Chintzy pastel flowers, grandiose feasts painted in the soft lighting style of 80’s glamour shots, and Jesus, so much Jesus! We’ve seen these images a thousand times before, and yet we keep coming back for more. European Golden Age masterpieces have prestige; their reputation precedes them, and they are magnetic to people from all walks of life, but why? Everybody paints boats and flowers, so what makes these old-timers so damn special?
With the Golden Age spanning the 17th century, it’s all history, baby. The age of exploration, burgeoning nationalism, bloody religious battles, and pre-revolution was upon us. Health sciences were moving past enemas and blood-letting as the go-to cures for all ailments; lands folk were becoming more aware of their kinsmen, and the crowned heads were embarking upon imperialism, sending ships around the world to strip exotic lands of their goods. Various ideas of “Us” and styles of “Us vs. Other” were reaching new peaks (setting the path for contemporary times), and it was all displayed through art.
Brueghel’s strokes might be fluid, and Caravaggio’s dramatic, religious narratives are indeed meticulously detailed, but let’s be honest, most people aren’t savvy on the technicalities, so something else sparks our intrigue.
While we try to chill out over that plate that’s about to go ass over teakettle, let’s consider the content of van Dyck’s Still Life with Fruit, Olives and Chinese Porcelain. A bonafide feast of globalization lies before us with imported items like olives, citrus and grapes. Coming from afar, they show not only exclusivity but global dominance – the ability to acquire whatever from wherever, however. More importantly is the fine porcelain. Highly prized, it came from across the globe where the Dutch had colonized. And colonization has never been kind to original inhabitants. Chinese porcelain was a big hit in Dutch paintings during this era and clearly symbolized wealth, expansion, and supremacy: only the rich could have it, and nations were going to crack some skulls to get it.
And what about the numerous paintings of merchant ships? Don’t think that subject didn’t carry with it slavery, rape and murder to get that sweet sugar cane and sexy silk.
So, what do Golden Age pieces signify, really?
A decorative expression of great curiosity, cultural progression, and enjoyment of the bounty of the earth? Sure. A rather one-sided view of the world via the lavishly bejeweled and (metaphorically) bloody monocle of the wealthy elite. Absolutely. The ornate and delicate intrigue of the European Golden Age masterpieces are juxtapositions with reality that omit the coordinating display of abject poverty and degradation that supported these great scenes. And that is where (subconsciously) our fascination comes into play, albeit macabre, like not being able to turn away from a car crash. We’re enraptured by what is there but not shown – the deeper, darker layers of the picture, and the world at that time was not so terribly different from today, just more beautifully projected.
Want to see some of the opulence for yourself? Visit the San Diego Museum of Art to view the Brueghel to Canaletto: European Masterpieces from the Grasset Collection exhibition open until August 2, 2016.
By Alice Bauer