For this Dutch master, a cigar is rarely just a cigar

Four cen­turies later, Joachim Wtewael can still shock and de­light

The Washington Post Sunday - - MUSEUMS - BY PHILIP KEN­NI­COTT philip.ken­ni­cott@wash­post.com

The first ma­jor ex­hi­bi­tion de­voted to the Dutch man­ner­ist pain­ter Joachim Wtewael is full of works that “just do not look Dutch,” ad­mits Arthur K. Whee­lock Jr., cu­ra­tor of north­ern baroque paint­ings at the Na­tional Gallery of Art. That’s the chal­lenge he and the gallery con­fronted when in­tro­duc­ing Wtewael— a fas­ci­nat­ing, ver­sa­tile and vir­tu­osic artist — to the broader public. But the 50 some works gath­ered to­gether in “Plea­sure and Piety: The Art of Joachim Wtewael” are ab­so­lutely part of a Dutch artis­tic history that is richer, and more bizarre, than we usu­ally credit.

Wtewael pur­sued his ex­u­ber­antly over­stuffed style, full of ser­pen­tine bod­ies, in­ter­twined wreathes of mus­cu­lar flesh, rib­ald hu­mor and eroti­cism, well into the 17th cen­tury, but by the time he was wrap­ping up his ca­reer in the mid-to late 1620s, the Golden Age of Dutch paint­ing was al­ready on the hori­zon. The new paint­ing, from artists in­clud­ing Rem­brandt, Ver­meer, Frans Hals, Ger­ard ter Borch and Gabriel Metsu, would look very dif­fer­ent, de­voted to a psy­cho­log­i­cal, so­cial and ma­te­rial re­al­ism that made the man­ner­ism of Wtewael feel hy­per­bolic, over­heated and rhetor­i­cal.

But the Na­tional Gallery’s Wtewael ex­hi­bi­tion comes only a half-year af­ter the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art’s ma­jor sur­vey of Bartholomeus Spranger, a man­ner­ist artist who served the royal court of Ru­dolf II in Prague, and whose work was em­u­lated through­out North­ern Europe. It was an en­counter with en­grav­ings of works by Spranger that inspired Wtewael’s ex­u­ber­ant vi­sion.

Even to­day, the style of Spranger and Wtewael is slightly shock­ing, and find­ing de­light in the work of these artists re­quires in­tel­lec­tual ef­fort. But it is an ef­fort worth mak­ing. Our tem­per­a­ment is more aligned with the artists who would fol­low, pain­ters who cel­e­brated the earthy peas­ant, quo­tid­ian scenes of courtship and mar­riage, land­scapes of sim­ple rus­tic­ity, and por­traits of peo­ple whose un­af­fected self-pre­sen­ta­tion feels or­gan­i­cally con­nected to our own demo­cratic, bour­geois sense of self. This is the com­fort­ing and fa­mil­iar di­alect of Dutch art.

By con­trast, the high style of man­ner­ism, its mytho­log­i­cal al­lu­sions, con­fla­tion of time and in­tri­cacy of de­sign, is dis­con­cert­ing, even alien­at­ing. But we owe the past, es­pe­cially the artis­tic past, more than an a la carte ap­petite; and in an anti-in­tel­lec­tual age, im­mer­sion in a dis­ori­ent­ing style is a form of protest, even a duty.

The ex­hi­bi­tion in­cludes both large-scale works on can­vas, in­clud­ing a mag­nif­i­cent “Mar­tyr­dom of Saint Se­bas­tian” (1600) and “Perseus and An­dromeda” (1611), and an abun­dance of works painted on cop­per. The lat­ter were a spe­cialty of Wtewael, highly prized by col­lec­tors in­clud­ing Ru­dolf II, and a medium that flat­tered the artist’s tal­ent for de­tail and pre­ci­sion. Cop­per not only gave painted works a bril­liant lu­mi­nes­cence, but it also was a highly sta­ble medium, which means many of the works by Wtewael that have come down to us are al­most as vi­brant as the day they were painted.

“The Golden Age,” a 1605 work on cop­per that is likely the Wtewael paint­ing owned by Ru­dolf, ex­em­pli­fies the artist’s work. Naked bod­ies are pushed into the fore­ground, some stretched lux­u­ri­antly on the ground, oth­ers re­clin­ing on fab­ric-strewn rocks, yet oth­ers reach­ing to the sky or perched in trees. They form an or­ganic horse­shoe-shaped frame around a peace­ful vi­sion of wa­ter, grass and trees, stretch­ing deep into the pic­ture, where the land­scape turns blue and is il­lu­mi­nated through a clear­ing by shafts of sun­light. Dogs play, cats skulk, cows graze and birds fish in a placid pool.

The hu­man forms are so styl­ized that they al­most blend to­gether into a sin­gle gar­land of skin and mus­cle, which in turn shifts the fo­cal point of the pic­ture to a soli­tary bird, perched on a leaf­less branch, glimpsed in a halo of light. The utopia im­plied by the paint­ing isn’t in­di­vid­u­al­ized, or par­tic­u­larly hu­man; rather, it is gath­ered up in that bird, as if the plea­sure of the im­age, and the plea­sure of its pas­toral fan­tasy, is to be a soli­tary ob­server, on high, con­nected to but not a part of the pro­ceed­ings. We ex­pe­ri­ence the Golden Age as an avian in­ter­loper.

