Friday, December 12, 2008

Jan Steen II

Jan Steen. Argument over a Role-Playing Game. Date unknown.

A lovely reminder of one of my youthful pastimes: role-playing games! I confess, I lived a lonely youth. I was a solemn boy. And yet, during those summer months when my family left the pastoral (yet restrictive) bounds of Culemborg, and traveled to see our relations in Amsterdam and its environs, I played hours upon hours of Dungeons & Dragons with my cousin Per (who is, not incidentally, now a very well-known fantasy novelist in our home country). Steen himself was an avid gamer and frequently slipped references to his hobbies into his paintings, lovingly crafted scenes of everyday life. Here he has made it the centrepiece.

Of course, Steen recognized the vices associated with gaming: sloth, envy, detachment from reality. One can lose oneself in such games, and Steen knew this; his keen psychological insight penetrated every soul in his paintings, revealing wickedness and beauty alike – witness the Dungeon Master's face here, his gaze crushing diagonally across the painting's composition to lock eyes with the man whose character he has likely just put to an end – the action surges in a brutal wave upward and out from the table, ripping physical violence from the imagined realms of conniving rogues and menacing wizards. Witness the slow fall of the swordsman's drawing of his character (probably a mage).

Thus the moral here: these are but games. Steen, brilliantly, has revealed the meta-worlds within his painting; but his true brilliance is in bridging the psychological gap of imagined world (again, a meta-reference – the painting is an imagined world, bridged from the reality of Steen to the worldless brilliance of art-language!) and the physical world – view Steen, and view the vertiginous abyss between what we know and what we think.

1 comment:

Hermann Wundrum said...

The painting brings to mind Still Life with Cashews and the Hobbit in a Mass Market Paperback Binding, 1640 by Nicolaes Knupfer - Steen's instructor. The painting is referenced here. Steen arranged the objects on the table to echo Knupfer's dish of chewed orange wedges. The dice mirror a handful of neglected cashews, while the cans of Surge represent a stash can disguised as salt and pepper shakers. Steen, painting late in the Golden Age, often made paintings within paintings. This scene is no exception: a vibrant debate occurs with a still life at its center, providing a suitable yet substantial backdrop to the action.