Tulip Mania

    On August 17, 1635, the wealthy Amsterdammer Jan Hendricxsz Admirael demanded eleven paintings and one Lucas van Leyden print from the art collector Marten Kretser. The two men had agreed on the price for these artworks: a number of valuable tulip bulbs and the sum of 180 florins. Kretser had reneged, so Admirael took him to court. The judge ordered Kretser to meet the terms of the agreement, and the case was settled.

    Admirael was a prosperous businessman who lived on Prinsengracht, the Prince’s Canal. He had two gardens, one at his house and the other in the north of the city, and was an active tulip trader. Many of the deals made in the thriving Dutch tulip exchange were connected to the art world, with bulbs regularly exchanged for paintings. At that time and in that place, art and nature were equals — it could be said that the painter of landscapes and still lifes entered into competition with his subject, which, though ephemeral, was oftentimes more valuable than its oil-on-canvas counterpart.

    Trade with Asia Minor, Turkey, and Persia was flourishing then, and with it a passion for unknown flowers and plants. The tulip is thought to have originated in Asia Minor, coming to Europe by way of Constantinople, where the flower was also greatly admired. When a ship docked at Middelburg, Haarlem, or Amsterdam, botanists, experts, and hobbyists flocked to the harbor to inspect the cargo. From these shipments, scientists created herb and flower gardens, botanical guides for obscure plants, and encyclopedias where also were recorded newly discovered species of birds and insects.

    As scientific interest grew, so did an aesthetic interest in the tulip. Indeed, it lacked any scent or curative powers and seemed to exist solely for aesthetic pleasure, for its myriad variations of color and shape. “Here in this country people value most the flamed, winged, speckled, jagged, shredded, and the most variegated,” wrote tulip connoisseur Joost van Ravelingen in 1618. “The ones that are the most valued are not the most beautiful or the nicest, but the ones which are the rarest to find; or which belong to one master, who can keep them in high price or worth.” The veneration of the tulip became a symbol of Dutch interest in the exotic, especially among well-heeled collectors. As the value of the flower skyrocketed, servants, gardeners, and thieves began pilfering them from the stately gardens of the city’s patricians.

    Today we continue to see financial speculation in matters of aesthetics. Damien Hirst’s auction of his work in September 2008, just before the credit crisis, generated 133 million euros, including the highest amount ever paid for an individual work of art, 13 million euros for his Golden Calf. During the so-called “tulip mania” of the seventeenth century, the value of some flowers equalled the value of a house on one of Amsterdam’s canals. In a way, Hirst’s work with butterflies, sharks, and calves can be seen as a reiteration of the seventeenth-century passion for natural artifacts and “artificialia” — tulips of a different variety.

    This year the Prince Claus Fund is focusing on the theme “Culture and Nature.” The theme is important not only because of the current precarious relationship between humanity and the natural world, but also for the shifts that can be observed when we look back historically. In the Golden Age, culture was placed above nature, but by the seventeenth century the worship of nature’s beauty and diversity paralleled the valuation of man’s own creations. These days, we value natural things because they threaten to disappear. But ecology encompasses a great deal — we intend to look also at the relationships between cultures and societies, which tend to be linked to the exploitation of nature: in the search for oil, which is at the root of many current conflicts; in the scarcity of water, for a significant cause of internal displacement and unrest in places like Sudan; and in ruinous global tourism to palm-fringed Caribbean beaches and Southeast Asian jungles.

    Flowers is a collaboration between Bidoun and the Prince Claus Fund Journal and takes its cue from the “Culture and Nature” theme. This issue of Bidoun draws attention to rare varieties of flowers, loosely defined. As transient, beautiful, and vulnerable as flowers are, so too are we.