Old Masters in a modern market

What might the stern sitters, gazing from their dark canvasses, make of the pounding of the djembe drums that stomps from the bustling Greenmarket Square into the Old Town House, home to Cape Town’s celebrated Michaelis collection of 17th century Dutch and Flemish masters?
It’s an odd soundtrack, but the bustle of the market is actually a fitting accompaniment to
this collection, as the Dutch were the first to place a commercial value on art. They were
obsessed with both commerce and art, and a passion for painting permeated all strata of
society. The wealthy middle-class displayed their status through oil paintings hung on the
wall. As churches became more austere, Protestant homes became more elaborate.
A painting became a commodity, and for the first time financial value was attached to
works of art. The first art galleries appeared and a flurry of painting resulted. An estimated
five to ten million paintings were produced during the golden age of Netherlandish art.

Only about 2% of these art works survive; the rest were damaged or lost to war, which
happens to make this collection, the largest of its kind outside Europe and America, even
more valuable. Valuable yet controversial. It’s not fashionable to reflect on the artistic glories of South Africa’s former colonial powers.
In “Baroque meets Modern”, Hayden Proud, curator of the Michaelis Collection has hung
an exhibition that creates interesting interactions between Dutch masters and
contemporary art. Deliberately provocative, this exhibition is designed to stimulate debate.
As Hayden says, , “There is perhaps no other site in Africa where Western European and
African traditions have collided and mutated more than in South Africa, and specifically at
the Cape. There is perhaps no better site for study, reflection and discussion on these issues
than Cape Town’s Old Town House.”
Hayden, has re-hung the Michaelis collection in a way that is designed “to make
people realise that the Dutch paintings are the roots of our modernity”. Hence, the visual
custard pie that greets you when you first enter: between the typically restrained Dutch
portraits is a modern approach to portraiture – a huge canvas, splattered in colour.
Modern painting is generally thought to have been initiated in France with the pre-
Impressionists who shocked the artistic standards of the time by painting the real
world. But Hayden points out that the first reference to modernity appeared in Holland
during the 17th century when a father advised his son to make a “modern composition”,
meaning to paint a scene from everyday life.
The Dutch were masters of realism, and they discovered the miracle of oil paint, which
allowed the texture of clothing to be conveyed to such life-like effect. To this day, the
perception remains that oil painting is more valuable than tempera or watercolour. Hence,
Hayden includes in the exhibition works that explore and revel in the medium of paint
and perspective.
The Michaelis collection exerts a vital influence on contemporary artists. A portrait,
ironically painted by an artist called Pieter de Putter, inspired Andrew Putter’s video-based
“singing portrait” Secretly I will love you more, which was exhibited in 2007/8. Helmut
Starcke’s series of works, “The Muse of History”, which comments critically on colonialism by
reworking original paintings, resulted from the time the artist spent contemplating the
collection. In one striking work, Clio, the muse of history (2001), he replaces the European
model who is posing in Vermeer’s original with a San woman and child.
The effect on our young, emerging South African artists can be seen in a video in the
corner that shows a young Khayelitsha artist, Anathi Tyawa, who visited the collection and
was inspired to paint his Xhosa mother in the Dutch fashion – complete with neck ruff!
Dawn Kennedy – Oct 12th 2011, 10:01

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