Do you know what it’s like to exist with missing parts? To go one’s whole life haunted by some indescribable and mysterious phantom limb? A lost piece of the puzzle, an absent chapter in the story of just who the hell is this Jonathan Grossmalerman fellow anyhow?? It’s something I’ve always meant to write about in these pages, but I didn’t want to seem... you know... self-indulgent... Anyway, what could this feeling be? After all, I have my two hands, two strong legs and a fiercely beating heart! Why do I still feel apart? So different? Why do I not quite fit in? Do you know how that feels? To be slightly different? Alone in a crowd?
No! Of course not! How could you?
But then, out of nowhere, I received a mysterious package! An ancient leather-bound manuscript carefully wrapped in fine linens, from someone claiming to be my ‘great uncle from the old country’, a certain Jaap de Grootschildermanneke. Strange, as I had never heard of anyone by that name and didn’t know I even had family in any old country. After all, I’ve always considered myself American. Free from the constraint of history! No ties to any tradition or extended family. I’ve never even identified with my own parents! Dull, secretive people who committed tandem suicide via lawnmower the day I was accepted into art school. It was very sad... as I suppose you can imagine.
In any case, back to the mysterious package!
The manuscript, dated 1623, was titled Atelier Van Schande or Studio of Shame: A detailed account of the career, court proceeding and ultimate garrotting, disembowelling, beheading, drawing-and-quartering and then public burning and piking of the Delft painter Johannes de Grootschildermanneke, an unabashedly virile colleague of Vermeer and also a good deal more productive!
I only know this much because my slow-witted studio assistant Neal translated the entire document from the original Dutch (he has interesting, if not reliable, talents). The book was also full of amazing engravings of de Grootschildermanneke’s work. He was known primarily for highly realistic still lifes consisting of extremely moist food. Peaches, cherries, mussels, clams, oysters, sliced melons, halved blood oranges, pistachios, pomegranates, cloven figs and papayas, conch shells, lilies and the like, all jam- med suggestively with bananas (rare at the time!), cornichons, cucumbers, zucchini and eggplants, the Spanish kind. Which he sold at market (less expensively than Bible scenes, but more expensively than landscapes). Then, according to court documents, in 1621 he exploded the conventions of the day. Abruptly dispensing with allusion altogether, he started making huge paintings of vaginas! Huge paintings of vaginas!! I’m sorry, did you catch that? Huge paintings of fucking vaginas!!!
Not until the Delft Thunderclap of 1654, when a gunpowder warehouse exploded in the centre of town, would Delft be rocked like this. It is this grand gesture, this stake through the heart of culture, that ushered in Modernism. This crack in the sky! This stone cast between the eyes! From then on, Dutch painting could only limp along blindly until culture caught up with it!
So popular were the vagina paintings that he couldn’t produce enough to satisfy the needs of the growing merchant class, patroons, foreign kings and emperors. Everyone needed to have a remarkable vagina painting; in fact, an aristocratic woman was not considered fit for court life until she had posed for one. And then, just as suddenly, the dream ended. Through some misunderstanding or conspiracy of prudery or perhaps a jealous Frans Hals (theories abound), de Grootschildermanneke was hauled in front of the Delft city council for failing to pay a local mule tax, where, despite having the money owed, he was sentenced to be immediately garrotted, flayed, disembowelled, beheaded, drawn, quartered, burned and finally had his head stuck on a pike and displayed from the roof of the painter’s guild building in the market square. A judge later reduced his sentence and he was spared the flaying. De Grootschildermanneke, my hero, suffered the tortures of the damned so that we might live free of allegory. Unfettered by inference and intimation. That we might be ourselves and not some whispered innuendo.
The vagina-shaped hole in my heart has a name!!!
It is de Grootschildermanneke!
This article first appeared in the May 2016 issue of ArtReview.