Chapters of the Exhibition

Painting experienced a great boom in the 17th century in the Netherlands in the course of economic development. Genre painting was held in high esteem by wealthy citizens and merchants because of its very realistic depictions. The elegant, atmospheric interiors and family scenes of the Delft fine painters were popular, as were the exaggerated, ironic depictions of the peasant milieu and licentious goings-on of the common people.

Another essential part of the presentation is dedicated to superordinate aspects and sketches, on the basis of socio-cultural developments and political backgrounds, the Dutch society of the 17th century, which the selected artists seemingly depicted in their paintings. In addition, the exhibition uses socio-critical issues of the 21st century to evaluate the depictions and links them to our own reality of life. 

In the exhibition, the works of the Dutch masters meet works by Stefan Marx and Lars Eidinger. The two artists reflect on the themes and motifs, place them in a larger context, and thereby remove traditional boundaries. This juxtaposition, unusual at first glance, creates an exciting dialogue that, in its interaction, enables new views and perspectives on the art of the Old Masters. 

The Representation of the Woman

The social change taking place in the Northern Netherlands was also reflected in a reassessment of marriage and family cohabitation. In 1664 the Dutch folk poet Jacob Cats had, by way of example, described the typical everyday life of families, including the role of women as above all virtuous housewives. The bourgeois idyll subsequently became a popular subject. This also involved a revaluation of the woman’s tasks and their representation. She was considered to be the centre of the family and is portrayed as a virtuous daughter and wife, a capable housewife and loving mother who takes an active part in her child’s life. As a young mother, she is shown withdrawn while nursing her child, a subject which is new in painting. Usually, until the 19th century, newborns from wealthy bourgeois families were handed over to nurses for care. Child education also became an important motif, for instance, the mother caringly teaching her children to walk or read. Beyond this, the wife – in her role as a housewife – is depicted carrying out numerous everyday tasks; sewing, knitting or working on the loom were popular pictorial themes as symbols of female virtue.

The Letter

From the mid-1650s, the letter attained a prominent role as a motif within the bourgeois genre. This resulted from its increasing importance as a means of communication in the educated Dutch society. Written correspondence became an important means for both the private exchange of ideas and the transmission of business messages. A veritable culture of letter writing thus emerged. Popular handbooks such as Le Secrétaire à la mode by the French writer Jean-Puget de la Serre offered help in formulating love, business or condolence letters. When necessary, they even contained entire sample letters meant to help the writers to strike the right tone. Pieter de Hooch painted different variations of the letter theme, from writing and delivering them to reading. It was predominantly women who were depicted receiving and reading letters in elegant interiors in a calm, atmospheric setting. The content of these messages generally remains unknown, but hidden symbols or images integrated into the painting can provide clues to the sometimes piquant or sad content of the letters.

The Elegant Society

With the economic boom in the Northern Netherlands, society also underwent change. The population grew rapidly. Within a short time, a class of wealthy merchant families and private citizens emerged in the cities who could afford a lavish lifestyle. These wealthy citizens bought houses, which they decorated with works of art, fine porcelain, expensive furniture and tapestries. They dressed in luxurious fabrics, owned status symbols and openly displayed their wealth and social standing. Elegant, atmospheric interior scenes with women and men sitting at tables by Pieter de Hooch or Gerard ter Borch were popular with collectors. The paintings show representative rooms that were used as reception rooms or salons and, in our modern understanding, were not private. De Hooch did not paint his interiors entirely realistically, but rather combined various elements he had actually found in town houses with his own imagination. Thus, although the marble or natural stone floors appear to be quite realistic, they were rarely laid due to their high prices. Increasingly, the elegant society was also depicted outdoors, in courtyards and arbours.

Stefan Marx (*1979) - I’ll be your mirror *

Stefan Marx’s pictures reflect fragments of impressions. The poetic, humorous, thoughtful and critical metaphors unfold their emotional strength owing to the combination with his own typography. Stefan Marx often alternates the style of his typeface; sometimes it is dynamic, then again blurred or absorbed by the background, to the point where it is only partially legible. The artist draws his creative inspiration from spontaneous, daily observations when he is out and about. He records these impressions in quickly executed drawings, alongside notes and quotes picked up from songs or everyday conversations. It is this source material that Stefan Marx transfers onto canvases. In the process, he also translates the emotions he felt when capturing particular moments. This makes the works highly personal, for he takes quite a critical look at society and questions social norms. In his works, Stefan Marx reacts directly to the genre scenes of the 17th century and comments on the depictions. This pointed juxtaposition suddenly creates an exciting interaction, and one not only realizes the unbroken topicality of the Old Masters. The figures suddenly come to life.

