Zbigniew Herbert‘s 1993 book of essays Still Life With a Bridle: Essays and Apocryphas (translated by John Carpenter and Bodgana Carpenter) is a wonderfully intelligent collection focused on Holland in the 17th century, the art and mores of its golden age.
I happen to like Dutch art of the 17th century but I suspect these essays would be enjoyable even if you’re not overly familiar with the era — Herbert’s writings reveal such a curious, knowledgeable intelligence (without pretension) and keen attention to the absurd. Topics range from Tulipomania to painter bios to specific paintings to the foibles of humans in any age.
About the Dutch plan to navigate to China via a polar route:
On June 5 one of the deck hands shouted that he saw a flock of huge white swans on the horizon. These were actually mountains of ice. The sailor’s mistake indicates not so much a poetic imagination as a poor knowledge of polar hell.
And regarding the life of Dutch painters:
The question why art exists did not occur to anyone, because a world without paintings was simply inconceivable.
It is we who are poor, very poor. A major part of contemporary art declares itself on the side of chaos, gesticulates in a void, or tells the story of its own barren soul.
The old Masters — all of them without exception — could repeat after Racine, “We work to please the public.” Which means they believed in the purposefulness of their work and the possibility of interhuman communication. They afforded visible reality with an inspired scrupulousness and childish seriousness, as if the order of the world and the revolution of the stars, the permanence of the firmament, depended on it.
Let such naivete be praised.
Yep. And let such writing be praised too.