Ghosts, Mangoes, and Theatricality?

sayers vanitas tropenmuseumI want to re-boot the conversation about Protschky (for all) and Grootenboer &/or Zemel (undergrads choose one, grads read both).  Some of you took a glancing blow at Protschky and there were a few mentions of the other two, but their essays add to our toolbox of methods and they need to be discussed. Everyone, please pitch in here and carry it on as a conversation, adding to what’s been said (no need to repeat what’s been said).

So, what about Protschky? She very helpfully (thank you!) gives us a run-down on the scholarly literature on Golden Age still lifes (Panofsky’s all over it, of course). But then she intervenes in the literature–or lack thereof–on late 19th and early 20th century still lifes in the then-Dutch colonies. First, what do you make of her lit review (grad students esp.–if you know that lit), and more importantly, what do you all think of how she applies it? Where and when do those earlier schools of thought *work* when analyzing the later stuff? What about photography? Can we use methods designed for interpreting painting to analyze photography? Where do the methods see their limits here?

For the other two, start from scratch:  What is interesting–specifically–about Grootenboer’s notion of theatricality, and who is the Ghost in Zemel’s article anyway?

Have at it!


(The art is Charles Sayers, Still Life with Violin and Skull (1936), at the Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam, repr. in Protschky.)


7 thoughts on “Ghosts, Mangoes, and Theatricality?

  1. To a certain extent we can apply methods of interpreting paintings to photography. Photographs to involve staging and composition on behalf of the artist, especially the ones of still life as discussed in Protschky. So, we can use the same methods we would use to look at how a painter would arrange and organize fruits/flowers/animals/whatever to look at how the fruits are arranged in the photographs. Protschky does this in her article to emphasize the difference in approach and taste in the modern versus early modern eras. However, photography and painting traditionally have two different demographics. The (almost) required broad appeal of photographs means that their subject matter, aesthetics, and meaning have to be appealing to a mass audience. Protscky does a great job of introducing the history and culture of photography in the Dutch Indies at the time and how it started off as a tool of archeologists. This scientific start gives a new framework to look at photos that cannot be applied to paintings, as the tradition of painting is not one associated with science.
    My only counter point to this is that artists have been painting and sculpting nature studies for centuries. Albrecht Dürer’s watercolour drawings, while arguably made for artistic purposes as a catalogue for his workshop, do appear like scientific studies of anatomy and nature much like how scientist would display samples. This is taken further when we see them in the collection of Rudolph II. But Protschky, gives the impression that the Dutch Indies artists were revolutionary by looking at nature and dissecting it for visual pleasure rather than scientific knowledge, when this has been on the sidelines in art history, exactly where the works discussed in the articles have fallen, for a long time.
    I have one off topic, but major, problem with Protschky’s application of her argument and that is the complete dismissal of local, native, Indies culture. She refers many times in the article to the European painters and patrons as Indies people. While Colonial or Dutch Indies is implied, the use of the term “Indies families” or “local taste” when referring to the European population completely erases the existence of the indigenous Indies people for whom these plants and fruits were part of their everyday life and heritage. It’s off topic to her central argument and thesis but something I can’t overlook. Maybe if she even admitted she would be overlooking the native people I wouldn’t feel as strongly about this.

    The ghosts in Zemel’s article are more than just the weavers themselves but their humanity. Van Gogh’s paintings remind me of industrial photography, documenting the production processes and equipment of the late 19th century. The weavers aren’t the central focus of the painting their action and the result of their labor is. They become nothing more than an extension of the machine they manipulate, no longer humans just machines. And their role in Van Gogh’s paintings are as menial as the work they do, lacking any sort of strong emotional reaction, just there to show how the work is done. Void of the emotional charge of Van Gogh’s more famous works they haunt his oeuvre as ghosts of his beginnings.

    What I find interesting about Grootenboer’s notion of theatricality is the emphasis on exclusion and separation of the subject and the viewer. I have always viewed portraits as an invitation from the sitter, pulling the viewer out of our world and into theirs. Even at Sweert’s young man pulls away from the viewer, I feel pulled with him. Grootenboear also chose a very good portrait to explain his theories on, one where there is a lot of play I would be interested to see how his theatrical framework would work on perhaps a simpler portrait, are his ideas universal or can they only be applied to certain portraits?
    I am put off by Grootenboer teleological approach to portraiture. He discusses the portraits of ter Borch with disdain and dislike, saying that artist’s other works prove he could have made engaging images, after discussing said portraits for a page or two. Obviously ter Borch’s portraits are engaging and interesting in the mystery and awkwardness they emit to the modern viewer. He also suggests that with the rise on popularity of portraiture, the creation of a portrait as performance, and putting a mirror behind the artist so the sitter could see what was happening, portraits became what they were meant to be naturalistic, warm, engaging, and that ter Borch just didn’t know how to get there. I find this assumption a little disturbing.


  2. In responding to the previous summations of the articles in the above comments I want to focus on Grootenboer’s mode of theatricality. As previously noted, Grootenboer analyzes Dutch portraits through a theatrical lens. I think Jen brings up some great questions of whether “the theatricality in these portraits is a parody or fake interpretation of the sitter” and whether it is “a play on people, creating characters and adding to stereotypes or is the artist painting truly what he sees during the seated session.” The first time Grootenboer defines theatricality is through the greek word θέατρον (theatron). He states that a theatron is the place where one sees and the verb derived from theatron (θεάομαι) means I view. The theatron itself would hold Greek tragedies or comedies. The actors would don masks to hide their own identity from the audience but the masks themselves were not the likeness of the characters they were playing either. So, in a literal sense, a theatre is staged much like a sitter in a portrait. However, the art of drama, the question of identity and authenticity of the actors and characters they are playing is what Grootenboer is analyzing in his article, this idea of role-playing. Also, the idea that a portrait only shows the “stage”not the audience emphasizes Grootenboer’s analysis. Thus Grootenboer’s argument is that painting is a “play” to the viewer, one in which the viewer attempts to identity the authentic in the portrait, an attempt which will never be realized because of the contrasting intents of the artist and the sitter on what the represented self should be. What do y’all think?