Social Antagonisms

Humans depicted in their everyday surroundings attained new significance in painting and developed into a subject of its own worth. This is reflected in the interest in supposedly simple, unspectacular motifs, with scenes ranging from interiors of the well-off, educated bourgeoisie, to poorer parlours and even beggars – adults and children alike. Dutch society in the 17th century was considered to be particularly progressive and tolerant, its social network exemplary. In addition to members of the upper class, the middle class determined political life and held public office. The economic upswing in the Northern Netherlands involved an increase in the demand for skilled and unskilled labour. As a result, the various trades and crafts became the focus of genre painting, and each occupation took on meaning in its pictorial representation. Some of the people lived in poverty due to unemployment and roamed the streets begging. Caring for the poor was considered a duty of the rich and a commandment of Christian charity. Nevertheless, the depicted people were not real people, but represent interchangeable, anonymous figures in their social roles.

Lars Eidinger (*1976) - The Perfect Present

When all is said and done, it is the odd moments of our lives that we might remember most and that will give future generations the puzzling assignment to make some sense of it all. What distinguishes Eidinger’s work is his uncanny ability to show us skewed moments from all over the world to demonstrate the same ubiquitous samenesss of ordinary peculiarities. Eidinger shows us extraordinary ordinary moments – his project makes us look at ourselves and our accoutrements in new ways. There is a feeling of isolation, perhaps longing for a restoration of what might have been more together once upon a time. Is there a sense of doom, of impending disaster? Only you, the viewer, can decide.

Gerhard Clausing

Pictures of Peasants

In the 17th century depictions of celebrating peasants surged in popularity. They show village festivals in the open air with peasants whose excessive drinking leads to boisterous behaviour. Contemporary collectors most likely also valued these works in view of their complexity: on the one hand, the illustrated crude humour offered amusement for the public, especially since the way the figures were represented often resembled caricatures. At the same time, they could be regarded as a vivid reminder of the consequences of unrestrained alcohol consumption. For, despite their individual appearance, the depicted figures can be understood as personifications of stereotypical behaviour. Painters like Adriaen Brouwer, the brothers Adriaen and Isaac van Ostade or David Teniers the Younger actually created such works so frequently that they were called peasant
painters. Often, the paintings of peasants are also directly related to visualizations of taste, smell or hearing and thus provide references to one of the five senses. Such allegorical aspects were increasingly intermingled with everyday scenes.

Games and Pastimes

Among the most popular motifs in Dutch genre painting were scenes with card, ball and board players or gamblers. The mood is usually one alternating between seriousness and fun: spectators cannot refrain from throwing in comments; players exchange knowing glances or get carried away with gestures of victory. But a second look reveals: little is as it seems and strains of luck can come to a sudden end. Games served as popular symbols of wastefulness, imprudence or deception. Repeatedly, torn cards or evaporating smoke appear as signs of transience. They symbolically refer to the tightrope walk between luck and misfortune in gambling. Works depicting soldiers were also highly esteemed. The artists provided insights into their everyday lives with depictions of guardrooms. Often suspicious of the soldiers, the painters reflected this in their paintings by portraying them as arrogant, self-indulgent, lazy or gambling.

Winter Pieces – Wintertjes

The so-called Little Ice Age, lasting from the early 15th to the 19th century, had brought numerous long and cold winters to Central Europe. Time and again, the canals and other bodies of water in the Netherlands froze over. Multiple figures populate the paintings of vast winter landscapes: kolf players, skaters and sledders meet with those who have to carry out their everyday tasks despite the ice and cold. Many of the winter scenes were not about rendering topographically correct and recognizable views. Instead, the focus was on the people’s everyday lives, with the result that two art forms collide in the winter landscapes: genre and the landscape painting. Much like in many other works, moral aspects can also be found in these motifs: ice skating was seen as a symbol of the journey through life, which everyone manages with varying degrees of skill. The possible loss of a firm footing on the ice can be interpreted as a statement about the general unpredictability of life.