Boston Goes Dutch

For all the time I spend in art museums, I’ve never really settled on favorites.  Having no formal education in fine arts, my tastes tend to careen from one genre to another.  I’ll be swooning over Impressionism at one moment, then gawking at bronze sculpture in the next.  Then I’ll turn a corner and realize—no!—it’s Dalí and the Surrealists I love the most.  Or perhaps Sargent with his ravishing portraits, or Bierstadt and his majestic Western landscapes.

In short:  I may not know art, but I also don’t know what I like.

Yet whenever I’m wandering through some wide-ranging collection or other, I always manage, sooner or later, to find my way to the Netherlands.

For whatever reason, Dutch paintings have an aura and a gravitas completely unlike those from anywhere else.  You spot one from across a gallery and realize that your day is not complete until you’ve given it a good, hard look, because there’s bound to be something there that you’ve never seen before and probably won’t again.  (Spend a few hours with Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights and you’ll start to get the idea.)

While Dutch painting has been interesting in every epoch, it was during the 17th century that it achieved transcendence.  Like 18th century Philadelphia or the 1927 Yankees, the Dutch Republic during the 1600s saw a confluence of human ingenuity and accomplishment—concentrated in one time, in one place—that, in its way, is without parallel in recorded history.

And now, at the finest art museum in New England, you have as great an opportunity as ever to experience what that explosion of creativity entailed.

The new show is called “Class Distinctions:  Dutch Art in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer.”  It is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, from now until January 18.  If you have even the slightest interest in the Dutch Golden Age or in Dutch culture in general (there is absolutely no reason you shouldn’t), you’d best make your way to Huntington Avenue while the getting’s good.  I have it on good authority that the exhibit is truly one of a kind.

As it turns out, what made this so-called Golden Age so special was the vitality of its subject matter.  The 17th century marked the moment—albeit one that lasted 80 years—when, through a grinding war, the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands secured independence from Spain and became a thriving, independent republic.  In so doing, the people of this reborn nation (when they weren’t busy founding and settling New York City) were compelled to start their lives fresh—a bit like our own founding fathers a century and a half later.

The resulting society was at once a cultural and economic powerhouse while also sharply and cruelly divided among the rich, the poor and everyone in between.  Hence the show’s title, “Class Distinctions.”  With 75 paintings—culled from institutions all over the world—the exhibition presents the entirety of Dutch society through the prism of class:  Each person in each piece is defined, in one way or another, by what they do and where it positions them on the social stratum.  From nobles and businessmen down to butchers, bakers and linen makers, everyone had their place and, for better or worse, was likely stuck there forever.

Sound familiar?

At this particular moment—when America is, itself, becoming an increasingly stratified country, and when our great cultural institutions are struggling to retain relevance by appealing to ever-younger audiences—the MFA’s Dutch show is a dazzling stroke of inspiration:  A collection of masterworks arranged in a manner that could not be timelier or more compelling.

The MFA has certainly wrestled with the issue of populism before.  In the spring of 2014, it put on a modestly-sized exhibition, “Boston Loves Impressionism,” that was possibly the first major museum show to be crowd-sourced:  In the months prior to opening, the MFA allowed its visitors to vote for their favorite Impressionist works in the museum’s collection, and the 30 most popular pieces won a spot on the wall.  Neat, huh?

In truth, “Boston Loves Impressionism” was mostly just a way to kill time while the museum renovated its permanent Impressionist galleries—and, of course, to show off how magnificent its holdings are—but it nonetheless marked a minor milestone in the relationship between a large art institution and the public.  It posed the question:  What responsibility does the former have to the latter?  Should a museum care what its visitors think, or is its job purely to educate—to enhance the tastes of the rabbles rather than indulging them without comment?

If the MFA’s Impressionism experiment was an act of pandering—however successful and aesthetically gratifying—“Class Distinctions” represents the pinnacle of what a great art museum can and should do with its mountains of buried treasure.  That is, to present them in a way that implicitly says to the public, “This is what great art looks like, this is why it’s important and this is how it might be useful in your daily life.”

With Dutch painting—equally in settings intimate and majestic—it’s all about the little details.

Details like the dead rooster lying at a customer’s feet in Isaak Koedijk’s The Barber-Surgeon (it was the customer’s means of payment).  Or the slightly bemused look on one of the cows in Gerard ter Borch’s A Maid Milking a Cow in a Barn (butter and cheese were among the most valuable commodities of the time).  Or the general prevalence, in nearly every depiction of the ruling class, of cheerful black servants and/or playful midsize dogs—both signifiers of great wealth, much as sports cars and personal trainers are today.

Overall, the paintings here reveal much about the era’s gender roles and the comparative benefits of one profession over another (e.g. working-class prostitutes were much better-off than women in more “honorable” vocations).  Indeed, the sheer volume of information contained in this show’s four rooms is staggering, particularly if you—like me—knew practically none of it beforehand.

Then again, you could choose not to give a damn about What It All Means and simply enjoy these pretty pictures for their own sake.  “Class Distinctions” is a triumph because of its strong thematic momentum, but also because the paintings themselves—virtually without exception—are as rich and inventive as you could reasonably hope to see all at once.  And all without having to invent a time machine or buy a ticket to Amsterdam.

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