SALEM — The naivete — the almost astral idiocy — of those who would wish to separate art and commerce has always bewildered me. Without commerce, art and culture would scarcely exist. It certainly wouldn’t survive.
“Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age” at the Peabody Essex Museum presses the point home. A collaboration with the great Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (both museums were founded less than a year apart at the end of the 18th century), it is a spectacular exhibition about Dutch commerce with Asia in the 17th century.
Filled with wondrous, gorgeous, and expensive-looking things (porcelain, paintings, palampores, jewelry, furniture, fashion, books, and even a portable toilet on gilded mounts, covered in Japanese lacquer with a red velvet seat), it is a show about global trade. As such, it should be seen not only by art lovers, but by everyone who owns, runs, or works for a business.
If you’re in the latter category, here’s some advice: Toss away those how-to-succeed-in-business-by-breaking-all-the-rules books you purchased in a dismal airport terminal in Bangkok. Go instead to Salem.
“Asia in Amsterdam” will teach you all you need to know about new markets, takeovers, juggling inventory, logistics, security, ruthlessness, and sheer audacity. And it will remind you that what inspires all this activity, in the end, is pretty simple: The pull of beauty. The desire for luxury. The yearning for status.
When Dutch merchants, working for the newly formed Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC), began to take over trading arrangements first established by the Portuguese in India, Ceylon, Malaysia, the Moluccas, China, and Japan, they didn’t have much status. They were pasty-skinned emissaries from a besieged and low-lying republic, with a burgeoning middle class and a dwindling nobility.
Unlike the Portuguese, they had no “royalty card” to play at Asian courts. And so, as Jos Gommans writes in the show’s terrific catalog, Asian rulers were mostly unimpressed. They considered VOC representatives vulgar merchants, and what they could glean about the Dutch Republic’s leadership structure they found unfathomable.
But in many ways, obeisance and vulgarity worked well for the Dutch. For Asian potentates, dealing with a mere merchant enterprise was less threatening than negotiating big-time treaties with established foreign powers. As innocuous, exotic “props” at sophisticated Asian courts, the Dutch could gain a foothold on the edges of power.
In reality, of course, the Dutch East India Company was anything but modest. Formed from six different companies in six cities in 1602, it was the world’s first joint stock company. And it soon grew, claim curators Karina Corrigan, Jan van Campen, and Femke Diercks in the catalog’s introduction, into “arguably the first globally recognized brand.”
The company established its headquarters in Batavia, now Jakarta, in 1619. A 1661 painting in the exhibition of the castle at Batavia shows a crowd of Chinese street traders, local fruit sellers, and turbaned North Africans busying itself beneath tall palms that vaguely resemble spinning windmills. The painting hung above the fireplace of the room in Amsterdam where the VOC council met.
At its peak, the VOC had 40,000 employees (not only Dutch but European and Asian) and ran 600 stations, strategically placed on shipping routes that stretched from the Cape of Good Hope to Japan. Some stations were basically offices with a warehouse attached. Others were large settlements, and their governors operated with great autonomy.
VOC trade was originally in spices. But over time it expanded into cotton, silk, saltpeter, opium, precious stones, and pearls from India; sappan wood, pewter, animal skins, and rice from Siam; Malaccan pewter; Javanese coffee; Vietnamese silk; Japanese copper, gold, silver, porcelain, and silk; and Chinese porcelain and tea.
By far the majority of the VOC’s trade was not with Europe but within Asia. Sure, big bucks could be made by sailing home with a ship full of porcelain or nutmeg. But in the long run, even greater profits came from trading goods within Asia. Thus, valuable stuff moved in every direction, and what everyone wanted was what they didn’t have.
Although the VOC used force to get their way less often than is often thought, they could be shockingly murderous. When, for instance, the inhabitants of the Banda Islands refused to sell nutmeg and mace exclusively to the VOC, the company’s governor-general, Jan Pietersz. Coen, who had earlier founded Batavia, slaughtered them. Out of 15,000 Bandanese islanders, only a few hundred were left alive.
An extraordinary painting at the start of the show depicts the return to Amsterdam of the second Dutch expedition to the East Indies in 1599. Loaded with nutmeg, mace, and cloves, the returning ships are shown surrounded by a flotilla of smaller vessels celebrating their arrival. Great wealth, they seem to sense, is about to rain down upon them.
A painting of an opulent Dutch interior made 70 years later by Jan van der Heyden shows how true that inkling would prove. But it’s not raw wealth that van der Heyden shows. It is a studied display of exotic beauty (a Chinese silk tablecloth, a Turkish carpet, a Japanese bowl, a Japanese spear), acquired via great enterprise (suggested by the inclusion of a color atlas and two celestial globes).
Trade with Japan was fiendishly difficult. Open relations, once established, didn’t last long. The show includes a “safe-conduct” document — the only surviving example of four issued in 1609 by Tokugawa Ieyasu, Japan’s de facto ruler, in return for gifts of raw silk, lead, gold goblets, and a letter from Prince Maurits. The safe-conduct allowed its holders free entry into Japanese ports. It was carried in a box covered in lacquer and silk, with the famous Tokugawa crest on its lid.
What else about the show is amazing?
Pretty much everything — both intrinsically and because of the stories the show opens out onto. Jacob Jansz. Coeman’s family portrait of “Pieter Cnoll and Cornelia van Nijenrode with Their Daughters and Malay Slaves” has a wall label that reads like a 19th-century novel. It’s impossible to summarize, but involves courtesans, orphanages, rags-to-riches, slavery, and rebellion, in locales that range from the Netherlands to Japan, Java, and Bali.
The show also includes exquisite furniture in ebony from the Coromandel Coast; an ivory cabinet with Adam and Eve carved in relief from Ceylon, where, according to Christian legend, the first man and woman were banished after being ejected from Paradise; a series of Dutch still lifes strewn with objects from Asia; a rack of weapons given by a Dutch Admiral to his childhood friend based in Batavia; drawings made by Rembrandt based on Mughal miniatures he owned; and a selection of “Japonse roks.”
These silk gowns, which became all the rage back in the Netherlands, were inspired mainly by kimonos (which should, if we’re really lucky, be enough to get the anti-kimono crowd up in arms again), but also by the Persian robes hopeful Dutch merchants were made to wear to advertise their subordination to the Persian shah.
The conclusion of Gomman’s essay in the catalog is fascinating in this regard: “With the commodification of the highly ritualized khil’at [Persian robe of honor] into the Japonse rok, the merchant had taken revenge of sorts for his forced submission to the king.”
Over time, commerce transforms both beauty and cultural identity, loading it with similar ironies. This show — a wonderful complement to two recent Museum of Fine Arts exhibitions, “Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer” and “Made in the Americas: the New World Discovers Asia” — is a smart fit for the PEM, a museum which is home to one of the world’s finest Asian export art collections, and about nothing if not global exchange.
Asia In Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age
At Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, through June 5. 978-745-9500, www.pem.org
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.