Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 29, 2005
Kees Zandvliet The Dutch Encounter with Asia, 1600–1950 Exh. cat. Zwolle, Netherlands: Waanders Uitgevers, 2004. 464 pp.; 245 color ills.; 50 b/w ills. €29.95 (9040087172)
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, October 10, 2002–February 9, 2003

“Encounter”—the operative word, to my mind, of the title under review—has transformed, in a relatively brief period of time, from a strikingly innovative and promising concept to a somewhat enigmatic, if not altogether elusive, scholarly term of choice, which is increasingly, perhaps even blandly, invoked to describe the meeting between Europe and the wider world in the early modern period. Which is to say, the relatively fresh field of “encounter studies” is already—don’t blink!—ripe for revision.

A bit of backstory: The study of Europe’s engagement with the non-European world—particularly during the pivotal moment of global expansion that spanned Columbus’s epochal voyage of 1492 and the establishment of European hegemony in large portions of Asia, Africa, and the Americas by the mid-eighteenth century—had long come under the rubric of the Age of Conquest, the Age of Empire, or, perhaps more benignly, the Age of Discovery. In all instances, scholarly emphasis was placed on the ascendancy—or, more bluntly, the triumph—of Europe’s overseas empires relative to its global neighbors. The history of the period was narrated, moreover, from a pronouncedly Eurocentric perspective, such that all obstacles in the path of European expansion were at best “discovered,” at worst “conquered,” and in all instances made to support the imperial projects of the emerging European nation states. Scholarship certainly noted the influence Europe exercised on the rest of the world, especially in economic and political affairs; yet this research paid less attention to the interactions, cultural exchanges, and inherent mutuality of these moments of—in a word—“encounter.” Above all, scholarship described the process by which Europe bestowed “civilization” to the world, while mostly neglecting to consider the cultural influences the world had upon Europe.

This dull state of affairs changed sharply some thirty-five years ago with the publication of John Elliott’s influential book, The Old World and the New, 1492–1650 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), a slim volume that charted the impact of (in this case) America on Renaissance Europe. Elliott accomplished two things. First, he posited the strikingly provocative argument that America had a mostly negligible influence on Europe in terms of what we might call the cultural imaginary: that early modern Europe was in fact largely unmoved by the knowledge of America during the period he studies. Second, by exploring the nonmaterial influences of early modern Europe’s expansions, Elliott also launched a new field of historical inquiry, one that was dedicated to understanding the “impact” (his preferred term) of Europe’s adventures abroad and concerned with the mutual effects of the capital-D “Discovery” on Europe and the globe: in short, “encounter studies.”

Elliott’s lead was taken up almost at once by art historians. In an agenda-setting monograph (coinciding with the innovative catalogue of a bicentennial exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1975), Hugh Honour explored the visual vocabulary of “encounter,” namely the manner by which Europeans came to terms with the image of America, its native flora and fauna, and, most essentially, its native inhabitants (The New Golden Land: European Images of America from the Discoveries to the Present Time [New York: Pantheon, 1975]). More studies trickled out during the next few years, and, after a brief hiatus, a veritable flood of works appeared in the 1990s, released on the occasion of the Columbian Quincentenary. Most prominent among these was the National Gallery of Art’s exhibition catalogue Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration (New Haven and Washington, D.C: Yale University Press and National Gallery of Art, 1991), a spectacular attempt to examine—in discrete sections, to be sure—the European, Asian, and American worlds at that titular moment. Circa 1492 was an undertaking whose ambitions exposed the hermeneutic dilemma of the field: the difficulties of describing bona fide, multidirectional “encounters” rather than offering a series of one-way roads leading in and out of the European metropolises. Subsequent studies have grappled with this difficulty ever since. (Notable mention in the category of art history goes to Claire Farago’s Reframing the Renaissance: Visual Culture in Europe and Latin America, 1450–1650 [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995], which admirably confronts this issue head-on, not least in its manifestolike title. For an interesting attempt to reverse the geographic orientation of the field, see also Gauvin Bailey, Art on the Jesuit Missions in Asia and Latin America, 1542–1773 [Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999].)

Kees Zandvliet’s The Dutch Encounter with Asia, 1600–1950, a “narrated” catalogue of an exhibition held at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in 2002, makes a valuable new contribution to the topic. The book appears in the wake of a series of shows dedicated to Europe’s interactions with the non-European world, which have lately been oriented toward the East (pun only mildly intended): the Victoria and Albert Museum’s magnificent Encounters: The Meeting of Asia and Europe 1500–1800 (2004), the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute’s more modernist Noble Dreams, Wicked Pleasures: Orientalism in America, 1870–1930 (2000), and the J. Paul Getty Museum’s modest Imagining the Orient (2004–5). Like other first-generation forays into the topic, The Dutch Encounter with Asia was occasioned by a historical milestone, in this case the four-hundred-year anniversary of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), which was founded in 1602. Yet like other related shows of the last decade or so, the Rijksmuseum’s exhibition tried to provide a two-way mirror of the Dutch “encounter,” which both reflected on and offered insight into the complex processes of cross-cultural interactions. It tried to create, in the optimistic phrasing of Zandvliet, an image of “hybrid cultures” (429).

