Wednesday, April 10, 2013

About the Exhibition

Worldly Possessions: Visualizing Ownership in the Age of the Baroque

McMaster Museum of Art, August 27, 2013 – January 25, 2014

Unknown (Flemish, 17th century), after Alexander Adriaenssen (1587 - 1661), Still Life with Oysters, c. 1630s, oil on panel, 39.3 x 44.5 cm, Gift of Herman Levy Esq., O.B.E.. photo: John Tamblyn

In the year 1600 Queen Elizabeth 1 granted a Royal Charter to the East India Company, thereby according the newly-established corporation a trade monopoly within all the lands situated between the Straits of Magellan and the Cape of Good Hope.1 The States-General of the Netherlands soon followed in 1602 by granting a twenty-one year trade monopoly to the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC). Nineteen years later a second corporation, the Dutch West India Company (WIC), was granted a similar charter to control trade in the Caribbean, Brazil and North America. The formation of these early multinationals, and the extraordinary powers accorded them by their respective states ensured tremendous profits for shareholders and associated merchants alike. Not surprisingly other European nations, including France, Denmark, Portugal and Sweden, quickly moved to establish public corporations of their own in the hope of increasing their fortunes by seizure of the global trade routes.

Just as the seventeenth century saw the rise of the first multinationals so too did it witness the rapid growth of a modern European art market driven by demands for specialized subject matter. A new and prosperous class of merchants, humanists and artists added to their growing collections of precious, worldly commodities visual depictions of the land and sea, domestic and social scenes, portraits, still-life images, biblical subjects and historical narratives. These early modern collections were inspired by curiosity, aesthetic interest and a passion for material consumption. Yet their appreciation was as much about drawing meaning from objects and works of art in accordance with the intellectual and moral imperatives of the day. In the rarefied environs of the Baroque collection a picture such as the Still Life with Oysters (Unknown, oil on panel, c. 1630s, shown above) could be seen as a depiction of a sumptuous meal and a moralizing commentary on desire or indulgence, reminding the viewer of the importance of moderation. The exquisite optical illusion of the picture would have signified the triumph of art over nature, the latter having been made subordinate to the superior hand of the artist. Both pleasurable and didactic, a picture of this order could validate the very idea of ownership by offering itself as a necessary aid to the intellectual and moral betterment of the self.

This exhibition invites the contemporary viewer to look at a range of material from the collections of the McMaster Museum of Art in the context of broader European concerns about possession and ownership in the 17th and 18th centuries. As colonial expansion increased the riches introduced to European societies of the Baroque, so too did it open moral dilemmas about conquest, subordination and acquisition. Collections provided a means of creating artificial justification for the driving forces of colonialism and corporate globalization by making possession an ostensible necessity.

Greg Davies

1. The EIC was originally chartered as the Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading into the East Indies.

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