Promotional poster for "The Low Countries"




Reading material in English translation can be a bit like eating a cake made without sugar: someone blithely missed the point. Or: any nuance or excitement of cadence has been reduced to a literalness. I’m reminded of an incident that I have often retold to illustrate the way the Dutch literally translate spoken English. It goes something like this: at a popular Amsterdam bar where drinks are 2 for 1 at midnight, I ordered two vodka and tonics, requesting the “mixer on the side”. What I received were two mixed drinks with a long plastic stirrer resting against each glass.

Having said that, I thoroughly expected a dull English version of The Low Countries. Instead, I discovered a vibrant and diverse “yearbook” published by the “Stichting Ons Erfdeel” Foundation which presents a current view of culture, art and society of the Dutch speaking area which includes both the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Flanders, and the northern part of Belgium. The yearbook serves as a current cultural marker by both providing specific information about the arts (an engaging essay on the wry aesthetics of highly esteemed Dutch Post-War painter Co Westerik) and also presenting a broad social and historical overview through articles such as “Living inside Belgium” by John Mace, and “Women in the Dutch Colonies” by Reinier Salverda. While not as ambitious or as academic, The Low Countries reads like a journal version of Jacque Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence.

Trying to define a National aesthetic is as perplexing as trying to order your drink straight up at the aforementioned bar. The characteristics and features of Dutch culture, for instance, have been written about and debated with varying intensity. At one extreme you can read an essay in TLC about the Post-War folklorist Jop Polmann’s militant warning to “respect [Dutch] culture or it will go to the dogs.” At the other end, you easily log on to the popular Netherlands web site and read the endless patter of potheads debating the quality of weed and hash in various coffee shops. The concept of public and private space in Dutch and Belgian culture is intriguingly introduced as a National characteristic that broaches aesthetics vis-a-vis seventeenth century painting in more than one of TLC’s essays. In fact, the interaction between the domestic scene and the town in Pieter de Hooch’s landscapes and genre scenes is an intriguing variation on the concept of privacy in early Modern Urban society. The Dutch household in the seventeenth century was not, as we learn from Martha Hollander in “Space, Light, Order: The Paintings of Pieter de Hooch”, a fully intimate sphere. Many professional painters worked at home and had rooms for multiple uses, and during this time many painters began to use elements of home design as allusions to the world outside the house walls. The more I read of Hollander’s essay on de Hooch, the more I started to update the ideas to a contemporary Amsterdam and Antwerp use model. I started to think of a visit to Torch gallery in Amsterdam and the way in which space was not clearly defined as gallery, office, or “salon”. I recalled the ambiguities in interior design in the shop for Antwerp designer Stephan Schneider, and the mixed use of space in the much-lauded Antwerp restaurant/bar Hangar 41.

The Low Countries accomplishes its goal of providing a cultural and historical forum. And like any good overarching compilation, it leaves the reader free to form both a landscape and lexicon of this part of the world.

Eric Susyne

Cleveland, Ohio