Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 8, 2017
Karina H. Corrigan, Jan van Campen, Femke Diercks, and Janet C. Blyberg, eds. Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age Exh. cat. Salem, MA and Amsterdam: Peabody Essex Museum and Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 2015. 356 pp.; 305 color ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780300212877)
Exhibition schedule: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, October 17, 2015–January 17, 2016; Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA, February 27–June 5, 2016

Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age is an illustrated catalogue produced to accompany the Peabody Essex Museum and Rijksmuseum exhibition of the same name. Focusing attention on the important role the Dutch played in facilitating and celebrating the material results of cross-cultural trade, it draws together a collection of stunning objects that were exchanged between Europe and Asia in the seventeenth century. The objects selected are remarkably wide-ranging not only in their forms and media—jewelry, textile, porcelain, furniture, sculpture, clothing, and oil painting, to name just a few—but also in terms of each object’s place within the complicated circulation of materials among and between Asian and European countries. The catalogue encompasses, among other groupings, art made in Asia specifically for export to foreign markets; art commissioned by Dutch East Indies Company (VOC) employees to embellish their colonial residences; Asian objects that were not originally intended for export but were “repurposed” by Dutch owners in Europe; Asian objects influenced by European imagery but intended exclusively for Asian patrons; and Dutch-made imitations and representations of Asian art for home markets. The context for each individual object’s creation is often quite distinct, and by uniting them under the theme of luxury, the exhibition risks simplifying the variety and specificity of cultural environments through which the objects circulated and in which they acquired meaning. Difference more than similarity emerge from a comparison of the circumstances that produced, for example, an opulent jacket made of Dutch leather, lined with European printed cotton and intended for a member of the Japanese elite (cat. 30); an etched Rembrandt self-portrait of the artist dressed as an “oriental potentate” (cat. 81); and a mother-of-pearl embellished ewer from Gujarat, India, of a type similar to examples owned by François I and Catherine of Austria (cat. 47).

Other recent exhibitions equally expansive in scope—including Baroque 1620–1800: Style in the Age of Magnificence (Victoria and Albert Museum, 2009) (click here for review) and Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500–1800 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013–14) (click here for review)—approached early modern globalism by tracing a single style (Baroque) or material (textile) as it moved around the world, a strategy that allowed the curators to put a variety of cultures in conversation with one another. Other exhibitions, for example the earlier Rijksmuseum show The Dutch Encounter with Asia, 1600–1950 (Rijksmuseum, 2002–3) (click here for review), looked less broadly across geography and more deeply in time through a chronological organization of 350 years of material culture related to Dutch colonization of the islands now comprising Indonesia, which resulted in a history that suggests a symbiosis between artistic and political endeavors. Asia in Amsterdam takes a different tack by focusing on a relatively brief moment, the seventeenth-century Golden Age, and a single point of reception, elite Dutch culture, as the lens through which to understand European engagement with an increasingly expansive early modern world. This approach construes Asia in the broadest of terms and Europe in the most narrow, positioning elite Amsterdammers as the turning point through which objects from all the cultures of Asia were filtered. In some respects, this framework aligns with Benjamin Schmidt’s argument in his recent Inventing Exoticism: Geography, Globalism, and Europe’s Early Modern World (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015) (click here for review). But if Schmidt argues for the central role of the Amsterdam printing industry in constructing a particularly Dutch “brand” of exotic material arts, Asia in Amsterdam suggests a love of luxury rather than commercial promotion and self-definition united Dutch elites in their acquisition of these objects.

