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Delft Rood

[NOTE: Contains spoilers ;D of the Pieter De Hooch exhibition at the Prinsenhof in Delft, ending February 16, 2020]

When you come to Delft, inevitably you will arrive in the central square where the towering Nieuwe Kerk and the dark, stately town hall stand on opposite ends.  Tile-roofed, brick row houses enclose the square, forming the warm, gezelligheid of the city.

The town hall is pale yellow stone; a complex conglomerate of richly adorned sections, stone flourishes, urns, and finials, draped with ancient black varnish.  Red shutters on either side of the many windows decorate the stone in rows.  It’s a complicated and specific red.  Sometimes it is a dark, cool, plumy maroon, sometimes brick red, but when the sun is shining from the light cerulean Delft sky, it somehow glows vermilion.

Parallelograms of rusty orange-red tiled roofs, occasionally phosphorescing from sunlight that comes and goes, stand in the distance against the dark red shutters of the town hall…

I told myself before I went in to the Pieter De Hooch exhibition that I would try to clear my mind of what I know and have seen.  I took my time and wandered a bit through the town on my way.

The exhibition is an evolution of color and space, from warm, tonal interiors to expansive, triumphant visions of atmosphere and harmony.  With mystic dreams of Dutch garden idylls, and symbolist alienation along the way.

It begins with his early interiors, such as ‘A Seated Soldier with a Standing Serving Woman’.

Pieter de Hooch - Serving maid raising beer glass in an inn with a soldier in armor and cardplayers beyond 4N6W4 L06031-9-1.jpg

Pieter De Hooch, Serving maid raising beer glass in an inn with a soldier in armor and cardplayers beyond, 1652–1655

The painting *feels* interior.  Umbers and ochres build a warm and closed space.  The diagonal, arcing compositional structure contains the image, and the light, the release from the action, comes from the inside out.  Behind the woman in the chromatic red dress with the dash of jeweled scarlet-purple of her wine glass, there are two men playing cards.  A coarse stroke of orangey-red marks the man’s hand in the moment of playing a card, and behind him, a snapshot of an opponent in momentary thought and determination to play his next card.  The little scene is a masterwork of immediacy, economy, and atmosphere.

It seems to me that ‘A Seated Solder..’ has to be mentioned alongside ‘The Empty Glass’ as a beautiful pair of variations in the exhibition.

Pieter De Hooch, The Empty Glass, 1652

Cool umbers and earthy greens form a platform for harmonics of olive and orange in the lady’s dress.  It is the sensitivity to tone and color characteristic of later painters like Chardin or Morandi but still carrying the weight of the Renaissance.

Women are always central.  Of course he was a man just like Vermeer, but somehow his eye is more empathetic.

Variations on a warm ground with moments of color liberation and flourish.

The paintings that follow are so well known to history, yet seeing them with what came before heightens the experience of the harmonic color achievement they were.

Pieter De Hooch, The Courtyard of a House in Delft, 1658

No picture can do this painting justice.  The orchestration of color is indescribable.  The space has opened, and filled with the outdoor Netherlandish light.  The vignette in yellows in the doorway on the left is an epic image.  The woman’s warm yellow dress is filled with a dazzling peach glow from the sun beyond.  The overall architecture of the painting is a balance of dynamism and eternal, symbolic stability.  The primary colors of the foreground woman and child mark the painting as characteristically De Hooch, Delft, Dutch. Delicate, pastel yellows and blues of the foliage and flowers frame the scene…it’s beauty to behold.

Then there’s the red shutter, oddly cropped at the left.  An abstraction that osciallates both in color and space, partially blocking the scene beyond.  It enforces a reminder of the world beyond the edge (and the surface).

