Interview with Arthur Wheelock

Jan. 28, 2009
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On Feb. 7 the Milwaukee Art Museum opens it’s new feature exhibit “Jan Lievens: A Dutch Master Rediscovered.” Among the exhibit’s chief organizers is Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., curator of northern baroque painting at the National Gallery of Art. He talks to us about the upcoming exhibit.

How does this exhibit set out to advance our understanding of Jan Lievens’ art beyond previous exhibits?

Well there was one in Braunschweig, Germany, in 1979 and in art history terms that’s actually quite a long time ago. A lot has been learnt about Lievens and Rembrandt in the interim ... This show incorporate an awful lot of new research that’s been done on this artist in the past 30 years.

Have advances in picture dating technology during since then helped broaden our understanding of his work?

Well technology has advanced, documents have been discovered. Our understanding of the relationship between these artists, and an awful lot beyond just the Rembrandt and Lievens questions but Dutch art in general, has been learnt. The place of the court in Dutch art was not very well understood back then. The place of van Dyck in the Netherlands wasn’t fully understood. The international Flemish style wasn’t very well perceived. And in addition to that a number of the paintings in the show were not known or were reattributed to Lievens. You have a lot of paintings that have been restored so the appearance of a lot of the paintings has changed a lot – the power and drama of the brushstrokes and the color just wasn’t the same. I saw that show back then…and I had the sense that it didn’t change our view of the world very much, but walking through this show and seeing it unfold has absolutely changed my understanding of Dutch art. So somehow this show, for all these little reasons, helps you understand how much of a player in this world Lievens actually was.

How about in terms of Rembrandt’s place in the story of art – has your perception of that changed while putting together this exhibit?

Well I think it’s changed our understanding of Rembrandt a lot. This doesn’t diminish Rembrandt in any way – that wasn’t the point of the show. We’re not trying to say Lievens is as good as Rembrandt... But we’re trying to say Lievens is a very important player and one of the things directly connected to Rembrandt is the realization that in this early period of Lievens’ work he was actively working in a very effective, powerful way before Rembrandt even starts out as an artist. So the relationship of Rembrandt to Lievens as a result of this show is very different, and Lievens is really instigating a lot of the new approaches to art that were going on in Leiden in the 1620s. That doesn’t make Rembrandt any less of an artist but it explains an awful lot more about the dynamics of what was going on at the time.

Was it uncommon for artists to work in all the genres that Lievens worked in?

This is another interesting question that this show raises. As you walk through it you see Lievens working not only in a number of genres but in a number of different styles. We tend to simplify our view of these artists and how they work, and in the Dutch 17th century a lot of these artists worked for the open market so they had to have a distinctive style so people could say, yes that’s a Jan Steen and that’s a van Goyen etc, so they tended to have distinctive styles that became generic styles that they became known for, but even with those artists you find much more variety than we tend to associate with them. Vermeer paints radically different early paintings from later paintings; Jan Steen paints very different portraits than he does genre scenes. You can find substantial stylistic differences in lots of artist works and you can find lots of artist who work in different genres, but we tend to think of them being much more limited in range than they probably were. This show, however, is really at the extreme of range and genre and really raises the question: Is this really as extreme as it seems or have we just simplified other artists so we don’t see this range in their work? Until this show we also had a very limited sense of what Lievens did as an artists and this show explodes the possibilities.

You suggest in the introductory essay of the exhibit catalogue that this range and the fact he moved about a lot was partly the reason he lapsed into obscurity – the fact that he was a bit of an anomaly. Are you suggesting now that perhaps we should see many other artists in this way – as anomalies?

I think he’s probably more than others but something I’ve thought a lot about since writing that essay is how unusual is this? I’m thinking now he’s not such an anomaly but that we just exclude things that don’t fit into our categorization.

Did you at any point consider concentrating on certain aspects of his career rather than presenting a broad overview, or did you always feel the latter was more important in promoting our understanding of his work?

I think that no one knew the whole lot together so it seemed the most beneficial thing we could do was to see who was this man Jan Lievens who we only knew from one little segment of his life. And the way we exhibited here you had quite distinctive periods. You could see groups of paintings from the early period, the middle period, the later period. What I found beyond this issue was that even within those blocks of periods of style there was enormous variety if you looked carefully. You would find huge differences in techniques in paintings that were next to one another…that adaptability was visible all through his life from painting to painting. You can’t say this is the way he paints now, because he paints this way for a certain type of painting and in the same year a different way for a different type of painting. And he seems incredibly able to adapt a style to the needs of the patron commission so he really sublimates his individuality…another question that fascinates me is: Is this good or bad? Is it a strength or weakness?

Does Rembrandt exhibit the same range and adaptability?

I think he does to a greater degree than we’ve accepted in our overview. Things get built into our memory image of Rembrandt and that tends to include works that you look at unquestioningly and perhaps not as critically as you would an artist you don’t know as well. It’s interesting – your response to some paintings is often deeply embedded inside you. You often don’t look freshly at them…

Would you like to somewhere down the line focus on a more intimate aspect of his career? Can you imagine him not being studied in such close context with Rembrandt?

Well I think we do in the show. We purposely didn’t show any Rembrandts in the show. Of course, There’s no way to escape Rembrandt… they’re friends and rivals. If you’re going to be dealing with the Leiden period from the 1620s and 30s there’s no way to avoid Rembrandt. Of course you could look at Lievens in Antwerp and then you’re free of Rembrandt, and in the 1640s and the latter part of his life even though they have similar patrons. Actually I think it would be very healthy for Lievens if you could put him into a broader context of Dutch art. Rembrandt has his own stream, his own line. Lievens separates himself from that stream and he’s in a stream with other artists. That stream has not really been developed or focused upon. That might be interesting – to figure out that stream and where Lievens situates himself with other artists… the late portraits of Lievens are very fantastic but he’s left Rembrandt’s world long ago and is doing something different. Rembrandt isn’t the only other artist in the Netherlands so who else is trying to explore portraiture in a different way. I think that would be very interesting – to put Lievens into that time and define what’s going on and explore that avenue and leave Rembrandt apart. We may in end say we prefer Rembrandt…but we shouldn’t judge these Lievens paintings always in that Rembrandt world.

But that judgement is implicit in the show’s title, “Out of Rembrandt’s Shadow”…

Well we called the show here Jan Lievens a Dutch master rediscovered. Out of Rembrandt’s shadow is the title Milwaukee Art Museum has adopted for the show.

But in your essay you talk about how un-Dutch he was in some ways.

Our perception of Dutch art in the 20th and 21st century, particularly in America, is very narrow. We think Dutch art should look Dutch, and trees should look like Dutch trees and canals should look like Dutch canals and people should look like Dutch burghers. And that definition has been largely supplied by the collections we have in our museums. And that reassessment of Dutch art in the late 19th century that really formed the basis of 20th century opinions of Dutch artists as lovers of daily life became what Dutch art was all about. But there’s a whole different side of Dutch art that’s very important and we’re still trying to come to terms with it.

The interchangeability of the real and ideal?

Well even the real is ideal. Even the real has all sort of fancy and imagination attached to it. So the idea that Dutch art captured reality – there was a lot of that but still they changed things, they moved things. There’s an underpinning of abstract ideas that are very crucial even for those so-called realistic paintings. When you bring in influences from abroad, whether it’s the Utrecht Caravaggisti or Ter Bruggen, Honthorst and that group - those artists weren’t even loved till the 1950s…we’re beginning to realize Dutch art is richer and that’s been one of the important developments in Dutch art history in the late 20th century…. Lievens and this other aspect of this international style is still new terrain and we’re just getting into it.


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