    1. I was waiting for your response to Grootenboer’s use of Greek to legitimize and further his claims, and your break down of his argument was very helpful to me to make things clearer. The idea of a sitter putting on a mask, like Greek actors, to portray not their true self but the self they want everyone to see, is a great comparison and ties directly to your last thought about the contrasting intents of the artist and sitter. The sitter puts on a costume, which is then interpreted by the artist and put to canvas (or whatever medium), which is then further abstracted by the interpretation of the viewer who may or may not know who the sitter is. It’s almost like a game of telephone where you start with one statement and it become less and less clear as it moves down the line

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The article by Protschky places its focuses on the impact of Dutch culture in the Netherlands Indies and how it is represented in the art produced there. Common images of the time, such as food items, flowers and other household items provides the viewer with insight into different historical aspects of Dutch culture in the seventeenth century. Protschky argues that this common historical method of analyzing work from the mid-twentieth century is passed on the assumption that the objects in the works have a specific historical and cultural meaning and can be examined in comparison to other contemporary cultural productions. Protschly also argues that the focus of Alpers’ method of analysis was less on the underlying symbolism within the art but more so focused on the intellectual culture of which it was produced, in this case the Netherland Indies. Alpers’ believes that the fascination in using tools such as the camera obscura that allowed artists to redefined the way the world looked links the Dutch culture to early-modern science. This leads us to how the advent of photograph connects the history of seventeenth-century Dutch still-lives and more modern representations of Dutch culture via photography.

    In the article by Zemel I believe that the “Ghosts” are the Brabant workers and weavers portrayed by Van Gogh in his works with looms. Zemel argues that Van Gogh created a homage to the Brabant workers in his collections of didactic images.


  4. Susie Protschky’s article focuses on the impact of Dutch culture and painting in the Netherlands Indies. She shows the how the influence of culture and style of painting transformed the Indies but also how the natives and tourists formed their own theme for still life. Usually we discuss what happens in Europe and the Americas when it comes to art, this brings a welcome change of theme. Dutch artwork before this time frame (1800-1949) was often iconographical; how does the meaning change/stay the same when new themes and cultures are added to the Dutch painting scene?

    As for Photography, both Protschky and Brusati use Svetlana Alper’s argument about how art can be paralleled to using a camera, particularly the camera obscura. A painting requires a focus while the artist creates a lens, a window in the painted world using the edges of the canvas as well as creating areas of focus with doorways and windows (as Brusati suggests). This can lead the viewer to understand the meaning and content of the painting from just looking at the artwork. However, is there a limit to this idea? The artist is helping the viewer focus on what is important in/about the scene but WHO decides what is important for the viewer to focus on?

    In Zemel’s article, the ghost(s) are the weavers and less “civilized” class that Van Gogh captures in his early works. Zemel argues that weavers were often isolated and worked alone which intrigued Van Gogh. Zemel also mentions that Van Gogh uses the weaver’s industrial loom in his paintings as a frame for the weaver portrayed; capturing them in their moment.

    Grootenboer argues that there is a sense of theatricality in Dutch portraits which can show the emotions and class of the sitter. Is this how the artist sees these people or is it the sitter who determines how they are portrayed? Grootenboer uses Berger as an example of knowing the subject and historical content. Is the theatricality in these portraits a parody or fake interpretation of the sitter? Is it a play on people, creating characters and adding to stereotypes or is the artist painting truly what he sees during the seated session?


  5. I like your analogy to photography here: even when photographers don’t stage (note the term there) their shot, they are always framing it as they look around, right? Does this knowledge help us start to make good guesses at an artist’ intentions?


  6. My take on Grootenboer’s reading is that he compares the composition of portraits and paintings to that of a theatrical tableau, where the painter and those blocking a scene on stage must make the same decisions as to the overall outcome of the scene. I find this to be an apt comparison. From my background in photography as well as a bit of theater, the setup in many cases is similar. The slight tilting of a head for example, or a strange stance in one’s posture can go a long way in changing the attitude of the Dutch art, Grootenboer argues. Furthermore, Grootenboer describes the pieces of art and their respective tableaus like he was describing a scene, going so far as to use the word “plot” in his description. Grootenboer’s description of the composition of art and its impact on meaning can be used in cases not limited to 17th century Dutch art, but rather any art in which the subject is manipulated and staged.
    One of my main takeaways from the Protschky reading is the significance of exoticism on art and art collecting, and how Protschky approaches her thesis through what I would define as rigorous academic as well as historical searching. Her analysis on Still lifes are backed up by evidence through biographies and historical accounts of painters and photographers. The result is that Protschky looks at historical evidence holistically and then applies it to her thesis on Dutch Art. It is clear that she delved into many artist biographies before making any claims that could be countered. For instance, after saying that there were only one or two painters who attempted still life, Protschky listed many affluent 19th century Dutch artists and went through the list, saying whether or not that painter had attempted a still life.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s