Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 3, 2020
Marisa Anne Bass Insect Artifice: Nature and Art in the Dutch Revolt Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019. 312 pp.; 192 color ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780691177151)

Art is autobiography in the nostalgic mode. This is the main lesson of Marisa Anne Bass’s Insect Artifice: Nature and Art in the Dutch Revolt. This learned and refined book examines the life and works of Joris Hoefnagel (1542–1601), the troubled Netherlandish artist who was forced to leave the Low Countries in the wake of the Dutch Revolt and spent his later years at the Bavarian court of Duke Albrecht V and then in Rudolf II’s Prague. In Bass’s telling, the determining event of Hoefnagel’s life was the revolt. Experiences of war and loss permeate his art and thinking, especially his Four Elements, a small album of miniatures designed for circulation among a select few. The album’s naturalistic depictions of birds, quadrupeds, aquatic animals, and insects are allegorical reflections on the human condition, Bass claims forcefully, and they had a therapeutic effect on Hoefnagel as he sublimated his traumatic experiences into art.

Thus for Bass, the visual impact of the Dutch Revolt cannot simply be reduced to a discussion of iconoclasm, as it has been studied repeatedly in recent decades. This war also resulted in the migration of artists who left their homes and brought their art to foreign lands. These migrants, who frequently harbored Protestant beliefs, were often forced to keep silent about their religious and personal convictions, especially when they moved to Catholic lands. Images of nature were an uncontroversial and safe topic. Artists like Hoefnagel relied on emblematic paintings of plants and animals to convey complex religious and personal messages about their troubled lives that could only be cracked open by those in the know. Hoefnagel’s Four Elements should be interpreted from this perspective, Bass argues: the miniatures were not simply pleasant natural curiosities intended to decorate courtly Kunstkammers or princely cabinets of curiosity.

The proposal to rely on emblematic interpretations to make sense of Netherlandish art is obviously not novel. Yet Bass’s book reveals the true power of such analyses when they are done with careful attention to detail. Insect Artifice succeeds because Bass is able to meticulously document the learned circles and fellow artists that provided Hoefnagel with the language to talk about exile while painting nature. It is Hoefnagel’s personal networks, together with the careful study of the artwork, that vouchsafe for and vindicate the approach of this book.

Bass begins her volume with a chapter that examines how Hoefnagel used his signatures and mottoes to forge an identity for himself. For Bass, it is essential to state that Hoefnagel’s identity was originally not that of a courtier. The painter first and foremost fashioned himself as a refugee—by quoting Ovid’s Tristia—and as an artist guided by nature. His relationship to the rulers of Bavaria and Prague remained ambiguous to the end of his life. The name “Hoefnagel” in Dutch refers to the nail that fixes a horseshoe to the foot. As Bass shows, this nail appeared on numerous occasions at unexpected places in Hoefnagel’s oeuvre, a means of the artist inserting himself into the image. In the Air series, tellingly, Hoefnagel’s nail was hammered into an oak above the image of an eagle (the symbol of Habsburg power), signaling the tense and complex relationship of the painter to sovereign power.

The following two chapters reconstruct Hoefnagel’s early career by focusing on two of his projects: Patience, an album of twenty-four drawings with accompanying poetry, and the drawings that Hoefnagel provided for Georg Braun and Frans Hogenberg’s Civitates orbis terrarum (Atlas of the cities of the world). The Patience series was created during Hoefnagel’s temporary stay in England; it provided textual and visual reflections on the troubles brought on by the war between Spain and England and, more generally, by the calamitous events of the sixteenth century. While one may question whether Bass puts slightly too much emphasis on the claim that Hoefnagel left the Low Countries for England primarily to escape the war, and not because of the interests of his business, it is beyond doubt that the Patience series was a direct engagement with the experience of exile. Insect Artifice makes similarly astute observations about Hoefnagel’s contributions to the Civitates orbis terrarum, which often reveal a nostalgic longing for the glorious days of war-ravaged Antwerp.

After the first three chapters, Bass turns to the study of Hoefnagel’s networks. She reconstructs the artist’s intensive participation in the contemporary craze for alba amicorum, or books of friendship. The second half of the sixteenth century saw the rise of this genre, which provided a means to immortalize on paper the relationships between humanists, artists, and other scholars in the contemporary Republic of Letters. Bass is less interested in the rhetorical conventions and strategic purposes of the alba amicorum and focuses more on how they can allow us to listen in to the intimate conversations of long-dead people who were once truly close friends. She examines in detail how Hoefnagel exchanged visual tokens of friendship with figures such as Emanuel van Meteren, Abraham Ortelius, and Johannes Radermacher and even provides evidence of what Hoefnagel’s own album amicorum may have contained. Again and again, these friends used these volumes to directly invoke the troubled moments of the Dutch Revolt, such as the plunder of Antwerp, and to remind each other of the importance of friendship at a time when everything else was going to hell.

The second half of Insect Artifice builds on these foundations to provide an allegorical interpretation of the Four Elements series, proceeding element by element and animal by animal. For our painter, nature and animals were a means to reveal the limitations and foibles of humankind and human society. In Bass’s rich and penetrating account, Hoefnagel’s elephant loves peace and patiently endures the attacks of humans; the wise owl exemplifies how animals can perceive the dangers of the night better than humans; the hedgehog becomes an allegory of how one can curl up and protect themself through virtue; the polyp reveals how one needs to change colors when pursued by enemies; and the spider serves as a reminder that one can get caught up in the web of their own speculations. For these emblems, Hoefnagel purloined mottoes and anecdotes from a variety of ancient and contemporary sources, including the Bible, Erasmus, Conrad Gesner, and Marcus Gheeraerts. He turned the Four Elements into a commonplace book and, in this reviewer’s eyes, made his spectacular endeavor slightly commonplace in the process.

Throughout Insect Artifice, Bass provides an ideal, humanist reading of Hoefnagel’s oeuvre, positing the painter in opposition to the world of sixteenth-century court culture. Yet one wonders if Hoefnagel’s troubled experiences were indeed all that different from courtly life in the period, given the enthusiastic reception of his works in Munich and Prague. As Baltasar Gracián revealed so eloquently a few decades later, the early modern court was also the site of intrigue and enmity. A courtier’s fall and exile were frequent, well-scripted events familiar to everyone. In Munich, Albrecht V devoted his whole life to the project of uniting and pacifying Bavaria in the aftermath of religious wars and aristocratic infighting; in Prague, the melancholy Rudolf II would end up being dethroned by his own brother. For such rulers, Hoefnagel’s paintings about war and exile may well have offered the chance to reflect on their own lives.

Insect Artifice is a magnificently illustrated, erudite, and profoundly insightful book. It offers an original and provocative interpretation of how Hoefnagel relied on art to remedy the wounds that the Dutch Revolt had inflicted upon him. As Karel van Mander wrote, Hoefnagel used his art as a “refuge of consolation.” Yet, throughout the book, I kept asking myself whether, for Hoefnagel, the incessant production of images was really a refuge. Was it not instead the recurring symptom of continuing trauma? Perhaps painting was not the cure but a disease of its own.

Dániel Margócsy
University of Cambridge