In the two years between Atkins’ appointment and the center’s opening this weekend, he privately went through the same identity crisis that has very publicly tested cultural institutions around the world. The pandemic has amplified glaring disparities in all areas, from economics to race to gender; and displays of centuries-old historical art, often the product of vast riches accumulated through colonial plunder and exploitation, are no exception to this re-examination.
The more expansive truth about past ugly episodes is now the urgent priority. Much evidence is everywhere: Across the street at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Titian’s historic reunion of six “poetry” paintings is accompanied by a thoughtful dissection by contemporary scholars of indulgent sexual objectification. women – and violence against them. And in New York, the recent Metropolitan Museum “The Medici: portraits and politics 1512-1570”, offered a sprawling analysis of the web of wealth and power that gave birth to the Renaissance through its main patrons, the Medici.
The exhibition was also an opportunity to exhibit the Met’s extravagant collection of Bronzino portraits, a pleasure not to be denied. But, in the evolving ethos of art history exhibitions, pleasure alone is no longer its own end, and no art, however great, can – or should – escape the moral framework. and social in which it was created.
In In the MFA’s New Dutch and Flemish Galleries, those who want nothing more than to drift into the exultant bliss of one of Western art’s most fertile periods will find an unhurried stream of great works, beautifully displayed and upholstered in a rich historical context of art. But for those who demand more, there is a subtle thread to be found.
Earlier this month, Atkins and Frederick Ilchman, curator of the museum’s paintings and chairman of the Art of Europe department, took me on a tour of the still unfinished expanse of galleries. In the curved mezzanine leading to the new galleries, “The five senses” by Michaelina Wautier, a 1650 series of five paintings, the catwalk rings.
Ilchman proudly explained that Wautier was completely unknown just half a dozen years ago, written history over centuries of scholarship that left little room for women in the canon. “We put it in the most prestigious place possible,” he said. “It was very deliberate: ‘Let’s not bury the story. Let’s put it right in the middle. ‘”
The whole company is the end product of exceptional largesse, both financial and philosophical: the MFA, historically rich in Dutch assets, became the beneficiary in 2017 of an extraordinary donation from the Van Otterloo and Weatherbie families, collectors from the Boston area who have teamed up to donate 114 works of the time.
Families too made another gift: an endowment to build the Center for Netherlandish Art, a library and a study center that makes the MFA a center of research and reflection around one of the key eras of Western culture.
Atkins said the center would not live in a blinkered realm where art is the only concern. “We will have people with different skills, different disciplines, not just art history – it could be cultural history, literature, economics, anything that uses the collection,” he said. -he declares. “And if that pushes us in unexpected directions, we’re wide open to it.”
Critically, the center has the space to exhibit these ideas: two of the galleries in the Dutch and Flemish collection are set aside to be dynamic spaces capable of accommodating what the center generates, however unorthodox. “We want it to be a lab,” said Susan Weatherbie, one of the centre’s bosses. “I think people have always been, of course, aware of the story and the context, but that was not the point. We are ready, willing and able to accept this and learn from it. “
The experiments began before the center officially opened this month. Ilchman mentioned a recent virtual seminar on sea level rise with a Dutch hydraulic engineer – a Holland concern knows well, having been below sea level for centuries, as many paintings capture it.
But in April, the center made its public debut when it co-hosted a three-day symposium with the Harvard Art Museums entitled “Museums of Art and Legacy of the Dutch Slave Trade: Curating Histories, Envisioning Futures”. It was the centre’s first public act, its introduction to the world and a deliberate signal of its priorities.
“We were dealing with a lot of these issues already, but it just gets more urgent,” Atkins said. “It was a great opportunity to learn. We wanted to make sure we were doing our best to keep our messages as accurate as possible. “
Consider the immediate context: In parallel with the month of April Symposium, the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, the Dutch National Museum, hosted “Slavery”, a powerful exhibition on the country’s deep links with the transatlantic slave trade in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Without flinching, he explained how the cultural flourishing of the Northern Renaissance was the product of wealth generated by human trafficking and colonial exploitation. One section of the exhibition featured a pair of rare full-length portraits of Rembrandt, jointly acquired by the Rijksmuseum and the Louvre in 2017.
Before the exhibition, portraits were in the spotlight, hung in the Rijksmuseum alongside “The Nightwatch”, considered by many to be Rembrandt’s greatest work. “Slavery” places them in a different context.
The portraits of Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit, painted in 1634, capture a married couple able to afford to commission the greatest portrait painter of the time, and at the height of their power. The source of their wealth, the exhibit explained, was sugar; The Soolmans family owned the largest refinery in the Netherlands. Raw sugar was harvested from plantations in Brazil established by the Dutch East India Company, which profited greatly from enslaved labor. “It’s a reminder,” sings the director of the Rijksmuseum Taco Dibbits in an online presentation of the exhibition, “of how the history of slavery and the history of the Netherlands are linked together”.
These are the legacies that the center will also have to contend with, and that work has already started: one of the two lab galleries, as Weatherbie said, is currently dedicated to global trade. A captivating and darkly sensual 1610 the still life of the Flemish painter Osias Beert presents a range of delicacies: shiny oysters on a silver plate, candies, a plate of almonds sprinkled with sugar.
It is, the neighboring text tells us, a social station display as much as a delectation; Deputy curator Antien Knaap told me that the candy paintings were symbols of the sugar trade and the region’s burgeoning economic power. But, as the text says, “these alluring images hide a bitter truth. Sugar production in the Americas relied on the bonded labor of African and indigenous men, women and children. He goes on to explain that for two centuries Dutch ships delivered over 600,000 Africans into bondage in the Caribbean and South America.
Like a subtle coda, the display includes a single small Brazilian landscape from 1663, by Frans Post; the artist stayed in the Dutch colony with his patron, Johan Maurits, who was its governor. Post’s job, basically, was to paint a lie, which he did dozens of times for the rest of his life: The image, of a sugarcane plantation, is peaceful and idyllic; the text on the wall explains that historical accounts describe plantation life under Dutch rule as particularly brutal. “Such idealized visions,” it read, “were designed to appeal to consumers in the Netherlands. “
It’s a good start, says Nasser Rabbat, an architecture professor who studies Islamic cultural history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Rabbat was part of a five-panel advisory group that consulted the museum and the center on the new facility.
“I wish it was a bit more powerful,” he said. “But really, what we have is a leading museum in the country that comes out and says, ‘We’re going to recognize the effects of colonialism and slavery on what is so sacred to us,’ which is the classical European painting from the 16th and 17th century I must commend them for that.
Returning to the large central gallery, the tall ship stands out in the delightful exhibition of Northern Renaissance painting at its peak. It bends the pure aesthetic pleasure of the scene with a cold reality: can you watch Albert Cuyp’s “Orpheus Charming the Animals”, a whimsical menagerie of leopards, camels, elephants and ostriches alongside dairy cows? in the Dutch plains, without seeing a metaphor for the empire, and the distant kingdoms that the country had violently claimed for its own? Or Rembrandt’s magnificent full-length portraits of Maria Bockenolle and Reverend Johannes Elison – one of only three of its kind he has ever made – without questioning the source of the wealth that made such extravagance possible? (Remember: one of the other two pairs was featured in Rijksmusuem’s “Slavery,” painted in 1634, the same year.)
The final lesson of the new Dutch and Flemish galleries? This greatness, however you measure it, comes at an equally high price. For us, the cost is the loss of a simple pleasure, but ultimately with a greater benefit: knowledge and truth.
DUTCH AND FLEMISH GALLERIES
Vernissage on November 20 at the Museum of Fine Arts. 465 Huntington Avenue, 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org