Shelley A. Sackett
“It started with spices from Asia…” reads the inscription above a display of glass columns of cinnamon, clove and peppercorns that greet the visitor to “Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age”, the latest world-class exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum. And indeed, the 200 extraordinary examples of paintings, textiles, ceramics, silver, lacquerware, furniture, jewelry and books would never have found their way from their native Asia to 17th century Dutch households were it not for the spice trade that originated in Amsterdam and single-handedly created the Dutch Golden Age.
The exhibit, five years in the making and co-organized by the Rijksmuseum of Amsterdam, runs through June 5. PEM is the exclusive U.S. venue. Founded less than a year apart – in 1798 and 1799 – the Dutch and Salem museums boast world-renowned Asian export art collections inextricably linked to early international trade, and pieces from both collections form the backbone of the exhibit.
Thanks to the painstaking work of a team of 35 talented PEM staff members, “Asia in Amsterdam” navigates the complex story of the transformative influence Asian luxuries had on Dutch art and life in bite-sized chunks. Combining lessons in history, sociology, economics, arts and crafts, the galleries are logically organized to tell a seamless story. The animated maps, interactive digital displays and short films add a deeper access to the material.
It all started with pepper, nutmeg and cloves and the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC) that was set up in 1602 to import them from the Maluku Islands in Indonesia back to the Netherlands. Before long, the VOC was the most powerful and largest trade and shipping company in the world, employing more than 400,000 Dutch and other European and Asian workers. The exhibit minces no words about VOC’s relentless and, at times, ruthless pursuit of profit at the expense of the local people. The toll of human suffering casts a dark shadow over these sparkling jewels.
Soon, in addition to spices and tea, the VOC began importing costly textiles, porcelain, lacquer and silver from China, India, Japan, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. For the austere Dutch Protestants, who were used to eating from heavy stoneware and wearing drab wool and linen clothing, the introduction of gossamer thin brightly colored Indian cotton, feather light and elegant Chinese porcelain and elaborate lacquered coffers inlaid with mother of pearl and other exotic materials suddenly turned their monochromatic world into Technicolor. Amsterdam quickly became the seat of global economy and enormous wealth.
“One can only imagine the delight and amazement that these imports must have inspired in the Netherlands,” said Karina Corrigan, PEM’s H.A. Crosby Forbes Curator of Asian Export Art. Gallery after gallery is chockfull of examples of the lavish Asian imports the Dutch consumer suddenly couldn’t live without. Paintings by Dutch artists illustrate how the wealthy incorporated these sensual delights into their everyday lives. Fashionable Dutch men wore silk Japanese robes, Dutch women hosted elaborate Chinese tea parties, and room after room of wealthy Dutch households boasted the items on display. Many built special “porcelain display rooms” to show off their collections. Even Rembrandt van Rijn was “a phenomenal shopper”, collecting Asian objects and Indian miniature painting, which inspired many of his drawings and etchings.
Perhaps the best (and most amusing) example of the new European opulence and swagger is a sumptuous lacquer crate inlaid with mother of pearl that opens to reveal a portable commode, complete with red velvet and gilded mounts. Built in the 17th century and later modified in France, it found a special niche at the Chateau de Versailles.
Another example of the colossal obsession with materiality is Paulus Moreelse’s “Portrait of a Young Woman.” Apparently, his young unknown subject (rumored to be port of the court of the House of Orange-Nassau) couldn’t decide what to wear for this portrait, causing her severe anxiety lest she appear too austere. The diamond brooch from India with its 208 gems hopefully set her young mind at rest.
The array of objects and their sensual allure is at times overwhelming. While the exotic and intriguing imports reflect the VOC’s global reach and the Dutch voracious appetite for its bounty, “Asia in Amsterdam” doesn’t simply admire these objects. It goes one step further, examining their revolutionary impact on the Dutch imagination and way of life in an unobtrusive but instructive way.
As Amsterdam’s status as the epicenter of global trade grew, so did its prosperous population, and innovations that reached into all facets of life both in Europe and throughout the world followed. With so much porcelain in the Netherlands, even common people could afford to use it daily. Asian spices both brightened Dutch palates and revised how Europeans treated illnesses. Amsterdam became the center of the publishing world, growing from one publishing house in 1570 to 129 by the year 1670. Dutch books, sold throughout Europe, fueled curiosity about the wider world, especially Asia.
Dutch artists and artisans appropriated the material Asian culture, representing it in still-life paintings, delftware and furniture. Dutch design of textiles, silver and lacquer were not far behind.
The “Thought Leaders” section of the exhibition is particularly interesting. It considers the ramifications of exposure to the worlds of far off places, including their peoples, plants, animals, religions and medical practices, on Dutch scholars. Adding a soothing musical layer is “The Golden Dream: 17th Century Music from the Low Countries,” by the Newberry Consort with Marion Verbruggen and Paul O’Dette, which plays in the background.
The exhibit ends as it began, with contemplative words painted on a wall. “At certain times, great achievements in art, science and commerce come together to define a golden age,” it reads. Against a backdrop listing Renaissance Florence, Mughal India, the Tang Dynasty and 1920’s New York City, it asks the visitor to consider where and when the next big movement might come.
To think, it could all start with something as small as spices.
For more information, go to pem.org.