Slicing and Mauling

Anne Hollander

  • From Criminal to Courtier: The Soldier in Netherlandish Art 1550-1672 by David Kunzle
    Brill, 645 pp, £64.00, November 2002, ISBN 90 04 12369 5

David Kunzle’s monumental book, fusing deep historical scholarship with polemical zeal and pictorial acumen, has appeared at an apt historical moment. Several weeks ago I looked up from studying some of its illustrations, and my eye fell on the front-page photograph in that day’s International Herald Tribune. The picture seemed to have slid straight out of Kunzle’s book, from somewhere between Soldiers Threatening a Peasant by Pieter Codde (1599-1678) and Soldiers and Hostages by Willem Duyster (1599-1635). There was a desperate-looking woman draped in black with a frightened child clinging to her arm, leaning forward to plead with an upright, massively clad and armed soldier, his anonymous back to us, the light on her face. The caption said the woman was begging the soldier to release the child, whom he had just arrested as a terrorist. It occurred to me that Kunzle is very good at suggesting that where the uneasy relations between powerless civilians and the armed military are concerned, some things haven’t changed since the 17th century – and perhaps not since the seventh, or the 17th BC – even when the civilians and the military are on the same side.

What hasn’t changed either is the need for pictures that document and comment on those relations; it’s only their form that alters. A picture expounding the dread effects of war can take the form of candid scenes of soldierly brutality; or it can be a simple whitewash, mild or thick; or an overbearing gloss of painterly heroism, such as Rubens provided to glorify imperial or royal might and Catholic supremacy. Sometimes Kunzle shows us protest disguised inside a violent biblical or classical subject, but at the same time staged to look applicable to contemporary experience. In the central third of his book we see scene after grim scene of soldiers plundering an entire village, or waylaying and robbing a convoy of wagons and killing off its armed guards, or attacking a group of unarmed, unguarded peasants in a field. We see soldiers stripping the corpses of men they have killed, raping village women and stealing the fine clothes off the living backs of well-dressed travellers.

Kunzle discusses the desire of Netherlandish artists to make and sell such images, and of patrons to see and pay for them, as well as the way the artists composed the pictures to convey changing views of military men, during a lengthy period when their increasing numbers affected the lives of everyone in Europe. It was the amazing economic success of the Dutch during the long wars (and the profits they made from the civil wars in France and England) that created the Dutch Army. What had begun as a small and untidy combination of local guerrilla fighters and foreign mercenaries became a professional army of 35,000 by the 1590s and numbered more than 70,000 (some say 128,000) between 1629 and 1643, though the region itself – the northern Netherlands – had a very small population. At the same time this disproportionately large army was well and promptly paid, out of high and promptly paid taxes.

Kunzle wants to keep his discussion of art firmly based on the more appalling conditions that prevailed in the northern and southern Netherlands in the years between 1550 and 1672, from the dreadful spoliations of Charles V and Philip II to the deadly invasion of Louis XIV, a period comprising the Great Dutch Revolt, under the Princes of Orange and Nassau, the Eighty Years War (1568-1648) that resulted in the independent Dutch Republic, and the infamous Thirty Years War (1618-48). Perpetually metastasising religious hatred between Catholics and Protestants, further complicated by strife among different kinds of True Believer in each camp, provided the context for these wars. There was a 12-year truce between 1609 and 1621, even though battle continued at sea; war on land resumed between 1621 and 1648, and fighting at sea continued after that – but the Dutch Navy and its painters and engravers are not Kunzle’s concern.

Concerned above all with the horrors of war and the abuse of human rights, Kunzle doesn’t dwell on the evolving painterly conventions of Flemish and Dutch art, the interplay of prevailing fashions in style and rendering, the influence of Italian art: he takes note of such absorbing art-historical considerations, but they aren’t central to his theme. He may believe that even the vivid stylistic components of the pictures he discusses are a product of the artists’ fundamental protest against oppression; that they reflect the artists’ own pain at the extortion, theft, brigandage, looting, burning, rape, murder, massacre and siege – to say nothing of the destruction of religious paintings and objects – that soldiers both foreign and domestic steadily inflicted on the Lowlands during all those decades.

Kunzle tells us that some of the artists he writes about came from towns that had been under attack or siege when they were children, and had families that were dispossessed or killed, forced to flee or scattered. Kunzle merges his own hatred of war with the feelings he is sure were guiding the hands of his painters and engravers; and if we follow his view, we can see that today’s IHT photojournalist and the two Dutch painters I mentioned in my first paragraph are in the same pictorial business, displaying the same protesting view of the same kind of atrocity, and selling the image of it to a section of the public eager to see it that way, too. The differences in the pictorial medium and the historical period register less than the similarities in subject – and even in composition and lighting, which convey and evoke similar responses to what the pictures show.

For this book on the theme of artistic protest, whether blatant or veiled, Kunzle has found many unfamiliar paintings of unlovely subjects not usually considered typical of the Netherlands, or even of the painters who did them, as well as grim details in otherwise serene-seeming groups and views. He is sorry that Jacques Callot’s quite explicitly dreadful series of engravings of 1633, Les Grandes Misères de la guerre, isn’t about the Netherlands; and he sneaks some of the scenes in anyway. But he leaves out the well-known small Dutch battle pictures that mostly depict skirmishes among opposing cavalry, perhaps as containing no civilians and no strong attitude – often you can’t even be sure which side is which.

Kunzle reminds us that before the middle of the 17th century, there was no military uniform as we know it, and pictures could not show troops dressed according to their allegiance, opposing one another in a mêlée. The armed escorts of great nobles still wore household livery, as they had done since feudal times, but there were no uniforms to identify a diversely composed army brought together for war under one leader. Troops wore badges in distinguishing colours and otherwise dressed in ordinary clothes, naturally similar but not deliberately alike. Officers had distinctive sashes and otherwise dressed similarly as gentlemen, with sword and plumed hat. The ensign, who carried the colours but no weapons, and the trumpeter, who was also an official military envoy, wore special and sometimes ornate dress. These two romantic characters appear in several of Kunzle’s illustrations, as do many dashing officers in hats and sashes; but in others we see trained ranks of foot soldiers rendered mainly as threatening masses of perfectly spaced nine-foot pikes, exactly vertical when still, all at an identical angle when on the march: they are clearly the real uniform.

Groups of menacing pikes appear in versions of the Massacre of the Innocents, a subject which Kunzle has established as significantly increasing in use among Netherlandish painters in the middle of the 16th century. Medieval Netherlandish use of the story had been theatrical, not pictorial, Kunzle writes, and primarily comic, with cruel Herod appearing on stage as a ridiculously boastful Oriental (emphatically non-Christian) potentate, his murdering soldiers and the frantically resisting mothers cast as slapstick characters, the horror neutralised by laughter. Kunzle finds Flemish artists such as Pieter Brueghel the Elder continuing some of this comic-horror flavour into 16th-century painting, but with new emphasis.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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