The Upside-Down World: Meetings with the Dutch Masters by Benjamin Moser


Review by David Starkey

Last month, I was lucky enough to be in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. This was my first visit to that august institution, so I naturally spent the majority of my time wandering among the archeological treasures for which it is famous. However, the Ashmolean also houses a picture gallery, and toward the end of my visit, I decided to take a turn through its rooms. This area was much less congested than the rest of the museum, and when I made my way into a space housing Dutch still lifes, there was absolutely no one around. I didn’t stay long. While I’ve always enjoyed Dutch paintings from the so-called Golden Age (1588-1672), I was hungry, and I figured I’d pretty much seen versions of what was on offer plenty of times before.

If only I had read Benjamin Moser’s The Upside-Down World: Meetings with Dutch Masters prior to stepping into that room, I surely would have stayed much longer.

The book’s title comes from a couple of Dutch expressions—de omgekeerde wereld and de wereld op zijn kop—which Moser explains are “what you say when something unexpected happens, when the normal order of things is reversed: when a queen holds the door open for a commoner, or when it’s warm and sunny in the middle of December.” More specifically for Moser, the expression “is also a concise symbol for what happens when you become a foreigner. You stand on some other portion of the globe. What was up is suddenly down.”

Moser tells us that he has been writing The Upside-Down World for twenty years. He began in his youth, after following his beloved back to the Netherlands, and he has only completed it now, in middle-age, when he feels he knows “how to do things” and “how things work.” The book is his attempt to make sense of living in a very different place by looking at the work of great painters from his adopted country–(mostly) men who died centuries earlier. It’s an intriguing conceit for an autobiography, although, in the event, most of the memoir material can be found in the book’s beginning and its Afterword. Primarily what we get is a series of lively essays, along with scores of full-color reproductions of many of the paintings Moser discusses.

The Upside-Down World contains meditations on the painters you would expect to read about—Rembrandt and Vermeer, Jan Steen and Frans Hals—as well as a number of artists I was unfamiliar with, including Govert Flinck, Gabriël Metsu, Hendrick Avercamp and Pieter Saenredam. In each chapter, Moser is a friendly, knowledgeable and never patronizing guide. The lack of condescension, we learn, is “the result of a middle-aged person’s vigorous effort to scrub the evidence of the younger self,” someone who tended to show off to avoid sounding gauche.

While it might be difficult to write something new about Rembrandt or Vermeer, Moser always offers insights worth pondering. Of the former artist, he notes: “even his bleakest paintings always contain an admixture of light. The master was a moralist. He was a sensualist, too.”  Of the latter: “Many of his paintings don’t, strictly speaking, show much. They have the same room, the same window, the same few objects, the same cast of familiar faces.… Narrative in Vermeer is rare, and strikes us as wrong. At their best, the paintings aren’t, in fact, about anything.”

Moser is most engaging when he focuses as on a single work, as in his discussion of Paulus Potter’s The Young Bull (below). The painting hung for some years in the Louvre, and it became famous, in part, because of its realistic depiction of a one-year old bull. Moser quotes from an account in 1806, when two French peasants, who would, presumably, have first-hand knowledge of cattle, pronounce The Young Bull  “the best painted and loveliest picture in the whole gallery.”

In fact, upon scrutiny, features of the young bull indicate it was more likely to be “between four and five”—closer to middle age. Moreover, “the highly developed front part contrasts with the back half, especially the thighs, whose muscles seem flaccid and weak. When examined closely, the perspective, too, is nearly impossible. The bull stands in a twisted, almost balletic position, head, middle, and back each painted from slightly different angles.” In short, “The ‘realistic’ bull was a pastiche, not an accurate representation in the least.”

Yet even as he dismantles traditional interpretations of the painting, Moser finds other reasons to celebrate it: “Rather than a manifesto of realism, The Young Bull was a manifesto for the cleverness the Italians called ingegno. And rather than an image of ‘reality,’ The Young Bull was as much a fantasy as the most overheated imaginings of Gustave Moreau, Arnold Böcklin, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, or Odilon Redon. The only difference is the subtlety with which Potter disguised his.”

For Moser, the museums housing the Dutch masters, especially the Mauritshaus in The Hague, provide not only a compass for how he might live in the Netherlands, but also a respite from the constant buzz about news, politics and sports in contemporary life. It is in these quiet spaces that he finds “a reality as real as any other. At least sometimes, at least for a few minutes, I could choose which reality to inhabit.” In The Upside-Down World, we are right there with him on his journey, as sixteenth-century Holland comes to represent the entire celebrating, grieving, complicated, wonderful world.