anonymous Don Francisco Lopes Suasso (1675) for example, depict Dutch Jews, who played an important role in colonial trading. And a bizarre anonymous sardonic painting, Parody of Religious Tolerance (1659), depicts John Calvin, Martin Luther, Menno Simons, who gave his name to the Mennonites, and also a Jew and a Muslim.
It would be worthwhile to look at this history the other way around and see what 17th-century non-Europeans made of the Western invaders. But that could be understood as the subject of another exhibition, which has been dealt with in such shows as the 2007 exhibition Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th and 17th Centuries, held at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington. In the 1820s, Rifa'a Rafi' al-Tahtawi, a young Muslim cleric from Egypt, spent five years in Paris. There, he reported, he found pictures representing people “that can be distinguished from (real) human beings only by their inability to speak.” His commentary shows that even then, Islamic and Western visual cultures were surprisingly distant.1
Some museum exhibitions assemble beautiful artifacts. This exhibition does that and, also, something else more important: it presents a significant history, which is sure to be productively contentious. You cannot discuss 17th-century imperialism without taking account of the consequences of that economic and political revolution. As the catalogue notes, “the wealth of the Dutch upper class was the result . . . of violence and oppression in the Far East and came at high human cost, even among the country’s own sailors.” When I published my A World Art History and its Objects (2008), I discovered how vitally nuanced this subject has become. Indeed, thanks to Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), the very word “Orient” has now been mostly banished from art writing.
When several years ago I learned about this exhibition, I planned to visit. Now, alas, I was not able to get to Basel, but its marvelous catalogue and an unusually useful website guide you through:
- See my review of “Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th & 17th Centuries. Arthur M. Sackler Gallery,” ArtUS, 21 (2008): 43, and Rifa'a Rafi' al-Tahtawi, An Imam in Paris: Al-Tahtawi’s Visit to France, 1826-1831, trans. by Daniel L. Newman (London: Saql Books, 2011), 220.