The king and the queen and the undocumented men

Issue no5
Oct / Nov 2017
REMIX

We alone was the face of our Time. Trough us the horn of time blows in the art of the words. The past constricts.

  • Vladimir Mayakovsky

Sometimes art history is so very close to fairy tales. Artworks reach a new wave of reactions much later in their face lifted appearance of a life. Looking at the television as well as online media images, Prinsjesdag could have been based on a story of the Grimm Brothers. It is the day on which the reigning monarch of the Netherlands addresses a joint session of the Dutch Senate and House of Representatives in the Ridderzaal (Hall of Knights) in The Hague. This year it just happened on September 15 in a most spectacular setting. The king and the queen arrived in a golden chariot, or in Dutch ‘Gouden Koets’. Making for a majestic entry, the chariot is actually a golden one. The king and the queen in it are beautifully and reassuringly dressed. The king wears a black dress and a white shirt, while the Queen is wrapped in a soft broken white dress featuring a series of pastel flowers that could have been painted by Odilon Redon. Both of them seem to live in an ageless age which is a combination of a Walt Disney fantasy and an imprecise image of the past ages. Their clothing references the 19th century fashion yet it also looks modern. Their image asks for a specific kind of demand. It is not just pure nostalgia that they address. It is not just sentimental beauty that they bring to the eye. Rather they project a certain reassuring sugary version of the future of the Netherlands in Europe and in a globalised word. This version is not specific rather it relies on a vague and colourful narrative that is slightly inadequate, fragile, almost a little silly for 2015. The political power is decorated with sympathetic pastel tones. Wouldn’t anyone want to relate to that? Secretly smiling and feeling empathy for the royal family and the future of their subjects.

At such a moment I couldn’t help but ask myself, as someone working in the arts as well as a citizen (alas, a disappearing word), what does it mean to see a state entry in this golden chariot today? The chariot was a gift of the citizens of Amsterdam to their Monarch in 1898 and was first used in 1901, before the Great War, when Europe had no real nation states yet and was divided between Empires. Covered in gold-leaf, it features six panels painted by the artist Nicolaas van der Waay. The middle panel centres on a personification of the Netherlands. Sitting on a large throne, she is a slender pale woman, wearing a white simple dress and a pastel azure drape. Her hair is calmly descending on the half bare shoulders. She is slightly pensive and dreamy. Standing firm in the throne she has a sympathetic gaze as if she is ready to help someone in case of need. On her right a gentle man with blonde hair and also dressed in pastel offers a closed book to a young, almost naked, darker skinned boy with black hair. The boy’s dark skin is balanced by a small, light blue drape around his genital area, just like the one that his rougher almost naked father and mother wear. The panels offer more such scenes including many agricultural offerings to the feet of the dreamy fair lady by some other half naked men and women. These men and women are gifting the efforts of their noble and simple labour. The overall panels recall the imagery that northern europeans held of Ancient Greece in the 19th century. Hence the drapes, the modest white wavy clothing, the elegance of the looks, the benevolence of the eyes go hand in hand with the offerings of agricultural gifts and the disseminations of intellect.
This years Prinsjesdag might be one of the last times the golden chariot is seen in public as it is to enter a long period of restorations. We will no longer see the fairy tale in front of the political debate so vividly as this year. Yet, there is not only pastel images in this scenario. If the gift giving scenes recall the idyllic paintings of Sir Alma Tadema or the colourful airy panels of Puvis de Chavannes, the other symbolical side of the chariot has a less flowery character which recalls for Gericaults preference for human drama.

How do the chariot and its complex character come together in one newspaper, in one set of eyes, in one continuous facebook feed, in one moment of sympathy? I thought about the dangers of sympathy, the dangers of high waters, the dangers of pastel affection and the dissemination of certain images, certain documents, certain humanities.

On the brick of the destructions of Second World War Walter Benjamin noted down the difference between political art and aestheticised politics. Every time I try to make sense and see clearly I fail again and again. Beyond being a historical analyses this difference also marks an ethical standpoint. During this enchanted ride of the chariot in 2015 I couldn’t help but ask how complex and difficult it is to register the images of gold, pretty flowers and political visions of the future and what they actually depict. It is highly symptomatic that the comforting pastels coexist with the high seas and rising metal walls there and elsewhere. The reassuring and recognisable imagery of the enchanted Hall of Knights and the golden chariot are interchangeable with the haunted house and the pirates. To say it with Umberto Eco, (Dreaming of the middle Ages) the consumers of images wants to be thrilled, not only by the guarantee of the good but also by the shudder of the bad. In a way the digital images of chariots and royal entries are just a fairytale version of Europe, the king and the queen and the bearing of labour gifts. But then again they are precisely about the king and the queen and the undocumented men.


Source images here and here

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 5 — 2017