Images of Dutchness. Popular Visual Culture, Early Cinema and the Emergence of a National Cliché 1800–1914

Dellmann, Sarah
Framing Film
Anzahl Seiten
421 S.
€ 43,00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Krystyna Biernawska, Jerusalem

Across academic fields and over the past decade, national stereotypes and clichés in popular visual culture have attracted increased interest. In the Netherlands alone, research on "Dutch" stereotypes has been especially prominent in early cinema, television and archival studies. What has likely contributed to this development is the fact that researchers can benefit from more accessible and often digitised databases, which they can access through numerous and digital channels, making their cases (and academic publications) richer.

In her book „Images of Dutchness. Popular Visual Culture, Early Cinema and the Emergence of National Cliché, 1800–1914“, Sarah Dellmann analysed 3000 images from eleven different media formats, ranging from print press and magazines, postcards, advertising trade cards, tourist brochures, and promotional materials to early cinema. All materials are categorised as nonfiction and fit within one of three discourses: anthropology, popular geography, and tourism (as in consumer culture). It is interesting that, as the author explains, she gained access to the materials in question not only through traditional, institutionalised media of archives, but also through platforms such as YouTube and eBay.

The author approaches the phenomena of commonly recognised and widely accepted, seemingly homogeneous repertoires of visuals that one would identify as essentially very „Dutch“. Subsequently, the work focuses on the semiotic process, the investigation of the origins of national clichés in (popular) visual media, with the premise that the re-presented, stereotypical images came from and built on an already existing pool of common understanding and knowledge of what „typically Dutch“ means (and looks like). This is when the author offers a truly innovative and thorough approach to the analysis of the selected historical documents.

Firstly, the work combines, in an intelligent and logical manner, the analyses of not only the images, but also the texts presented with them. As such, it explains how the relationship between written word and image and the assumed knowledge of the recipient-viewer contributes to the validation of what „Dutchness“ looks like when pictured as realistic. Thus, Dellmann gives the analysis of the representation of national clichés an innovative angle. Secondly, the author's discourses offer a compelling perspective, framework, and starting point for the analysis of the recurring visuals across the media motifs. Thus, she successfully includes visuals from different sources, produced with different techniques, with varied characteristics and purposes, into a single research study not of individual materials and their contents, but of „structures linking the elements within a document and between various documents“ (p. 25).

The book especially stands out for its visuals. This publication is richly illustrated, and the images are of good quality and size. The images are grouped carefully and in a pragmatic manner, according to the function of the materials, which makes for a logical structure. The first chapters introduce the research questions and the theoretical background of the visual analysis. Following the introduction, the book tackles the main concepts of the study, the approaches, and the desired outcomes. Chapter 2 takes the reader through eleven formats of visual materials, neatly organised in sub-chapters. Chapter 3 offers the historical framework.

The essence of the book lies in Chapters 4, 5 and 6, in which the author begins the visual analysis of the categorised media. Each of the visual analysis chapters includes an abstract, introduction, and conclusions (with distilled patterns and motifs) to the respective findings, making it accessible and clear reading on its own. When needed, the reader is reminded of concepts already introduced in the first two chapters. In this sense, apart from the comparative analysis between the chapters, the book is also constructed so that each chapter makes an accessible and in-depth contribution for researchers and academics interested only in particular types and functions of visual media distinguished within the study.

Chapter 4 discusses various formats of materials categorised within anthropological discourse. It logically continues the previous chapter, explaining the historical contexts of the emergence of national clichés. Dellmann focuses on people depicted as „Dutch“, starting from the early 18th century, when the term „national“ was not yet clearly pictured in the collective understanding. Here the author is able to convincingly identify the earliest relevant motifs with regard to themes such as „dress“ or „race“ vis-a-vis the adjective „Dutch“.

Chapter 5 embeds the analysis of visuals indexed as „geographical“, noting that this category of materials was intended to be „educational“. Chapter 6 moves on to images in tourism and consumer culture. This chapter is particularly interesting because of the nature and (international) origins of the materials discussed. The visuals included promotional materials, advertisements (such as advertising trade cards), and other documents intended as ephemeral and promoting the Netherlands as an experience to sell (or to consume), which presents in itself an interesting corpus for more focused studies.

Through the comparative lens, the author delivers for each category historical developments and observations of recurring tendencies, often contrasting with previous chapters. For instance, the choice of adjectives to describe images varies, depending on their function. This part of the discussion I found particularly interesting and worth further exploring.

The author worked as a researcher and lecturer at the universities of Utrecht and Groningen and Amsterdam University College. Her expertise „lies on West-European visual culture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries“.[1] Dellmann's background and knowledge are apparent in her writing and come across through her historical approach, providing well-argued reasoning for drawing conclusions. For instance, she does not omit the „performative“ impact of historical visual materials and the presentation practices of their time. She argues that the combination of word and image in nonfiction materials is in itself performative. The author also draws from cross-disciplinary methods of analysis to create a fitting framework for her text-image cases. As such, she proves that practices of media archaeology and historical approach, intermediality, and visual analysis are intricately interconnected and useful to answering her research question, resulting in a compelling conclusion presented in the final chapter.

Dellmann, rightfully so, distinguishes between the trends in Western and Eastern culture, as of what „typically Dutch“ would mean, respectively. In this manner, she carefully distances her study from a general body of work on Dutch clichés in an internationalised context. Her image collection is comprehensive enough to identify tendencies and filter out patterns and motifs. While I do not challenge that, the sources that are available are limited, which makes a case for future research with the intention to enrich the selection.

Finally, this publication is both accessible and ambitious in its scope and is successfully cross-disciplinary, bridging between fields of early cinema studies, media archaeology, and media history. The innovative approach results in convincing conclusions for each category of the visual documents as well in addressing the research question, providing an impressive body of work that is worth expanding.

[1] Sarah Dellmann, in: Humanities Commons, (07.06.2019).