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Art Review : 'Dutch' Chronicles an Aesthetic Revolution

August 20, 1994|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

The latest rotation of the J. Paul Getty Museum's wonderful Old Master drawings collection is "16th and 17th Century Dutch Drawings." That modest title masks an exquisite exercise in subtle connoisseurship by co-curators Arianne Faber-Kolb and Stephanie Schrader .

More importantly, it also raises absorbing issues of national artistic character. The 25 images on view pose an inescapable question: How could the drawings of the two centuries be, on the surface, so utterly different from one another?

The answer lies buried in a combination of historical circumstances not unlike the change the world is now going through with the end of the Cold War. The drawings of these two centuries represent an aesthetic revolution that will probably repeat itself in our own time.

In the 16th Century, the art of the Lowlands, like that of most of Europe, was under the sway of Mannerism. In Holland, the hypnotically neurotic style produced the same elongated figures, odd perspectives and wayward allusions as in Italy and France.

The context was mythical, aristocratic and decadent--witness Hendrick Goltzius' "Venus and Mars Surprised by Vulcan." But Dutch Mannerism was significantly earthier than others. "Embracing Couple" by Jan Hermenz. Muller manages to look like a real moonlight roll in the hay despite the hypothesis of scholars that the couple represents Mercury and Lara.

However, when Dutch Mannerist artists decided to get weird they could out-perverse anybody on the continent. Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem is represented by an image titled "Two Male Nudes." In these days of gay liberation the fact that they appear to be locked in a passionate kiss might be seen as striking a blow for freedom. The really odd thing, however, is that one of them is a grown man with the proportions of a serious iron pumper while the other--although equally muscular--is a child of 5 or 6.

What's going on here, pedophilia among the gods? Although one would not put it past them, the positioning of the figures makes it impossible to say for sure. Mannerism delighted in this sort of ambiguous perversity. After all, the artist could always say they were allegorical figures representing Cupid and man's love of being in love.

The real mystery remains the question of how Dutch art fell into such a bizarre style. The two answers are Michelangelo and Charles V of Spain. Like Picasso in this century, Michelangelo gave younger artists the feeling there was nothing left to do. It made them a little crazy.

This was because, in the 16th Century, Spain was on a rapacious roll. Charles V sacked Rome and laid claim to the Netherlands. That made everybody a little crazy. In 1568, the Dutch revolted, led by William of Orange. Eleven years later the seven Northern provinces became a republic. Meantime Holland had turned into a major mercantile sea power as suggested by William van de Velde The Elder's "Figures on Board Small Merchant Vessels." They were rich, they were free to be themselves--democratic, earthy, tolerant and humane.

By the 17th Century, Holland's rising power caused an aesthetic revolution that was as dramatic as the transformation of American art after World War II. The Netherlands enjoyed a bourgeois utopia in the 17th Century. It invented the supply-and-demand art market as we know it today. Its artists worked to please ordinary well-heeled burghers. Their success still shows in the rapt attention viewers pay this little show.

The genius of the Dutch Golden Age was, of course, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn. There are just four of his drawings on view but they are as astonishing as they are unassuming. "Sailing Boat on a Wide Expanse of Water" demonstrates Rembrandt's knack for unforced perfection. The placement and texture of the land mass and little skiff are flawless without calling attention to themselves. His line seems exactly calibrated to become form or atmosphere at his will. But here, as in the other examples, his virtuosity never calls attention to itself. One's mind stays on scenes that seem to reassure us of the perfection of ordinary life.

It's no insult to say that everyone else looks a bit forced by comparison. Jacob van Ruisdael's reputation as a forerunner of Romanticism is confirmed by the brooding of his "Dead Tree by a Stream at the Foot of a Hill." Leanings to abstract purism are adumbrated by Aelbert Cuyp's "View of the Rhine Valley." The scene is almost pure texture. It reminds us that Mondrian painted landscapes too.

Freed from the Mannerist yolk, Dutch artists turned to the rollicking reality of picturesque genre. Adriaen van Ostade's color composition "Peasant Festival in a Town Street" combines the intimacy of drawing with the detail of painting. In all of this there is a curious comparison to Chinese art. Both show humankind and nature as parts of one another.

* J. Paul Getty Museum, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, through Oct. 23, closed Mondays, advance parking reservations required, (310) 458-2003.

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