Alan Riach has been looking at Karel Capek’s travel books over the last few weeks, and thinking about the virtues of other nations. In Letters from Holland, from 1932, Capek is affectionate, politically astute and – as with Spain – brilliant when he comes to Holland’s artists, and the most masterly, Rembrandt. In fact, he sees and understands questions of politics, power and value, through the artist’s work. It’s the truest guide, as we’ll find out …

THE landscape is primary: “There are straight canals leading from town to town,” but many of these “are not below the level of the ground, as elsewhere, but above it” and not only that, but “this water, unlike other water, flows uphill; from the low-lying land and its canals and gulleys it is pumped upwards into the rivers and waterways, and that is why these canals are lined with regular avenues of windmills, which do not grind corn, but water” and even if they’re not working they can “serve merely as an emblem of Holland; and the water is shifted by electricity”.

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Capek is keen to note national symbols but also to observe the practicalities of life, so that both industry and the economy alongside imagery and cultural character take on a reciprocal value. That’s another lesson: not to divorce the “heart” from the “head”: if they’re not connected, you’re dead.

It’s the light in which vision happens that leads us to the artists: “I can’t very well sketch Dutch light for you, it is so pure and transparent that you can see every outline and detail to the very edge of the world; that is why those old painters used to elaborate their pictures to the minutest details so plainly and with an almost microscopic accuracy; it is the dewy air in Holland which made this possible.”

So we come to the “Old Masters”: “Dutch art is the work of seated painters for sedentary townsfolk; an urban art which sometimes paints peasants, but does so with the condescending banter of sedate urban shopkeepers. They are fond of still lifes. They are fond of pictures which tell a story; stories provide entertainment for sedentary people.

“These paintings were not painted for galleries where people walk about, but for rooms where they sit down. Dutch art revealed a new reality by betaking itself home and sitting down there.”

This is not pejorative. Or not entirely. Capek notes the intrinsic attractiveness of Dutch artists’ names: Dou, Ter Boch, Hobbema, Cuyp, Metsu and de Hooch, Wouwerman, Van der Neer, Van de Velde, Van Goyen and more. Vermeer (1632-75), he says, conveys a “lustrous purity” and Frans Hals (1582-1666) “is stuff for he-men. Just look at the fellow as painted by himself; sprawled out and befuddled, stout and burly, a roysterer in Sunday clothes, with a head which was not given to brooding, and a hand which did not toy with the brush but slapped it across the canvas with a rollicking, virile matter-of-factness and self-assurance which are nothing short of effrontery”.

But if Hals “knocked these portraits off, with scarcely a flicker of a bleary eyelid” nevertheless “he made things lifelike too; starchy pleats crackle, high-minded wives of burgesses breathe hard in their tight stays, worshipful town councillors snort, and the old master slung it almost savagely on to the canvas, probably because bigwigs were not altogether to his liking. Genius of a downright physical character.”

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So far so good. But then we get to Rembrandt (1606-69): “Rembrandt or the exception.” Capek picks up from his earlier, seemingly amusing notion of the sedentary art of paintings for the home, and turns it into something far more serious in his appreciation of this master.

Tour guides still show you his house on the fringe of the Amsterdam ghetto, but this “is not merely Rembrandt’s address, but part and parcel of his inner destiny. Flight from Protestant restraint. Unhappiness and social derangement. The search for darkness, the search for the Orient.

“A man in whom brooding, sensualism, effusiveness and stark realism were strangely mingled. The warm gloom of his pictures glimmers with gems and the body’s decay”.

Prosperity is not based on industry, the sea, or abundant agriculture, but what it has of these it uses wisely, and invests in its own strengths

His paintings “are fashioned of gloom and lustre” but they “remain inscrutable” and the pilgrim is confronted by this strange secret: “the secret of a small nation”: “the riddle of a great artist.”

Here’s Capek’s conclusion: “The thing is this: but for Rembrandt, the pilgrim’s final impression would have been that the small-scale happiness of a small nation is a real boon. Here is a nice, smooth, neat and sensible country; it is also prosperous and respectable. It has no mountains, but in it yawns an abyss of sorrow, of radiance and awesome beauty. This is Rembrandt.”

Others may be satisfied with “a contented and matter-of-fact country” but who would not wish to go deeper, to see further into that abyss? Scotland is rich with its own artists and history, the darkness and radiance of our literature and languages, but perhaps it takes a Czech looking at a Dutch master to remind us of what is at stake here, what remains of greatest value, and why it’s worth the risk.

IN his conclusion, Capek follows this argument through. Imagine a Latvian asking whether it’s worthwhile to publish books in his or her own language, “when only a handful of people can read them? Is it worth the effort to maintain an insulated national identity, and to waste so much effort merely that the Latvian language should be kept going and a corporate Latvian life should continue? Would it not be wiser to join some larger racial unit and publish books in Russian or German?”

Think Gaelic and Scots for Latvian, English for Russian or German.

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Capek replies that this is familiar ground to the Czechs, that his travels to other nations are themselves enquiries into how the question is dealt with in such places. In Holland, he says, he found “a small-scale country, but the level which it reaches is high or, at any rate, good”.

Its prosperity is not based on industry, the sea, or abundant agriculture, but what it has of these it uses wisely, and invests in its own strengths, “They conquer the world with orbs of Edam cheese and tulip bulbs” and “the cows and the polders” and “they take these national resources of theirs with a proper seriousness”.

Forget the oil. Nationalise land and water and reclaim the whisky industry. Invest in art and education. Just to begin with. Ultimately, it’s not only worthwhile but the best priority “to replace quantity by quality”.

“If our ship is small, there’s no room in it for trash, rubbish, shoddy and fake. Bad things take up as much room as good ones do, and we haven’t got much room to spare.”

And that’s our story too – or it should be.