SALEM, Mass. — How do you feel about nutmeg? I love it, especially in this cake. Grown in the Banda Islands, the spice was so alluring to Dutch traders in the early seventeenth century that they killed every adult male inhabitant of the islands when they balked at the Dutch terms of trade. Less violently but no less urgently, the Dutch also sought all manner of luxury objects made in Asia, some of which are on view in the exhibition Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age, at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.
As the show makes clear, Dutch art manifestly demonstrates the love of Asian products. You can hardly look at a still life without your gaze gliding over some glossy export from the East — porcelain, pearls, silks, or shells. Portraits show that many well-heeled Dutch men wear Japanse Rokken, padded Japanese coats that were considered the height of at-home fashion and comfort. Rembrandt printed the velvety first impressions of his etchings on Japanese rice paper, such as his “Portrait of Abraham Francen” (c 1657). Crouching among the treasures collected on the art lover Francen’s table is a porcelain seated Buddha.
The exhibition doesn’t stop at presenting images like this, but also exults in displaying examples of just the sort of objects they depict — the Buddha, the Rokken, the porcelain — as well as a host of other Asian artworks using all sorts of deluxe materials: lacquer, inlay, ivory, mother of pearl, silver, diamonds, ebony, and embroidery.
Many of the items were made for foreign trade, purveyed by the Dutch East India Company (or the VOC, abbreviated from Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie). The great granddaddy of all vaguely sinister private corporations, the VOC had both international reach and shadowy yet omnipresent domestic power. In addition to the Banda Massacre, it wrested control of the Asian spice trade from the Spanish and Portuguese, went on to own virtually all of Indonesia, and monopolized trade with Japan for 200 years.
Sometimes the items were made to order for the Europeans, like a plate in blue-and-white porcelain with the VOC logo — its O and C ominously impaled on the arms of the V — painted inside a central disc like an eye upon the diner. In other instances, the objects were simply acquired for their intrinsic beauty, such as lacquer chests from the “Fine Group” — a limited series of objects that Japan allowed the VOC to purvey only from 1635 to 1645. While they were made for the export market, the chests are of the highest quality, featuring landscapes adorned with crystals and mother of pearl, the blacks somehow simultaneously deeply matte and lustrous, sprinkled with gold and silver flakes that create rich dimensionality within the surface of the material.
Once created, the VOC’s global network enabled cross-continental collaboration. A capacious silk bedspread, for instance, was embroidered in China but following the design of an Indian chintz bedspread, which was itself derived from European decorative motifs. The Dutch artist-naturalist Maria Sybilla Merian went to South America, where she drew the native butterflies; once engraved in the Netherlands, the images traveled to China, where they were copied on a porcelain vase, and sold back to the Dutch.
Such a wealth of interaction naturally leaves plenty of room for creative misunderstanding. Dutch embossed leather wall coverings marketed in Japan, it turns out, made a fine material for Jinbaori, vest-like surcoats worn by nobles and samurai. The Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, for her part, had a room in her palace decorated with hundreds of Persian miniatures. Created as single sheets meant for albums, the miniatures were collaged into Rococo panels by a Western artist, the disjunctions between the scenes artfully concealed under painted shrubbery.
The popularity of Asian objects naturally spurred emulation from Dutch artists and craftspeople. The best known product of this sort is blue-and-white delftware, which aspired to Japanese porcelain, both in its coloring and in its designs. Displayed next to the nearly translucent porcelain, the delftware looks not exactly clunky, but rather charmingly chubby, like a toddler’s hands. In his wooden panels inlaid with mother of pearl, Dirck van Rijswijck combined the aesthetic of Japanese lacquer with the illusionism of Western art, pushing the boundaries between image and object.
With so much lavish beauty, the exhibition is heady with the intoxicating aura of desirable commodities. This, along with the objects’ variety of form and origin, lends it a carnival air. The curators have chosen to amplify the festive mood with bright walls, jolly piped-in seventeenth-century Dutch secular music, and somewhat pandering attractions, such as a large, beautifully lacquered box with a teaser of a label under a knobbed panel: Lift to find out what it is! When you do, you learn that the box was a royal toilet — an objet d’fart. There are also three large LCD screens — one offers a map of shipping routes, with little jiggling ships moving across an animated ocean, and the other two show identical video loops of one of those adorable little street scenes that Amsterdam specializes in, complete with cyclists whizzing past.
These screens point to a certain blithe cheer about the exhibition’s subject, which is, fundamentally, the beautiful results of European greed and cultural imperialism whose aftermath is still felt today. Why not use one of those LCD screens for a parallel street view in a former Dutch colony? Or shift the camera’s eye on the Amsterdam street to include one of the ubiquitous snack bars that offer dishes like bami goreng and loempia, brought to the country by Indonesians who emigrated in the wake of the violent collapse of the Dutch power there in the late 1940s?
After all, the beauty of these objects is easy to see. What is less clear to the viewer is the human cost that extends beyond genocide for nutmeg (which is given a respectful airing in the show). For instance, one of the most striking images of the exhibition is an elegantly posed group portrait of a burgher family at a country home. This is hardly a novel subject, but closer inspection reveals that the mistress and children of the house are part Asian, and the servants in the wings are Indonesian slaves. In fact, while the family’s wealth was real, the stone porticoed house is fictional, as is the mountainous landscape that it overlooks. The woman is Cornelia van Nijenroode, the daughter of a VOC governor and a Japanese courtesan. When her father died, she was taken from her mother at the age of four to be raised Christian, in an orphanage.
The naturalistic power of Dutch art is so persuasive that it requires research in order to root out these facts, and imagination to flesh out the emotional damage of the slavery, prostitution, and parental removal that are depicted, or latent, in the image. An art exhibition must naturally attempt to appeal to a broad swath of viewers and is not a typical venue for hard truths. However, as it brings to light the significance of Asian art in the Dutch luxury trade, the show could also plumb more profoundly some of the consequences of that luxury for the people who made it happen.
Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age continues at the Peabody Essex Museum (East India Square, 161 Essex Street, Salem, Massachusetts) through June 5.