For me, one of the highlights was ‘Card Players in a Sunlit Room’.  It’s an interior again, but the space is wide open. Exquisitely specific reds and oranges are embedded across the surface: the gray-blue-red of the woman’s dress in the distance, the abstract rectangles of pale peach and pinks of the curtains, the red shutter, the radiating purple orange of the man’s feathered cap, ruby red on his coat trim, and the warm orange red of the chair.  Everything shimmering in an atmospheric, cool blue-grey frame, surrounding a woman (surrounded by men) in a Delft blue dress, with a red shoe peeking out.  It’s color architecture that adds up to a unified vision.

Pieter De Hooch, Cardplayers in a Sunlit Room, 1658.

Amid with well-known masterpieces were explorations that add a different dimension to De Hooch, for me.

Pieter De Hooch, Frau mit Bohnenkorb im Gemüsegärtchen, 1651

The woman in the garden and the flattening, stylized foliage create a strange air of stillness and solidity.  The light is dreamlike, in the shadow of her Deflt home.  It’s a mysterious, symbolic image.

And the little red shutter in the left middle was almost unnoticable at first, then it kind of anchors the painting and hovers there: a floating rectangle over the silvery green vegetation.

Pieter De Hooch, The Council Chamber in Amsterdam Town Hall, 1663–1665

Painted in Amsterdam, behind that ginormous, absurd baroque orange curtain, each person seems like they are each in their own melancholic dream state.  It has an acidic ocher-orange palette, The woman on the right gazing out of the window reminds me of de Chirico: alien, strange.  I know it was a ceremonial image, etc., but it just adds up to an iconic picture of stasis and alienation.  I think only the dog fully comprehends…

There are as close to infinite shades of red as the quantum limits (and semantics) allow, De Hooch found a precious, infinitesimally small slice in Delft.  All that old Delft-blue of the painted porcelain is not the color I most identify with the city.

I left the exhibition with the certainty that I will go back.  It was as good as they get, from my perspective.

Remembering The Bugbear


A once discreet, and somewhat shameful, world came of age.  Its core idea came to pervade a large part of the gaming industry.

I remember The Bugbear, stepping from the frame, with love.  I’m only now understanding, in a different way, that she will live on haunting virtual dungeons.  She has real magic.  She holds a treasured secret that after every revelation is almost instantly forgotten.

A Moment in Haarlem and Pekelharing, Judith Jansdr Leyster, 1629

Pekelharing, “The Jolly Toper”, Judith Jansdr Leyster (1629)

Living in a foreign place is when it can actually be the hardest to get out and see it but I got a chance to return to a lovely museum (because of a lovely person): the Fans Hals Museum.  I’ve had to put my project on a brief hold to take care of life (much to my frustration…grrr…i’m so happy with my application and want to bring it to closure…anyway) but it can be good to clear the head.  once in a while.

I say it all the time: I’m a fan of staying in museums only as long as you feel like it, but this place is worth a good visit.  Just the old clocks and various period stuff (including lovely wall tiling in places) and the building itself make it worth it.  Of course, also the paintings. 😀

Cornelis Corneliszoon van Haarlem, Hercules and Achelous (1590)

I loved everything in the museum, really, but it all becomes much stranger to me over time.  My fascination, lately, is Judith Leyster  but seeing people like Hals, Vroom and Verspronck together in light of what came before and after, it’s clear they were competitive and sharing and stealing ideas, but also their work can present difficulties in comprehending the work the preceded them.

That long, nutso fascination with the human form in every imaginable (and horrible) pose.  It  was serious fireworks and technological virtuosity to total excess and bizzaro-land, but it wasn’t, of course, just in Holland: much of it was coming from Italy.  So there’s like all kinds of cultural clash in the style and subject.

The Massacre of the Innocents (1591), Cornelius van Haarlem

For the moment, until virtual reality becomes reality, the context and the real thing is just not reproducible.  At first, I find these paintings hard to look at – especially reproduced – and kind of ridiculous.  It’s the gratuitous use of the human form.  However, as a painting and when see it in context, it’s a freaking amazing, masterful and terrifying image.

