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February 2016, No. 1355 – Vol 158

Asia in Amsterdam

Exhibition Review

Asia in Amsterdam

Amsterdam and Salem MA

 

THE GRAND SHOW Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age was first shown at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (closed 17th January), where this reviewer saw it, and thereafter moves to the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem (27th February to 5th June). Its main focus is luxury products made in Asia (chiefly China, India and Japan) that were imported and enjoyed by wealthy burghers of Amsterdam during the ‘Golden Age’ of the seventeenth century. Made of precious materials and adorned with intriguing exotic patterns no one had ever seen before, the Asian treasures caused a sensation in Holland. With their colour and richness, they aroused the curiosity and stimulated the imagination of the Dutch bourgeoisie. Because the Netherlands had established a Protestant independent state that depended largely on work and trade rather than on inherited wealth or class background, a growing middle class was able to incorporate these treasures into their hitherto modest interiors.

 

The exhibition organisers sought to display only the very finest items to illustrate their theme. Two museums with the world’s premier holdings of opulent export wares – the Rijksmuseum and the Peabody Essex Museum – have augmented their own possessions with judicious borrowings from other institutions. This exhibition is more narrowly focused than others on a similar theme, for example the 2004 show at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Encounters: The Meeting of Asia and Europe, 1500–1800.1 Nonetheless it makes a contribution to the field, an achievement enhanced by a well-illustrated, multi-authored catalogue.2 The exhibition in Amsterdam was well lit and displayed in a series of rooms that allowed sufficient space to stand back and view big pieces. Walls were painted in subtle colours with patterns and designs to suggest the theme of each gallery display, a device that worked well because it acted as a soft background rather than an aggressive intrusion. Information was restricted to introductory panels and concise labels, although it may be that first-time viewers might seek more contextualising instruction and guidance. Questions such as ‘what was it used for’ or ‘how was it displayed’ will require further reading, both in the catalogue and elsewhere.

 

For this visitor, the exhibition highlights comprised four categories of objects. The first was a spectacular group of extremely refined, large lacquered boxes and chests made in Japan for export between 1610 and 1645. The group can further be honed to a small group of objects of supreme quality (the so-called ‘Fine Group ‘) made between 1635 and 1645, obtained for select Dutch patrons through the involvement of an experienced trader, François Caron. The Rijksmuseum purchased such a chest only in 2013, and was delighted to unearth its matching pair in the State Historical Museum, Moscow, in time for the exhibition (cat. nos.40a–b; Fig.85). The chests were made for Cornelis van der Lijn, the governor-general of Batavia, who worked his way up through the ranks to gain high office in 1646. Many Dutch families chose to spend their lives in Batavia (present day Djakarta) in spite of its atrocious climate, in order to enjoy the daily comforts and service available there. The settlement was the headquarters of the Dutch in Asia, and the engine-room for its multinational trading venture, the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC). Like other pieces in the Fine Group, the two chests made for Cornelis van der Lijn illustrate scenes from Genji Monogatari, an eleventh-century novel by a woman writer, Murasaki Shikibu, about the eventful life of Prince Genji at the Japanese royal court.

 

The second group of artefacts embraced Dutch still-life paintings that illustrate Chinese export porcelain among their sumptuous displays of food and expensive curiosities. Such pictures are numerous, but the exhibition assembled a group of the very best of them by such masters as Jan Brueghel the Elder, Osias Beert the Elder, Floris Claesz van Dijck, Frans Snijders, Jan Jansz van de Velde III and Willem Kalf. Typical of the genre was Pieter Claesz’s Still life with turkey pie (1627; no.71; Fig.86). It incorporates several exotic rarities such as a coarse oriental carpet from Anatolia or Egypt as a table-covering, a page from an almanac bearing the Amsterdam coat of arms rolled up to hold peppercorns from the East Indies, a nautilus shell mounted in silver-gilt from the Indian Ocean and a blue-and-white porcelain dish from China. The dish is decorated in panelled sections in a manner known as the Kraak style, a décor typical of porcelain made for the Dutch market from the late sixteenth century to the first half of the seventeenth century. It was manufactured at the great kilns of Jingdezhen, the ‘porcelain city’ of China, and was represented in the exhibition by a series of fine vessels that match and complement the receptacles depicted in the paintings. 

 

The third group of pieces comprised majestic dyed, painted and embroidered textiles. The textiles are flat bedcovers and palampores from China and India, shown not in cases but on tilted supports under good lighting. The opportunity to view fragile, large-scale textile works with such clarity is rare, and to be enjoyed.

 

The fourth category of exhibits was remarkable not so much for its visual splendour, but more for the intellectual climate that it illuminated. It concerned the acquisition of knowledge, obtained through maps, and botanical and zoological specimens obtained in Asia and painstakingly catalogued in the Netherlands. Verbal and written descriptions were likewise invaluable to such geographical researchers as Nicolaes Witsen, a wealthy Burgomaster and VOC director. He obtained most of his information from Jesuit missionaries resident in China, who studied the language, acted as interpreters, drew up maps and wrote detailed letters back to Rome. For example, Witsen was visited several times between 1683 and 1684 by the Flemish Jesuit Philip Couplet, indicating that religious barriers between Catholics and Protestants were set aside when ambitious, inquiring minds came into contact with one another.

 

Near the end of the exhibition were objects that represent Dutch artisans’ response to the exotic and expensive Asian imports. Typical are elaborate decorative panels and furniture surfaces veneered to simulate lacquer and inlaid with mother-of-pearl and other semiprecious organic and mineral substances. One entrepreneurial virtuoso was Dirck van Rijswijck, who started making pictures with mother-of-pearl inlaid into backgrounds of black ebony or slate in the early 1650s (no.86b; Fig.87). Customers flocked to his shop in Amsterdam and, although his depictions were entirely Dutch in pictorial content and style, he was confidently able to state that from now on there was no need to travel to China in order to see such marvellous works of art. Such hybrid crossover artefacts embody the theme and essence of this exhibition.

 

1 Reviewed by Oliver Impey in this Magazine, 146 (2004), pp.773–74.

2 Catalogue: Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age. Edited by Karina H. Corrigan, Jan van Campen and Femke Diercks, with Janet C. Blyberg. 356 pp. incl. 305 col. ills. (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2015), $65. ISBN 978–0–300–21287–7.