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Gambit Weekly Going for Baroque

By D. Eric Bookhardt

OCTOBER 6, 1997:  In the wake of all the "alternative" art that has attracted so much media attention lately, local art buffs may feel it is high time for a look at something a little more conventional. So one fine day, I set forth for the City Park fastnesses of the New Orleans Museum of Art in search of tradition, history and what William Burroughs once called "art that looks like art."

Once there, my efforts were amply rewarded; NOMA's new In the Eye of the Beholder show is about as art-historical as it gets. Featuring Northern Baroque paintings from the collection of NOMA national trustee Henry Weldon, the show offers a rare look at some privately held works by van Dyke, Rubens, van Ruisdael, Brueghel and various other "low country" art stars. Notable exceptions are Rembrandt, Hals and Vermeer (whose market values now exceed the annual budgets of some of the smaller Third World nations). Although a veteran collector, Weldon acquired many of these works in relatively recent times.

Even a mere glance reveals sublime landscapes, mythic pink ladies and still-life studies rendered in such mindbendingly realistic detail as to satisfy even the most traditional tastes. And when it comes to the kind of craftsmanship we see in the 3-D polychrome detail of the food and floral studies, nobody does it like the Dutch. Indeed, Adriaen Coorte's Wild Strawberries on a Ledge is startling for its electric, sharply etched presence as the small crimson berries beam their red brilliance from out of the shadows and across the three centuries of its existence.

And if Rubens, like some other Flemish painters, took his inspiration from the often mythic subject matter of the Italian Renaissance, we can only wonder where the seemingly laser-etched images of these Dutch artists were coming from. It is amazing that they even had an art scene after their devastating war for independence.

Amazing, too, is the scene's uncanny similarity to our own. Just as many Orleanians paint or play music when not tending bar or selling real estate, Dutch artists were often merchants and tavern keepers who painted on the side. And as in New Orleans, where art collecting is common, "even ordinary Dutchmen collect paintings," noted a visitor to Holland in 1641. "Their homes are full of them and they are always buying or selling them." Yet, although Holland spawned the modern system of art as a commodity, it also turned out quantities of some very peculiar work.

Like New Orleanians, the Dutch were not bound by notions of decorative prettiness but had tastes perhaps best described by Francis Bacon's famous remark that "there is no great beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion." And like some local artists, Dutch Baroque painters sometimes tended to equate beauty with strangeness across the board. How else to explain all those sumptuous floral studies, which, when seen close up, turn out to be teeming with critters, as in Ruysch's Nosegay of Roses and Marigolds With Insects? Or van Schriek's Still Life With Thistle and Frog, a wonderfully gothic nocturne in which a thistle is assaulted by a ravenous snail as a dark Darwinian drama of frogs, moths and mushrooms unfolds in the moonlight.

The Weldon Collection at New Orleans Museum of Art through Nov. 2.

Any ambiguity about what these Dutch artists were up to is dispelled in works like Sion's Vanitas Still Life, in which lush blossoms, grapes, pears -- and even an overflowing jewel box -- share a table with a human skull. Move over Anne Rice.

And there you have it: I went to NOMA in search of artistic tradition and found the roots of gothic rock. So the line between alternative art and the old masters may not be so sharply defined after all. The message of Vanitas is that life is brief and, hence, is best not taken at face value. Even so, the Dutch love of art was rivaled only by the Dutch mercantile flair, so it is no surprise that art was a factor in their economic well-being.

Such views were recently echoed by Mayor Marc Morial, who, arguing on behalf of the National Endowment for the Arts, told the U.S. Senate that "the arts play a vital role in the health of the New Orleans economy." Indeed, beyond its obvious attractions, art also can be a tool for urban reclamation, as was evidenced by the CAC's pioneering presence in the Warehouse District.

Related themes also can be seen in Dan Winkert's "Green" art show at the Mermaid Lounge in which the use of salvaged materials strikingly conveys the correlation between art, recycling and urban empowerment. And a whole new wave of alternative art venues like Alternative Space in Bywater, the 511 Marigny Gallery in Marigny and the new art space proposed for Oretha Haley Boulevard in Central City could help transform those areas as well.

Does it sound far-fetched? Maybe, but remember, it worked in 17th century Holland. Those Dutch masters weren't just blowing smoke. .

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