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May 02, 2006

Christie Davies delights in the landscapes of his favourite country rendered by a true master: Jacob van Ruisdael: Master of Landscape at the Royal Academy

Posted by Christie Davies

Jacob van Ruisdael: Master of Landscape
Royal Academy, London
25th February - 4th June 2006
Daily 10am - 6pm (Fridays until 10pm)

No small country is as visually tedious as the Netherlands and none has produced such a wealth of outstanding landscape painters. True, Holland, the West of the Netherlands is far uglier than it was in the past. The wetlands have been drained for tulips and the dunes are fenced in with barbed wire, lest ramblers tramp them flat and Haarlem can no longer be seen, except from a glass bottomed boat in a globally warmed sea. Most of Holland is scarred with red bungalows, built by the native people fleeing the Islamic Republic of Rotterdam or the gun battles between gangs of drug dealers in Amsterdam. At least the first van Gogh only lost an ear. Holland is no longer a countryside, it is a housing estate. It has been totally Prescottized. The new satanic windmills compete for the horizon with very high television aerials to enable the canny, Calvinist, Pfeffersäcke Hollanders to watch the BBC without paying the licence fee. Oh vile Dutch landscape, oh cracked beaker of the grim North.

Even in the seventeenth century Holland must have been depressing, an utter flatness like a mini-version of the Mississippi delta beneath an unbroken iron-grey sky and seen only through a ceaseless drizzle. Merionydd without mountains, Belgium submerged in mud, Ost-Friesland on a bad day, Northern Iceland in December: that is Holland. As Reidyaird McKuipers put it when studying law in Leiden:

Hae ye tramped from Hoorn to Doorn
Wi'mud intil yer shoon?
Hae ye ever been to Zaandam in the rain?
Yet Jacob van Ruisdael from Haarlem saw, revealed and distorted the woodlands, fields, rivers, canals, shore, dunes and well-sailed windmills of his own time into exquisite landscape paintings. No wonder he greatly influenced Constable and inspired Turner. In this, as in much else, we owe a great debt to the United Provinces of the seventeenth century. Would that William and Mary had had a son.

Go and look at Oak tree and Dense Shrubbery at the edge of a pond, 1646-8 or Shrubbery and Dunes near Haarlem, 1647? to see Ruisdael's mastery of light, with the dense green of the rich shrubbery in the shade set against the bare trunks of trees lit by the sidelong sun. In the much later Stag Hunt in a Wood with a Marsh, the shrubbery has receded, the trees march in ranks across the picture and then backwards into sunlit natural avenues, while the water holds the foreground. The light is right, the colour is right, the placing is right. He was truly a master of landscape.

As part of this Ruisdael was the great master of skies. Most of the year Holland lies beneath nature's pall, trapped in a cage of rain, the people wondering if they will ever see a white cloud, let alone a blue sky, ever again. That is why their massive women-folk are so beautifully fair with blonde hair and fine complexions. If they were not, they would have all died of rickets at a young age. Their blondeness is not that of the Pre-Raphaelites' sunny angels but of those who must survive in the darkness and gloom of a climatic Sheol. Yet occasionally the sky will open to reveal that patch of blue known, appropriately enough, as a Dutchman's trousers. Suddenly there are high, open, towering, swirled clouds, all the more dominant because of the flat landscape stretching to the horizon in a clear, post-rain atmosphere. Van Ruisdael understood these skies as few others have done. Look out for View of Haarlem beyond Bleaching Grounds, 1670-75 which is three-quarter clouds in all their height, depth and subtleties of shade. Only the Parkmill photographer Evan Evans has captured clouds as well as him, though in black and white and with the aid of the sophisticated descendants of the Dutch lenses. Below the sky the ground is dark, except for the white bleached cloth and a patch of bright water, but the great church of Haarlem, flanked by other spires, captures the horizon and the soft light. Equally fine are the darker clouds that surround the windmill and divide the rippling estuaries with light and shade in Windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede, 1670.

Many of his pictures contain the traditional bleaching fields of Holland in which the exploited refugees from Belgium toiled, so that the hard white cloth can be contrasted with a sombre landscape. In their day the bleacheries were as much a tourist attraction as the tulips are today. One can imagine seventeenth-century charabancs, crammed full of middle-aged Essex girls, trundling onto wooden roll on roll off sailing ships from Harwich, bound for Hook of Holland, to gawk at cloth as bleached as their own hair. In those days a mixture of lime, piss and potash was used to do it, which the curators solemnly assure us are not "chemicals". How do they think lime is made? Does not piss contains organic chemicals? Can you not synthesise urea?

Against my usual practice (Royal exhibitions excepted), I made the mistake of hiring an audio-guide from a polite Spaniard at the entrance. There was dreadful tinny music, from the time of the paintings, women with the irritating self-consciously cultured voices that make it unbearable to listen to Radio Three and an American with such a crass accent as to be incomprehensible. Why can't they hire speakers of standard American and homely women from County Antrim? However, the real shocker was Andrew Motion, poetaster laureate and an expert on poisons, who talked nonsense about everything from bleaching to Jewish cemeteries. The rest of the commentary in fairness isn't bad but use the fast forward button when the tape starts going through the Motion.

Yet, if I had to choose my clouds, I would pick A Rough Sea at a Jetty, 1650s or Sailing Vessels in a Choppy Sea, 1665 with their tearing, windy, cloudy, skies. No wonder Constable admired van Ruisdael. He knew, as Constable did, the exact balance needed to create a picture that is two pictures, one seen close up, one from a distance. Close up in Sailing Vessels in a Choppy Sea, 1665 you can see the brightness of a tall red straining sail on a boat leaning away from the wind, as if to touch the white waves on a brown sea. The sail is in colour, shape and position exactly what is needed to break up a horizontal line of sea and sky. You can just make out tiny precarious human figures on a spit of sand that pokes into the waves, a metaphor of Holland itself. From further away there is nothing but a dark sea, a dark sea with clouds that match its threat; the future of the Netherlands today.

The exhibition is a delight, a feast of long-deceased landscapes and of Ruisdael's skill, a captured memory of the beauty of Holland in an age when Batavia ruled the waves.

Professor Christie Davies, having happily wandered the Netherlands from Groningen to Otterlo to Beverwijk in search of its beauties, has used its gloom and dunes to horrific effect in his new book Dewi the Dragon, Talybont, Y Lolfa 2006.


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This gives me an opportunity to let off a little steam. It always annoys me when people say that Dutch is an “ugly language”. Far from it! It’s a very nice, cosy, language. Try learning some and you will see how close to English it is – it’s roughly the way we would be speaking if those Nasty Normans hadn’t invaded our country (which they probably wouldn’t have done if Edward the Confessor hadn’t been such a EU-rophile, 11th century version).

And without having to distort one’s mouth into imitations of outlandish bowels and constipations, it would be a courtesy were people in this country to learn the most rudimentary of rules when pronouncing foreign names. The most important in regard to Dutch is that “sch” is pronounced “s-ch” with “ch” as in “loch” (Saeson please note!). This shibboleth was used by the Dutch resistance as a way of catching out German spies in WWII.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at May 2, 2006 08:34 PM
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with a landscape like holland, artist have to be creative!
painting in france is easy....lol

your piece made me smile on this grey day in beautiful wales

Posted by: rob ijbema at July 10, 2006 02:03 PM
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