Wieteke van Zeil (The Hague, 1973) has been writing about old masters and today’s culture in the Dutch national newspaper de Volkskrant since 2003. Her articles reveal her sharp eyes and associative mind, linking the way Zadie Smith wraps her hair to the way medieval women used to do it, the understated attire of Catrina Hooghsaet in a Rembrandt to our wasteful ways. After graduating from the University of Amsterdam as an art historian, she worked for several museums and organized debates on art, diversity and religion. Besides art, Wieteke loves pop culture, and well-made food and clothes, both in paintings and in real life. Around 2010, she started to photograph details in paintings and noticed that these images, once isolated, obtain new meaning for us today, aside from their art-historical one. And she realized how artists depicted the essential details about how people live, suffer, love, struggle and find enjoyment, as much hundreds of years ago as today.
Photo: Najib Nafid
Every week, Wieteke discusses a specific detail of an artwork. For these columns she visits museums and collections, taking her time to let the details catch her eye. Artists see what we often fail to notice; every carefully painted tiny detail encapsulates a wealth of knowledge, meaning, and history that connects with our present lives. Their wonderful details spur our curiosity and help us engage with their work. Oftentimes, Wieteke’s explorations lead to discussions with experts on the details’ subjects: a shoemaker, an astronomer or ornithologist, or a goldsmith or weaver.
The Details of Art is part of the Saturday supplement Sir Edmund of de Volkskrant newspaper. In 2015, this column won the European Newspaper Award for Best Editorial Series.
The advantages of Baldassare Castiglione’s 15th-century concept of sprezzatura – a studied effortlessness – for today’s workplace. A study of artworks depicting Christ as a black man, when for the first time in the history of the very popular Dutch television event The Passion a black actor is cast for the role of Christ (and what skin colour did He actually have?). The influence of architecture on the social cohesion in today’s society (and how 17th-century Dutchmen commissioned their best architects to design workhouses and centres for the elderly ‘like palaces’). In her cultural essays, Wieteke links culture and history to current affairs, providing both depth and context, so we don’t get swept up by them.
‘If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be very intelligent, read them more fairy tales.’ – Albert Einstein.
All cultures have their own bedtime stories, read to children to playfully offer them guidance, read by adults to open their minds – for a while at least. Old fairy tales often turn out to be quite relevant to current affairs, because they are so archetypal that their moral impact transcends the ages.
To celebrate the fifth anniversary of de Volkskrant’s cultural supplement V, we made a series of the most beautiful fairy tales from 6 different cultures, with illustrations by the unsurpassed Raoul Deleo. Each magical painting included a hidden clue to a puzzle devised by mathematician and comic Jan Beuving. The series won a European Newspaper Award in 2016 for its illustrations.
What is the history of the fashion we wear today, and what did these details and accessories communicate in earlier times?
The series Forerunners, which ran its third season in 2017, is a special summer edition of the Eye for Detail series, solely focusing on fashion details in painting. Every week a fashion detail from art history is connected to a contemporary person wearing that same detail. Forerunners is about what fashion tells us about men and women, and their position in society. And about how in new times and cultures these meanings evolve and change. In 2017, we presented a film with each article together with the costume website Modemuze, in which we went to the museum depot to look for the details in historical costumes.
Ernst Gombrich, cultural historian, once remarked: ‘One never finishes learning about art. There are always new things to discover.’ In Up Closer, Wieteke van Zeil shows us details in paintings that we might not normally notice. She discusses their symbolism and shares her own associations with us, stimulating us to look more closely.
We live in an information culture in which millions of images fight for our attention. Pausing to examine a detail in a painting can refresh the way we see the whole; this is the idea behind Up Closer, Art in Detail. The book features fifty-two paintings, each with a zoomed-in detail and Wieteke van Zeil’s short observations. She makes connections between the old masters and our modern world, bringing each painting vividly to life. She stimulates our imagination, so that we go on to find other details that aren’t immediately obvious. By concentrating on a cow’s velvety nose , or on men bathing naked in the corner of a seascape, the whole painting not only becomes more stunning, but the viewer will also understand it better. She opens up a world of meaning.