I’d like you all to meet Otto Marseus van Schrieck. A painter of the Dutch Golden Age and member of the Bentvueghels, van Schrieck was known for his detailed naturalistic studies of weird plants and creepy animals. It is said that van Schrieck kept a plot of land outside of Amsterdam stocked with a small menagerie of reptiles, amphibians, and insects to use as his subject matter. For reasons that don’t quite click with me but apparently do with the author of his Wikipedia page, he was for this reason “called the snuffelaer, or ‘sniffer’, because he was always sniffing strange lizards and snakes.” What?
Before today, I didn’t know there was something called the Bentvueghels, or Otto Marseus van Schrieck, or the Dutch Golden Age — and then I read a big plaque on the wall next to his painting at the New Orleans Museum of Art. I barely knew anything about Dutch and Flemish art before today, but now here it is midnight and I am one of the world’s foremost experts. That’s what museums can do! It was great — this dank, sinister, inexplicable little non-ecosystem of snakes and insects and fungi carefully arranged for your viewing consideration. It’s a pitch dark canvas studded with corpse-white moths being devoured by reptiles slithering around jagged toadstools and the don’t-give-a-fuck frog below. I’m sure it’s teeming with all kinds of symbolism I don’t know about, but I do know that it’s got all the claustrophobic darkness and uncanny foreboding of a Ridley Scott movie. Judging from my post-museum research (two minutes Google image search, three minutes Wikipedia — the magic ratio) it seems like paintings of this kind were basically his thing.
NOMA has free admission every Wednesday, but this is the first time I’ve gone in the two years I’ve lived here. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a big art museum by myself before. It was at least one and a half times more enjoyable than going with another person. I guess it’s a product of our dumb times and my own smallness of consciousness, but as much as I honestly enjoy looking at paintings I can never fully get past the pretension problem when I’m with someone else at a museum, even if it’s someone with whom I feel totally at ease. We’re always reduced to mumbling vague earnest things to each other and getting semi-embarrassed about the whole cartoonish spectacle of being one of the People at the Museum: folding those arms, LOOKIN’ AT THOSE PAINTINGS, critiquing the form or whatever, making little grunts of approval or squints of disapproval, imagining that people think you’re bored even if you’re not bored and anyway are you sure you’re not bored? Have you actually just duped yourself into thinking you’re not bored? You’re at a museum, which popular culture universally pans as a boring and pretentious experience for boring and pretentious people, so you’ve gotta be pretentious and bored. Come ON buddy real talk here.