The bird seems about to fly into the blue be­yond, an act of free­dom that also sug­gests that the hu­man Golden Age, gath­ered in the fore­ground, is only one sur­face man­i­fes­ta­tion of ab­so­lute de­light. And yet, from Ovid, we know that the Golden Age was per­fect in part be­cause hu­mans hadn’t yet learned to travel, to hew down tim­bers for boats, to leave their own shores, to go to dis­tant lands. So the bird and its prom­ise of flight into the blue dis­tance also is a slightly omi­nous pres­ence. He, or she, might be say­ing: “This is the last time you’ll all be here.”

The whole paint­ing is only slightly larger than an 81/ 2- by-11 inch piece of printer pa­per, and you might think it would be im­pos­si­ble to stuff any­thing more into it. But Wtewael is a master packer of im­ages, and “The Golden Age” is rel­a­tively mod­est inits abun­dance. The 1612 “Wed­ding of Peleus and Thetis,” a pop­u­lar mytho­log­i­cal sub­ject that in­vited artists to in­dulge ex­cess, also is richly stocked with bod­ies, and nar­ra­tive para­pher­na­lia. Ev­ery last god and nymph and satyr has been sum- moned to the event, bring­ing their taste for car­nal ex­cess, wine and las­civ­i­ous em­brace. They make mu­sic, ca­vort and im­bibe, while in the dis­tance we see a darker fu­ture. Placed in a sim­i­lar light as the bird in “The Golden Age,” and in al­most the ex­act same po­si­tion rel­a­tive to the frame of the pic­ture, is the god­dess of dis­cord, Eris, who brings the golden ap­ple that Paris will present to Venus in the most calami­tous beauty con­test in pa­gan history.

Seen si­mul­ta­ne­ously in the dis­tance, the Judg­ment of Paris will lead di­rectly to the ab­duc­tion of He­len, the wrath of Juno and the car­nage of the Tro­jan War. So once again, a small im­age is full of omi­nous vec­tors, and all as­sem­bled might well say: “En­joy the feast, for trou­ble is com­ing.”

These works are pre­sented along with por­traits Wtewael made of his fam­ily, and there is a strik­ing con­trast be­tween them. Wtewael also was a wealthy flax mer­chant, an in­vestor, a prom­i­nent citizen of Utrecht and an im­por­tant player in the re­li­gious and po­lit­i­cal life of his home town. The por­traits re­flect all of that and bear only a trace of the whimsy and froth of his other work. In a paired set of im­ages, Joachim holds a pain­ter’s pal­ette and brushes, while his wife ges­tures to­ward him, with a set of scales near her right hand (a sign of her do­mes­tic fru­gal­ity and good sense). Wtewael de­picts him­self as in­tel­li­gent, well dressed, with per­haps just the slight­est trace of an iron­i­cal cast of mind ev­i­dent in his eyes, brows and lips. He is a man of parts.

Ren­der­ing him­self, and his fam­ily, has brought him down to earth, for a bit. But these works also demon­strate his enor­mous fa­cil­ity, and his mas­tery of more than just one style, mood and mode of de­sign. Their pres­ence in the larger ex­hi­bi­tion un­der­scores the sense that paint­ing was a plea­sure, was about plea­sure and was an out­let for re­mark­able re­serves of in­tel­lec­tual and man­ual vir­tu­os­ity.

It is un­likely he will be­come any­one’s fa­vorite Dutch artist any time soon. We live in hu­mor­less times, and Wtewael is a funny artist. Just ex­plore the rum­pled bed­sheets in his three dif­fer­ent ver­sions of “Mars and Venus Sur­prised by Vul­can,” an episode of di­vine adul­tery, mock­ery and laugh­ter un­think­able in our dour, monothe­is­tic world. What a mess these gods have made, what a racket their dis­cov­ery cre­ates in heaven. Wtewael re­turned sev­eral times to this sub­ject, which says a lot about what he thought was in­ter­est­ing, and what his clients wanted from him.

Some artists, won­der­ing how to de­pict this mo­ment, would call on only the props ab­so­lutely nec­es­sary to tell the tale; Wtewael seems to have cho­sen the story in part be­cause it in­vites him to stuff in an un­lim­ited panoply of ma­te­rial things, fab­rics, wood, me­tal, glass, skin, hair and fire. It is buil­tupa bit like the last scene of a Rossini com­edy, a care­fully con­structed im­age of ca­coph­ony and mo­tion, and cruel hu­mor send­ing sparks in all di­rec­tions.

The pain­ters who suc­ceeded Wtewael, and who sup­planted mem­ory of his work, had a very dif­fer­ent sense of hu­mor, and of­ten no ev­i­dence of hu­mor at all. Their workis beloved, and rightly so. But it’s good to see the wider range of Dutch sen­si­bil­ity, the learn­ing, wit and pure de­light in vis­ual things prac­ticed al­most like a sport.

Plea­sure and Piety: The Art of Joachim Wtewael is on view through Oct. 4 at the Na­tional Gallery of Art . For more in­for­ma­tion, visit www.nga.gov.

STER­LING AND FRANCINE CLARK ART IN­STI­TUTE

Joachim Wtewael’s “TheWed­ding of Peleus and Thetis” is a bac­cha­nal of Olympic pro­por­tions, but a sober­ing chain of events is un­fold­ing in the back­ground.

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