Depth of Field, volume 7, no. 1 (December 2015)Maartje van den Heuvel: New ‘Masters’ of Dutch Landscape. Photographs of the Most Man-Made Land in the World

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Landscape in the Netherlands

In this new interest in the role of man in nature, the Netherlands becomes an interesting case for several reasons. First of all, the Netherlands can be considered an extremely man-altered landscape; being a muddy, sandy river delta landscape, the land is extremely moldable and malleable and completely shaped by man.[7] Along with windmills, in popular culture or in the work of some artists, like Edwin Zwakman, bulldozers are iconic symbols of the Netherlands.[8] Some parts of Holland – the polders – are even created completely by man out of the sea. In the Netherlands, the notion of man-altered landscape is put to its extreme. Some, like landscape architect Adriaan Geuze, state that this aspect of 'manufacturedness' is central to the genius loci of the Netherlands in general.[9]

Furthermore, the Netherlands is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. In order to make the most efficient use of the small area of land, the use of the land is extremely systematized and structuralized. Geometrical shapes and grids are the result, which photographers of course love to visually explore. The Dutch are very good at industrializing their environment. Through large greenhouses, the influence of man on nature is expanded to the computer-controlled temperature, humidity, and even rhythm of day and night. Water management, for which the Dutch are internationally renowned, has made the muddy delta land into a complex hydraulic system.[10] Even the word ‘landscape’ itself entered the English language from the Dutch during the late sixteenth century. What is interesting about this is that the word did not refer to something natural, but was an administrative term that referred to a geographical entity that had to be ruled by someone.[11]

Last but not least, it is interesting to look at Dutch landscape photography in light of the fact that the imagery of the Dutch landscape has a strong tradition in painting. The second meaning of the word landscape when it entered from Dutch into English during the Dutch Golden Age was a scene that was pleasant to be represented in an artwork.[12] ‘Landscape’ as a new genre for painting spread in the seventeenth century from the Low Countries throughout the world and became a popular artistic nouveauté. The idea to make landscape itself the subject of an artwork and not the backdrop of a religious, mythological, or historical scene, as was previously the convention, was perceived with great enthusiasm internationally. Dutch painters like Pieter Brueghel the Elder and Jacob van Ruisdael took the genre to great heights. Thousands and thousands of Dutch landscape paintings were bought and distributed abroad. They are still hanging in numerous ‘landscape painting’ rooms found in museums around the world. Not only did they spread the artistic genre of landscape painting, but they also branded the Dutch landscape in a very strong way as an idyllic country of green meadows, cows, windmills, plenty of water, and all kinds of ships, with the typically cloudy Dutch skies above.

Artists of the nineteenth-century Hague School of painting took up this image of the Dutch landscape again and emphasized the poetic qualities of the Dutch green polder. [13]Even when early modernist painters like Vincent van Gogh and Piet Mondrian changed their style and explored the power of color, the motifs remained the same. The Dutch landscape image is still tremendously popular.

Around 1900, through mediation of foreign photographers, the stereotypical image of the Netherlands from painting entered Dutch touristic and pictorial photography as well.[14] Although in art and photography, modernism rejected the depiction of nature and the rural landscape as a motif for photography, the stereotypical image of the Dutch landscape from painting turns out to be persistent in popular culture. The Dutch keep on repeating it in popular culture on calendars, posters, and cookie tins. Foreign tourists come and eagerly search for the traditional image of the Netherlands. They overload the Internet with their holiday pictures, which are snapshot imitations of famous Dutch landscape paintings. It remains a challenge for Dutch landscape photographers to position themselves in relation to this visual stereotype.