‘When they told me were mounting an exhibition of artworks with cheese as the subject I thought there can’t be that many paintings of the yellow stuff’, Oscar, a volunteer at the Stadsmuseum Woerden told me. I thought the same. My interest was piqued. And now, here we both were, he leading and me listening.
Everyone knows that cheese and Holland go together. Cheese is as Dutch as clogs and tulips but I didn’t realise that cheese could be quite such a source of inspiration. Those old Dutch masters would paint anything. There were genres, sub-genres and specialisations within specialisations. In the beginning of the seventeenth century paintings of dinner tables became fashionable. (And we thought photographing restaurant meals was a recent trend!). Pieter Claesz adapted this mode to portray slightly less lavish breakfast tables. But the object was the same: the commissioner could beat his chest and cry ‘See what I’ve got’ and the painter could show off his technical skills. Cheese figured heavily in these compositions. Not so much the smooth yellow gold of young cheese, but that crumbly, flaky, darker-than-dark-yellow old cheese. And Claesz did it so well – his cheese almost emanated that slightly fetid odour of old socks.
That blackish-green lump in the basket is also cheese. And below at the back – a green cheese with a dark crust. Cheeses were flavoured with horseradish, parsley, and in some instances – sheep droppings! Mmmm, ‘lekker’ * as they say in Dutch!
Such breakfasts were not affordable for everyone, but everyone did eat cheese – and bread – but not with butter. Double dairy was considered to be too much of a good thing – sinful even. Unless you were rich. Then you could do what you liked. Prince Maurits of Orange was mad about bread, butter and cheese. And notice the knives in these paintings. Knives, unlike other cutlery, were personal, carried everywhere by the owner. Another reflection of status. Tablecloths may have been damask, but their crinkled, wrinkled appearance suggests diners grabbed edges and corners to clean fingers and mouths – in the seventeenth century there were no napkins.
Dutch Masters continue to inspire. Saeed Bahkshi, an Iranian artist, gets a kick from the personal story behind the objects. What was a typical day like for a seventeenth-century Dutch person, what kept them busy? His breakfast came from the supermarket – an old master in a modern jacket.
Other artists, much like the old masters, choose to portray cheese because of the technical skill required. Reisinger believes yellow – because of the enormous range of the colour, from white to orange – is one of the most difficult colours to use. Renting is interested in old farming and artisan tools and the idea to paint cheese arose only from this fascination. For Overheul it’s about form, texture, colour and balance; the supposedly impossible balance of food objects in her paintings purportedly refers to the importance of a balanced diet!
The variety of ideas and interpretations was stunning. Who would ever have thought Mickey Mouse’s wedding cake (as my dad used to call it) could prompt such an outpouring. I will never look at a piece of cheese in the same way again.
Stadsmuseum Woerden http://www.stadsmuseumwoerden.nl
From April to August there is a cheese market every Saturday in Woerden. 11.00-13.00. Woerden is a 40 – 50 minute train journey from Amsterdam.