Martin van Heemskerck, Self-portrait detail from his painting of the Colosseum

The Adoration of the Shepherds and Adoration of the Magi., Maerten van Heemskerck (1546/47)

This is earlier work and some of the subject matter is, um, a little tough here and definitely reflective of a very specific cultural outlook but that can be informative, if it’s contextualized and the color is so strange, to me.  Alien oranges and reds, dense tonal choices and harsh, chromatic dissonances but these choices were also kind of new and, perhaps, alien to the artist as well.  Wonderful, tho.  When I saw it, I could see how it would be sensational at the time it was made, despite the personal discomfort at what’s being presented in the subtext.

That wobbly Northern Renaissance style mixed with a direct and kinda brutally honest subject and presentation.  Somehow the character of the line seems so reflective of the place even when it gets overwhelmed with foreign ideas from other parts of Europe and the world and it can be seen everywhere in the decorative forms, including the lettering, formal flourishes, but especially the architecture.   Whether conscious or unconscious, the hand reflects the person, the time and place but these paintings are also mashups from a period  of change and innovation in Haarlem, becoming a bustling, Protestant city near Amsterdam.

The Arrival at Vlissingen of Frederick V, Elector Palatine (1562/1563–1640), Hendrik Cornelisz. Vroom 

This painting is huge and overwhelmingly cool.  All of Vroom’s work is amazing.  He was an early innovator of the Dutch genre ship paintings and I feel his work contains a visionary image of the place.

My friend commented on the immediately recognizable masterfulness of Leyster, Hals and their peers but I find myself more attracted lately to the edges of where technique and style can’t hide the person and the cultural and ethical subtext is revealed.  Sometimes the artist willing shows it, as I feel Leyster did maybe more than Hals, but some paintings are just wondrous for oddness and the character of a moment and a taste that makes no sense anymore (or mean something entirely different if interpreted by modern standards).

Leyster’s “The Jolly Topper” seems to oscillate between reality and unreality.  There’s a specificity in the portrait and the fiction of an idealized moment against the loose, directness of the still-life on the lower left but you can see a similar kind of oscillation between real and unreal in Heemskerck’s work, too.    Note figure on lower-right part of the left panel, looking outward at the viewer.  It also creates a jarring moment of reality to the image.

They share an immediacy and urgency that even seeps through the acquisition of styles external to them.

Portrait of Jacobus Hendricksz Zaffius (1612), Frans Hals (question mark in wikipedia..dunno…doesn’t matter…)

It’s been said, I know, but there is always narrative being told about Art History and some works are favored over others for a kind of technique that’s readily apparent but personally…over time…I find the misunderstood “failures” of subject, style and technique are just as interesting.  Maybe they look like failures or awkwardness in light of later work, which may either have been more understood in certain media or in a limited technical context or they may have been more favored in time for social and competitive reasons.  They were not failures in any way and I feel their perfection can only be understood when matched with taste and expectations of a moment and a place.  The space itself is, in a way, a presentation of a world-view.

Interior of the St Pieterskerk in Utrecht Pieter Jansz Saenredam 1654

When that narrative gets, sort of, “flattened” then the odd and quirky hands of the artist become more pronounced and expressive of a local narrative, bound to Haarlem and a person, independent of adopted styles or taste, but taste was becoming more cross-cultural and understood within a nascent framework in which a single painting could make you a super star.  History creates weird and alien images to my modern sensibility and my understanding of technique and comprehension of it *way* after-the-fact.

I sometimes try to look at Michelangelo’s and Raphael’s work with a new eye, it’s hard but when I look at that mannered style and the proliferation and variations on it outward in Europe, it looks weird and it becomes, to me, ever more arbitrary what is deemed good.  It makes me question what the underlying ethical message they communicate actually is, given today’s ethics.   It’s not a criticism of their work, of course, it’s seeing it as local work made for local reasons; it’s questioning the structures which select work, and ultimately influence other artists…but some things just draw the eye…

Tulip Book, Judith Jansdr Leyster (1643)