Joachim Wtewael at MFAH: Who Knew a 17th-century Dutch Painter Could Be So Shocking?

Perseus and Andromeda
Perseus and Andromeda
Musée du Louvre, Paris

Tits and ass. Now do I have your attention? Just to make sure, I’ll say it again: tits and ass. Because you’re going to see a lot of both when you go to the exhibition “Pleasure and Piety: The Art of Joachim Wtewael (1566-1638)” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, so you might as well go with your eyes wide open. Tits and ass.

This may be somewhat surprising to us, depending on our preconceptions, since Wtewael was a successful 17th-century Dutch businessman in the flax trade, a committed Calvinist and an upstanding member of the Utrecht City Council of four centuries ago, as well as an artist.

Surprising? It shouldn’t be. It’s not as though the Chorus Line generation invented sex, to paraphrase the mother of a friend of mine when her daughter tried explaining how staying out hours after curfew was completely innocent. Though in his self-portrait, included in the show, Wtewael depicts himself with a collar up to his chin and cuffs down to his thumbs (and presumably pants that completely cover everything), as an artist he knew tits and ass and had no qualms about flaunting them on canvas, copper and board. In fact, they seem to have been something of a trademark for him.

Later generations deemed some of Wtewael’s paintings too shocking for younger or more sensitive eyes, and hid them away, bringing them out only for private viewing. In some, the raunchiest bits were literally excised. They were the dirty pictures of their day — the sort of stuff that used to be mailed in plain brown wrappers — though at a very high level.

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Of course, dirty is always in the eye of the beholder and there are infinite degrees thereof. One man’s filth is another man’s art. Remember Mapplethorpe and Cincinnati? Or woman’s.

But however your eye sees them in that regard (and I do wonder how the docents explain many of them to the grade schoolers I saw touring through the other day), they are images that stay with you. Like the fig in Women in Love. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, watch the movie. It’s an image I still see vividly after 40 years, and I’m not even the sort who’s drawn to figs — more a naked male wrestling fan (as in the same movie).

I mention this because there’s a good deal of erotic substitution and nearly naked wrestling going on in many of Wtewael’s paintings, too — though some of them are so small you may have to squint pretty hard to see it. Not all of them, because there is a Piety section to the show as well as the Pleasure part. But many, including the minuscule Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan of 1604-08. Here the lovers are literally doing it (or maybe have just done it, judging from the expression on the face of Mars; and perhaps none too skillfully, judging from the expression on the face of Venus), and doing it with an audience.

Pretty shocking stuff. The only thing missing are the male parts. After Wtewael parades before us yards and yards of flesh, you wouldn’t expect him to turn coy when it comes to just a few more inches. But he does. He’s surprisingly prudish about that sort of thing. There’s not even a ripple in the fabric beneath which God’s gift to man and woman (or man at least) would anatomically be. Not a locker-room standout in the lot. Only the cherubs have equipment, and surely none of us could ever imagine them using it.

Except for one painting, titled The Battle Between the Gods and Titans of 1610, which I’m sure you’ll guess immediately involves naked wrestling. This is another tiny one, but as nearly as I can tell squinting hard, all the figures are male and almost all are quite complete — which screams the question, why? Why in this one and not the others? I don’t have the definitive answer, but maybe it was painted — as were many of the others — on commission, to address the particular erotic tastes of a specific patron. Again shocking, I know, but our generation also didn’t invent male man-lovers.

By the way, lady parts are also pretty much missing (breasts don’t count here), but they’re amply represented by a profusion of the most lascivious conch shells ever painted.

So much for the pleasure portion of this review. Now it’s time for the penance of piety. Even here, however, there are some pretty shocking things going on. Lot cavorting with his daughters, for instance, in the quite large Lot and His Daughters of circa 1597. Even with a fire-and-brimstone flaming Sodom in the background, there’s no room for homo-bashing in this depiction of hetero debauchery and incest. For all my fundamentalist Bible study as a youth, this story was new to me.

And then there’s the lecherous-looking master taking far too much pleasure in binding Saint Sebastian to a tree in The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian from 1600 — Sebastian, who induced his own arrow-riddled martyrdom at the hands of lust-driven Roman soldiers, frustrated by his devotion to higher, spiritual things — though that may be a post-Stonewall interpretation Wtewael didn’t have in mind. Again, so much is in the eye of the beholder. This is another of his very large works. No matter how much skin and kink they show, these pious paintings were not intended to be hidden in man-caves. They were to be seen by the squeamish and the bold alike.

Wtewael was a late practitioner of Northern European Mannerism, a stylistic conceit that distorted and elongated figures, placing them in contorted, precarious poses that can sometimes give his paintings an air of almost cartoonish comicality. To our eyes they can look a trifle twee, even when some mythological being lies before us, eyes rolled back in the ghastly throes of death, though Wtewael certainly mustn’t have intended them that way. His was a style that soon gave way to the naturalism of the Dutch Golden Age.

To prime my picture-viewing eye on the way to “Pleasure and Piety,” I walked through the Rothko retrospective, also currently on view downstairs in the Beck Building at MFAH. The general consensus seems to be that this Rothko exhibition is about as close to a religious experience as we’re ever likely to have in art. I pretty much agree. But as I looked again at the looming, haunting paintings, I wondered what Wtewael would have thought of them.

Of course we’ll never know, but it struck me that quite possibly Wtewael wouldn’t have considered the Rothkos paintings at all. Maybe the earlier ones, which still have figures and objects, though he might well have thought even those unskilled, bad paintings. But the later ones — the ones we revere Rothko for? They tell no stories; depict no glorious events; make no clearly comprehensible moral points. Really, what would he have made of them? Perhaps not much. Understandable without the insights of the intervening 300-plus years of twists and turns in Western art: I won’t call it progress, just progression.

This is relevant now only because the two shows are both here together to provoke our questioning. We think of Rothko as a pre-eminent master and Wtewael as only a minor one, if indeed a master at all — just another Dutch painter to pass by on our way to the Rembrandts.

And yet his skill was breathtaking. We can admire that skill — stand in awe at it, in fact, even if the paintings themselves leave us somewhat cold. Even the racy ones can no longer generate much heat, what with the things one accidentally encounters on the Web and all. His aspirations are not ours; his worldview is not ours; even his understanding of the purpose of art hardly registers with us. So how can we look at him with anything approaching appreciation and profit? Even though we are amazed by his skill, it’s likely his craftsmanship that wows us rather than his art.

In a way, it really doesn’t help that there’s so much Wtewael here for us to see. We’re indisputably lucky to have so much of him; before this touring exhibition, no one else anywhere ever has. But his are the sort of paintings that may be better taken in smaller doses. Sixty Rothkos downstairs may send us into rapture. Thirty Wtewaels upstairs may send us into shock if we really try to look at them.

Even so, having the show here in Houston for a few months is a rare opportunity, and even though Wtewael may fade back into the Dutch crowd when it closes, it’s worth stopping for a look on the way to those Rembrandts. There’s much pleasure to be had. And piety? Perhaps. But a warning: Depending on your level of prurience, you may want to bring your own magnifying glass for a closer look at all that (you guessed it) tits and ass.

“Pleasure and Piety: The Art of Joachim Wtewael”
Through January 31, 2016. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300, mfah.org.


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