Art History and Modern Sensibilities.

Warning: blood, gore and human nastiness on display.




I was reading an article about some street art in Brussels, and how a lot of people are shocked, disgusted and upset by it. These two works:



Some people are quite distressed and outraged, and many protest on the basis of children seeing these works. Thing is, there’s history bound here, as these are takes on paintings by Jan de Baen and Caravaggio, or at least attributed to those august painters. If people don’t want children to be upset by Caravaggio’s Sacrifice of Isaac, they shouldn’t be teaching them anything about christianity, either.


As for The corpses of the brothers De Witt, there’s not only a great deal of history bound therein, but also the depth of ugliness in human nature. The modern take on it is actually less brutal than the original, which, when viewed in person or at full size, shows terrible detail. Limbs sliced, toes and fingers cut off, noses cut off, genitals cut off, gutted, and hung upside down. It’s not a nice painting, but doing that to the De Witt brothers wasn’t nice, either.

During 1672, which the Dutch refer to as the Rampjaar (“Year of Disaster”), France and England attacked the Republic in the Franco-Dutch War. De Witt was severely wounded by a knife-wielding assassin on 21 June. He resigned as Grand Pensionary on 4 August, but this was not enough for his enemies. His brother Cornelis (De Ruyter’s deputy-in-the-field at the Raid on the Medway), particularly hated by the Orangists, was arrested on trumped up charges of treason. He was tortured (as was usual under the Roman-Dutch system of law, that required a confession before a conviction was possible) but refused to confess. Nevertheless, he was sentenced to exile. When his brother went over to the jail (which was only a few steps from his house) to help him get started on his journey, both were attacked by members of The Hague’s civic militia in a clearly orchestrated assassination. The brothers were shot and then left to the mob. Their naked, mutilated bodies were strung up on the nearby public gibbet, while the Orangist mob partook of their roasted livers in a cannibalistic frenzy. Throughout it all, a remarkable discipline was maintained by the mob, according to contemporary observers, making one doubt the spontaneity of the event.[18]


I can’t say I’d be happy to see such a sight writ large on a building, but I can’t say it would bother me, either. Mostly, I’d be intrigued and interested. Overall, I’d be in favour of it staying, because it never pays to forget that we’re much more ape than angel. It’s not as though we have stopped being barbaric apes, we haven’t. What has changed is art. The old patron system of art is long gone, as are the specific schools held by various masters. The church no longer dictates what is to be depicted, and current events are no longer primarily chronicled by art, as we now have much better means to do that sort of thing. That said, most people remain completely unaware of just how much history is chronicled by paintings. Most people have also successfully distanced themselves from the atrocities we continue to commit, not all that different to what was done to the De Witt Brothers. We tell ourselves that we don’t do that sort of thing, those people do. Being reminded of our long lasting bad habits is not a bad thing. If these make people uncomfortable, good. If they make people think, all the better. It never pays to ignore history, or pretend it isn’t important, and if it takes a sort of resurrection of old pieces to drive that home, it works for me.

The article about the Brussels works is here.


  1. rq says

    I think there’s enough gore and blood going around on TV and the games that children play on their tablets that artwork like this shouldn’t incite a particularly strong reaction, but what do I know.
    I like historical art because often it is less a document and more an interpretation (that is, it documents the event but through the eyes of the artist by using colour, emphasis, light, etc. to provide a sort of commentary, to add a certain perspective that leaves the viewer with an opinion on the event). I know the little bit of art history I got in high school art classes has been extremely valuable, both in plain facts, but also by teaching that it’s worth looking into the background of a painting -- enjoying the surface beauty is fine, but there’s depth to art that makes it matter more than some marks on a surface.
    Anyway. Old pieces resurrected gets thumbs up from me.
    (Weren’t there similar discussions about murals depicting young black men shot by police at some point relatively recently? Not historical art, but… same sort of documentary-commentary, no?)

  2. rq says

    (Taking the kids on an educational trip to the National Art Museum is always interesting due to the brutality of much of the older collection… and they ask about it, but it’s an opportunity to explain the history. And the most common question? “Do people still do that?”)

  3. says

    You’re absolutely right. As for kids at the museum, yes, you do have to deal with history, that’s part and parcel of teaching the sproggen, and that question…wouldn’t it be nice if the answer was always no?

  4. rq says

    wouldn’t it be nice if the answer was always no?

    Yes. Too often it is ‘yes’. And that bothers them, which is good. But sad and saddening.

  5. says

    If people don’t want children to be upset by Caravaggio’s Sacrifice of Isaac, they shouldn’t be teaching them anything about christianity, either.

    Don’t get me started on fucking Noah. Largest genocide in the history of fiction and it is given to children. When #1 was a baby we got some NOah’s Ark picture book.
    Well, the drawings were nice (somehow they never picture desparate mothers with their children drowning) so it turned into a “Father Christmas and the animals go on a holiday” story.

  6. johnson catman says

    . . . particularly hated by the Orangists, was arrested on trumped up charges of treason.

    (My emphasis) Oh, my. Perhaps the supporters of The Orange Pussy-Grabber will start using that name.

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