“Once we jettison the idea that Dutch genre painting, still lifes, landscapes, seascapes were glum sermons inspired by didactic prints, we can return to what really attracted such a large public to this new kind of art.” Thus the author—poet, translator, anthologist, essayist, and scholar of comparative literature—justly observes in his delightful attack on the gloomy overinterpretations of Dutch art by modern art historians.
Oscar Mandel writes with verve, erudition, and common sense, as when he reminds us of Rembrandt’s hilarious painting of the abduction of Ganymede. In the classical art of the Italian Renaissance, the target of Jupiter’s desire had been depicted as an idealized youth whose sensuous beauty was conspicuously voluptuous. How does Rembrandt respond to this erotic vision? He teasingly depicts Ganymede as a plump, squealing, pudgy baby who is so frightened as he is lifted skyward by Jupiter in the form of an eagle that he pisses in utter terror. Can you blame the little fellow? Now let us listen to how scholars talk about Rembrandt’s “grossly comical painting” of Ganymede’s kidnapping. One scholar—can you believe it?—urges that Rembrandt’s work symbolized the union of the infant soul with God, adding that the picture refers to the constellation Aquarius, which brings rain; hence, the “pissing tot,” as Mandel drolly calls Ganymede. Another scholar, uncertain of the picture’s exact moral purpose, nevertheless insists “there can be no doubt that the intention of the picture is serious mythological narrative.” Huh?
Art historians have never been comfortable with the fact that one of the principal features of painting is to entertain, to give pleasure, to delight the eye, to amuse. Art must be profound, the pedants insist, and so they invent deep philosophical, scientific, psychological, political, and social meanings that they project into works of art, often overinterpreting them to the point of utter absurdity. They write long, dry, pleasureless disquisitions, filled with endless footnotes, which purportedly illuminate the deep meaning of art, ignoring its superficial charms, whether beautiful or, in the case of Rembrandt’s Ganymede, ugly. Indeed superficial, painting is an art of surfaces. What the blind overly somber scholar does not see on the surface of Rembrandt’s picture is its conspicuous mirth, “more tuba,” as Mandel deliciously asserts, “than spinet.”
According to one of the great academic clichés of our day, Dutch still lifes are noble meditations on the theme of vanity, on transitoriness. As Mandel observes, however, scholars not only often ignore the pictures themselves, they easily pass over descriptions from long ago of how such works were once appreciated: “grapes, peaches, apricots, cherries, oranges, lemons, and pomegranates, flattering to the eye and taste.” For the lugubrious modern art historian—a moralist or pedagogue of the same stamp as Henry Fielding’s Blifil or George Eliot’s Casaubon—such delights are anathema. Plunging to the very depths of profondity, these quasi-monkish, neo-moralists are often seemingly indifferent to the fact that the succulent fruits, exquisite flowers, and glittering plates and glasses of Dutch still life paintings allowed their owners to dwell in imagination on “the gorgeous things of this earth.” “The Dutch,” Mandel says, were wise enough to realize that when we lift our eyes in order to take most still life paintings in, “we are happily compelled to receive as the dominant content of the transaction an impression of immense joy and beauty.”
Part of the fun of Mandel’s lively, little book is that of watching a skilled writer with a deft touch send up the hapless, heavy-handed modern art historical writers who unwittingly make a mockery of Dutch art by debasing it as somber moral didacticism. Mandel’s book would not be worth its salt, however, if he did not also give us compelling, sympathetic, and droll interpretations of Dutch art in all its sensuous beauty, visual delight, and good cheer—as in his spirited appreciation of Vermeer’s Girl with a Wine Glass from Brunswick, seen recently at the great Vermeer exhibition in Washington. As the scholarly cataloguer buries us with the minutia of analysis, insisting on the picture’s moralizing purpose, Mandel recreates the “merriment” of Vermeer’s “light-footed comedy,” in which a “Golden Age dandy” with a “devilish little smirk” approaches a young girl who responds with a “roguish smile” of her own. All this brings a smile to the lips of the beholder, much as Mandel’s sprightly polemic amuses its delighted “common reader” and amateur of painting, who, unlike the somber scholar, scarcely needs to be reminded of “the cheerfulness of Dutch art.”