The Amsterdam show also innovated. First, it spanned the entire colonial period—from early modern to late modern—and Zandvliet’s catalogue, unlike most earlier endeavors in this genre, is thus able to bring the Renaissance story of encounter, without apology, into the postcolonial present. Second, The Dutch Encounter with Asia is a historically minded show: it is “narrated,” in the very basic sense that sections and chapters are introduced with historical overviews, and the volume has a tightly chronological (as opposed to thematic or object-based) organization. While this strategy is certainly sensible (especially from a historian’s point of view), it leads, if perhaps inadvertently, to a distinctly whiggish mode of narration. The story becomes the well-worn tale of the “rise and fall” of overseas empire, with the VOC’s ultimate colonial corruption and imperial collapse already adumbrated in the company’s earliest machinations and maneuvers. The ending of this version of colonial tragedy in many ways dictates its beginning—the ineluctable failure of the colonial enterprise, to be sure—and also shapes the decision to concentrate on Dutch activities in Southeast Asia, Indonesia in particular (which, if certainly the site of numerous early colonial efforts, was hardly the exclusive locus of imperial energies during the VOC’s initial period of development that it later would become). The temporal latitude of this volume, in other words, is not matched by an equally ambitious spatial reach, a strategy that precludes exhibiting the colonial goings-on and exotic imagery produced in the Levant and the Middle East, as well as Central Asia and Muscovy. Many excellent sources derive from Dutch travelers and VOC servants who traversed these other parts of Asia—the remarkable picture books, for example, of Cornelis de Bruyn, the superb Hague-born draughtsman who traveled the entire region with sketch pad in hand, visiting and painting company officials (and Asian peoples) to pay his way. One also wonders why African encounters, which took place literally en route to Asia, are left out of the story.

Here is what is left in, which is certainly considerable: a chapter on the prehistory of the VOC, which considers the pivotal account of Portuguese Asia that was composed (in part) by Jan Huyghen van Linschoten in the final years of the sixteenth century; seven chapters on the VOC period—founded in 1602, the company experienced acute financial troubles by 1785, the closing year of this section, and was ultimately terminated in 1799—which are rich in materials pertaining to Dutch political, commercial, and military affairs; an interlude (1785–1825) that examines the dissolution of the VOC, which coincided with intense political turmoil in the Netherlands (war with England, political revolt, and French occupation); four chapters on the “modern” period, 1825 to 1941, which focus on the dealings of the Nederlandsche Handel-Maatschappij, a trading company that would ultimately become, in our own phrasing, a multinational; and an epilogue on the postwar period, 1945–49, which witnessed the formal end of Dutch sovereignty in Indonesia.

These periods and events are surveyed by means of numerous, striking objects that encompass multiple media and convey the story in a highly engaging, anecdotal fashion. The objects featured include books and prints, most essentially, yet also cartographic sources, paintings and decorative arts, materials derived from military and nautical history, and, finally, artifacts that are meant to relate the story of daily life in the colonies. The organizers of the exhibition are to be commended for the exceptional quality and impressive variety of these materials; many of them are rare, important, and stunning. The catalogue authors might have done a bit more, however, in describing the high quality and diverse materiality of the objects exhibited. Relatively few works (including some splendid paintings and objets d’art) are discussed from an art-historical perspective, which leaves the reader (with no recourse to the originals) with little sense of their aesthetic (as opposed to historic) value. (This very distinction may result from the traditional organizational strategy of the Rijksmuseum, which housed its rich “historical” collection separately from its “art,” and thus begged the question: What makes an artifact history or art? This unusual bifurcation is to be addressed in the renovation and reorganization of the museum that is presently underway.)

As even this sketchy overview suggests, the narrative of The Dutch Encounter with Asia follows events in the Netherlands as much, if not more, than in Asia. If the goal of this volume is to reveal the development of “hybrid cultures,” then it also exposes how difficult it is to do just that. Although some fascinating artifacts do demonstrate the adaptation of Asian habits by Dutch colonial servants (a richly made sirih box and spittoon) or use Dutch idioms to represent Asian subjects (an amazing portrait of Sayfoedin, king of Tidore), while others exemplify the development of a mixed culture in imperial settings (a superb drawings series by Jan Brandes depicting life in Batavia), these objects and artworks still tend to focus on the Dutch and the VOC and illustrate the adaptations and impressions of the colonial power rather than those of the subaltern. Dutch–Asian encounters, as presented in this volume, seem to have made a one-sided impression—which is not necessarily cause for alarm. Two-way mirrors tend to be tricky.

In the final analysis, this highly recommended catalogue brings together a broad range of visual and textual sources, many of which have rarely been seen or reproduced. It sets an admirably ambitious goal of understanding the richness of colonial encounters and, in the process—and not unlike many other such efforts—exposes the obstacles scholars face in getting both sides of the story. Indeed, encounter studies may be going through some growing pains, yet the direction of scholarship is clear: a laudable desire for a better understanding of the intricacies of cultural interaction in this prior age of globalism.

Benjamin Schmidt
Giovanni and Amne Costigan Endowed Professor, Department of History, University of Washington