In Lytle Shaw’s New Grounds for Dutch Landscape the materialist turn is transformed into an art historical account of everyday ongoingness and the ground beneath our feet.

Jan van Goyen, View of the Haarlemmermeer, 1646. Metropolitan Museum of Art / Wikimedia Commons.

“‘To Hobbema’,” offers poet and literary scholar Lytle Shaw in his new book New Grounds for Dutch Landscape, might be “to walk among checkerboard cottages under and past huge, shaggy oak trees, until one begins to zone out on the quiet abyss of a swampy millpond.” Here, Shaw is speculating whether the painter Meindert Lubbertz (1638–1709), whose reasons for adopting the name Hobbema are unknown, might’ve followed the example of Dutch Golden Age figures such as Jan Leeghwater and Pieter Santvoort who invented monickers to evoke their professions and areas of pictorial specialisation. The artist’s paintings of watermills, ponds, meandering roads, and intricately rendered foliage (under which the occasional stroller might pass) provide us with clues. 

However, and what Shaw tunes into here, the name Hobbema is nonsensical and primarily registers as sound – with possible associations, for seventeenth-century Amsterdammers at any rate, of fetid and slowly percolating water, or a boot landing in mud. ‘Hobbema’, in other words, is itself a new ground for speculation, contemplation, and meaning-making. This delightful aside, one of several imaginative interludes in New Grounds, is what happens when poets do art history.

But as Shaw makes clear, Hobbema was also a sound with resonance outside the Dutch Republic; it  made foreign art critics like John Ruskin recoil in horror. To him it would’ve stood for the impiousness of the Dutch whose landscape paintings reduce humans to mere features of the surrounds, counterparts to sand dunes, marshes, tree clusters, and, above all, mud. Which is to say, for the evangelical Ruskin, Dutch landscape painting supplants the divine force animating history, commerce, and Empire with the godless entropy of worn footpaths, flooded causeways, or herders sat waiting for reluctant cows to make their way through the muck. 

Such “low-level dramas of recalcitrant matter,” as Shaw calls them, were for Hobbema and his predecessors, his master Jacob van Ruisdael (1628–1682), and the prolific Jan van Goyen (1596–1656), not only a way to develop a painterly niche, or portray the secular materialism of everyday life in the new republic. They were also a way of working through the literally new ground under their feet: land reclaimed from the sea, to which it was always at risk of returning. At least, this is the book’s principal thesis 

New Grounds for Dutch Landscape is Shaw’s third book with the small Swedish press OEI Editör, and his first published in the original English; it is also number ten in the publisher’s‘Investigations’ series, which has previously issued Swedish translations of books by the likes of David Antin, Giorgio Agamben, and Georges Didi-Huberman. Departing somewhat from previous work, New Grounds is an outgrowth of Shaw’s scholarship on the poetics of place and site-specificity. Although a number of poets are brought to bear in this account – from Ovid to Lyn Hejinian and, most notably, Francis Ponge whose ‘Unfinished Ode to Mud’ serves as one of the book’s epigraphs – this is foremost a work of art history, yet one that is very much place-bound. 

Jacob van Ruisdael, Cascading Waterfalls, 1660–1670. Rijksmuseum / Wikimedia Commons.

Indeed, some of the book’s most compelling insights emerge from the particularities of living below sea level. Take, for example, the thesis that Ruisdael’s depictions of cascading waterfalls and rushing streams are best considered in relation to the protocols and civic demands of dike breeches – and, in the case of the Dutch Water Line, tactical flooding as a military defence. 

That said, matters of place in Shaw’s work nearly always lead to matters of time. Or, more specifically, non-normative temporalities. As he puts it in his book Fieldworks: From Place to Site in Postwar Poetry and Art (2013)there is “a promise somehow latent in registering the minute passage of time… positioned against forms of symptomatic and monumental history.” What Shaw then posed as problems of “resistant microtemporality” reemerge in his discussion of works by Hobbema, Ruisdael, and van Goyen, whose landscapes he positions against not only the narrative apparatus of Baroque history painting (decisive instants and transformative events), but also the logistical apparatus of then-emerging capitalist markets (speed and efficiency). That such a durational and non-instrumental now, what he describes in the chapter on Hobbema as “infinite reservoirs of liberatingly mundane sequence,” is also a painterly conceptualisation of time – and not, for example, proto-cinematic – is one of the book’s achievements, and Shaw manages it convincingly in part by attending to facture, or paint handling. 

Drawing on art historian James Elkins’s description of paint as “oily mud,” New Grounds likens painting to pushing around land masses, draining and reclaiming swamps and bogs. In the wet-on-wet smear of a van Goyen mud puddle, Shaw argues, we actually find an aesthetic reenactment of land reclamation; in his muted figures, we see something akin to a non-anthropocentric gaze – or, taken a step further, a secular version of the substance monism of his contemporary and countryman Baruch Spinoza who claimed that there is only one kind of matter (God) of which there are infinitely many modes. All this seems plausible enough, and Shaw argues his case with erudition, humour, and care. 

Jan van Goyen, Sandy Road With Farmhouse, 1627. The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Wikimedia Commons.

If I have a minor gripe, it’s this: for a book that places such emphasis on facture, the reproductions (of which there are many) are surprisingly small. Without resorting to high-resolution images online, we can’t get a proper sense of, say, the translucent shadows and scumbled roads in van Goyen’s Sandy Road and Farmhouse (1627). Of course, there is a major gripe too. By focusing on what is materially there in the paintings, New Grounds largely circumvents questions surrounding the painters’ respective relationships to Dutch colonial enterprise, the slave trade, and, in van Goyen’s case his vocation as a real estate and tulip speculator. 

In fairness, Shaw goes to great lengths to show the limits of seventeenth-century artistic post-humanism and the forms of resistance that it offered. “That the new grounds proposed in Dutch landscape painting didn’t extend to the colonial landscape remains a basic limitation of Golden Age Dutch culture,” he writes. Still, his answer to this fundamental problem, which is to address how these paintings conjured the “pleasures of localism” against the backdrops of enslavement and far-flung trading outposts constrains us to think how the social art history – as well as the non-instrumental temporalities – that New Grounds delineates might be productively extended towards the present. 

Because one recalcitrant matter remains: outside the confines of art history, what is to be done with Shaw’s analysis? One answer to this question might be found in the politics of time and narrative that it proposes, which displaces the historical event and sovereign subjects in favour of everyday ongoingness and forms of agency (human and non-human). While a materialist perspective is now something of a norm within global art discourse, a down-to-earth – or, in Shaw’s terms, georgic – mode grounded in the local, contextual, and contingent is less so. Another answer might be in Shaw’s methodological focus on what paintings have to offer: their formal and material properties as well as their affective and imaginative registers. New Grounds invites us to attend to these without the moralising of a figure such as Ruskin in order to better understand painting’s capacity to open terrain for contestation – on oily mud or the ground beneath our feet. Hobbema, indeed. 

Meindert Hobbema, A Village Among the Trees, 1653–1709. Statens Museum for Kunst / Wikimedia commons.