Summary

With New Dutch Herring René Daniëls deployed the formal qualities characteristic of much of his work: a simple, even haphazard, composition, the use of a limited range of bright colours, and an open and sketchy handling of paint. Parts of the acrylic priming on the support are exposed, and the artist’s underdrawing in charcoal is visible in places. This large work, in which crudely-painted fish form a pattern that covers almost the entire canvas, can be seen as marking a mid-point in the artist’s progression from figuration towards the abstraction of his later works.

The small fish in Daniëls’s painting are the Netherlandish delicacy maatjes, the first herring of the season, traditionally eaten with onion or lowered whole into the mouth and swallowed. In spring, the arrival of new herring in the marketplace sparks a bidding war. Daniëls humorously reflects this by depicting his school of fish consuming each other whole. Daniëls explained in an interview in 1983: ‘I happened to be eating some of the new season’s raw herring ... suddenly it occurred to me: imagine that they themselves discover how tasty they are. Then they might all eat each other up and be left with nothing. That is how it all started.’ (Quoted in Duyster, p.28.) New Dutch Herring evokes a much earlier work by a Netherlandish artist: the engraving Big Fish Eat Little Fish (c.1556) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525-1569), its theme inspired by a proverb.

At the time of its production, New Dutch Herring was taken as a critique of the contemporary art world’s commercialism and self-interested adulation of young artists. Although identified as a leading exponent of new Dutch art, Daniëls was suspicious of art historians and critics, and ironic references to the mechanisms of the art world appear frequently in his works through their titles and the playful symbolism of their visual repertory. But Daniëls’s visual puns parody conceptual ideas and self-consciously defy specific interpretations. He claimed to be aiming simply for ‘a combination of, on the one hand, visual poetry, and on the other, painting.’ (Quoted in Duyster, p.73.)

For its eccentric iconography and humour his work has been linked to that of Francis Picabia (1879-1953), Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) and Marcel Broodthaers (1924-1976). Daniëls associated Picabia with ‘a sense of freedom, a playfulness and a liveliness that you rarely encounter,’ (quoted in Duyster, pp.28-9) and cited Picabia’s short-lived Dada journal Le Cannibale (published in 1920), for its provocative title, in connection with New Dutch Herring.

Further reading:
Adam Berg, ‘At the Crossroads of Painting,’ Afterall, Vol. 10, pp.55-62, reproduced p.58 in colour.
John Chilver, ‘With Respect to Disrespect,’ Afterall, Vol. 10, pp.47-51.
Dorine Duyster, ed, Sputterance: Texts on and by René Daniëls, De Pont Museum of Contemporary Art, Tilburg, 2007.

Maria Bilske / Alice Sanger
May 2006 / October 2008