The catalogue’s introduction defines luxuries as “goods that may or may not have fulfilled a basic life need but whose execution was more refined and costly than functionally necessary” (14). Despite the clarity of this definition, the editors acknowledge that what constituted a luxury was a subject of debate in the seventeenth century as today, and several of the objects within the catalogue resist the boundaries of this definition depending upon the time and place of their consumption (for example, Chinese porcelain, which in the Netherlands declined in status over the course of the seventeenth century until it became an almost commonplace ware). Nonetheless, the careful selection of beautiful objects that make up this exhibition catalogue easily convinces the reader that Dutch elites were patrons of sumptuous materials and exquisite craftsmanship. Less explicit is whether a taste for expensive and artfully made objects should be understood as equivalent to a desire for exotic and curious imagery. Does a wealthy Dutch woman wearing a pin of French design and Dutch manufacture (cat. 50a) signal the same “taste,” or even the same status, as a burgomaster who collects Indian miniatures of Mughal rulers (cat. 56a)? Both the diamonds that decorate the broach and the paintings that make up the burgomaster’s collection are of foreign origin, but the degree to which exoticism defines these objects seems a difference of kind as well as of magnitude. The terms “curious” and “exotic” are invoked in many descriptions throughout the catalogue, but they are not defined as precisely as luxury, perhaps in acknowledgement that these words communicate concepts more nuanced, changeable, and situational than wealth. As a result, the catalogue inspires questions that will help the field look deeper into issues of seventeenth-century taste, and specifically the ways that foreignness was valued, embellished, and also domesticated in the Dutch Republic.

In Capitalism and Cartography in the Dutch Golden Age (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015) (click here for review) Elizabeth Sutton makes a powerful argument for the Dutch West India Company’s coercive use of visual imagery to rationalize capitalism, the commodification of land, and colonization in Africa and the Americas. The organization of the Asia in Amsterdam catalogue invites reflection on similar imbrications by foregrounding Amsterdam’s reception of Asian art with three essays: “The Dutch East India Company in Asia”; “Merchants among Kings: Dutch Diplomatic Encounters in Asia”; and “The Hybrid World of Batavia,” each of which touches upon the human costs of commerce and colonialism (the first of these, Martine Gosselink’s essay on the VOC, is especially attentive to these issues). These essays bring the Amsterdam-focused second half of the catalogue into sharper relief and suggest that things from Asia would have conveyed complex associations—what we might consider an aesthetics of mercantilism—to elite European viewers, many of whom were closely involved in VOC trade. A catalogue is not a monograph, and the tightly focused argument of a book such as Sutton’s is rightly not Asia in Amsterdam’s aim. Instead, the marvel of this publication is its breadth. Described as a “match made in museum heaven” (9), the collaboration between the Peabody Essex Museum and Rijksmuseum resulted in four editors managing thirty contributing authors to build a text of seven thematic essays and over one hundred catalogue entries. The work that went into organizing this cross-Atlantic conversation rewards the reader by prompting not only a reconsideration of seventeenth-century responses to Asian arts, but also a renewed attention to the origins and processes by which museum collections are formed. Founded just a year apart, 1798 (Rijksmuseum) and 1799 (Peabody Essex Museum), the two museums contain some of the world’s richest collections of visual materials related to early modern commerce. The preservation and celebration of these objects, which were discarded and decommissioned in other collections, suggests a shared concept of heritage between the United States and the Netherlands, which inflects not only an understanding of the museums’ formation but also a framing of the history of global trade.

I read this catalogue with Jonathan Hay’s Sensuous Surfaces: The Decorative Object in Early Modern China (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2010) (click here for review) in mind. Hay’s attention to the material presence of things, his analysis of how objects attract viewers sensorially as well as intellectually, framed my engagement with Asia in Amsterdam and highlighted the text’s most rewarding benefit. By resisting the urge to unite its materials under a single unifying argument, the catalogue allows each object to stand as an independent entity, and as a result emphasizes each work’s material presence. In her essay “Asia on the Herengracht: Furnishing Amsterdam with Asian Imports,” Karina H. Coorigan gives voice to sensorial effects by considering the consequences new tactile experiences—the feel of cool, thin Chinese porcelain or fine, light Indian silks—might have had on elite Amsterdam residents (127). Here as in many places in the catalogue, the reader is offered a space to meditate on the persuasive pleasures of finely wrought things, and to consider the complex histories concealed by their luxurious surfaces.

Dawn Odell
Associate Professor, Department of Art, Lewis and Clark College