How water made the world

To the Frans Hals exhibition at the National Gallery. Look, I understand the case against him. All skill, no depth. While Vermeer and Rembrandt move audiences, the lesser Golden Age Dutchman just dazzles them with competence.

Still, he shows us the modern world being born. These portraits aren’t of religious, aristocratic or classical subjects. These are bourgeois civilians, drawn from a new merchant class. On their faces is no sign of fear, whether of the church or of a feudal lord, just well-fed joie de vivre and, in more than a few cases, a sort of beckoning amorousness. (Marriage Portrait of Isaac Massa and Beatrix Van Der Laen should be renamed Invitation To A Threesome.) I keep having to check the dates to believe that Hals painted this stuff while Galileo was being tried for heliocentrism.

What explains the relative freedom of the Dutch Republic in the 1600s? Well, the first thing in the exhibition is a map of the Netherlands and its North Sea exposure. Here is a reminder of the paradox of water. The element opens up a nation to good things, such as commerce, and at the same time, because amphibious invasion is so hard, provides a screen against the bad. You can see how it might instil a liberal optimism about the outside world.

And how strange such an outlook must be to landlubbers. According to one view of international relations, maritime societies are confident, trade-obsessed and porous to new ideas. Continental ones, being more exposed to attack, are paranoid, in thrall to their large standing armies and zero- rather than positive-sum in their external dealings. As an account of the world, this is a line of best fit, not the pure truth. There have been conservative seafarers (imperial Spain) and interior lands that produced freethinkers (the German-speaking world of Kepler). Then there is the problem of definition. Is India maritime or continental? What about Israel?

Looking around, though, the theme of Earth versus Water does seem to explain a lot in 2023. The modern world was built in the image of superpowers that were maritime from the start (such as the Dutch Republic and that bothersome appendage to the Royal Navy, Britain) or that came to be so (such as France and America). Against this, China, and to a much greater extent Russia, are continental powers first. If the difference in worldview is sharp, it is because its ultimate root is in immutable geographic fact.

Last week, over a drink with a China-watcher, I asked the same question I always do. Yes, a nation can go from poor to middle income without democratising. But, in the absence of bounteous resources, can it become rich? Whatever the right answer, notice that I assume that enrichment is the goal. Other national priorities — internal grip, “strategic depth” — don’t occur to me. The habit of thought is maritime, whether British, Sri Lankan, Singaporean or Nigerian. (Nowhere landlocked went into the making of me.)

At least I can now tell Water societies from Earth societies when I see them. Not all can. Brexiters argued that Britain, unlike the insular continent, looks to the open seas. This was a dire misreading of the EU, which could not be a more maritime institution if it moved to a wharf in Rotterdam. It is obsessed with, and derives its global clout from, commerce and the making of the rules that govern it. The EU is having to learn continental paranoia under Russian duress.

The line between Earth thinking and Water thinking runs within countries, not just between them. The historic contrast of littoral, western-tinged St Petersburg against inland, conservative Moscow is the obvious case in point. But lots of states have a similar internal dualism: cosmopolitan Barcelona and “national” Madrid, Hamburg and Bavaria, Istanbul and the Turkish interior, coastal America and the heartland. 

Water is not always and everywhere a liberalising element. (See the history of South Carolina.) But I’d take a world governed according to its precepts over something altogether more terrestrial. Towards the end of Hals’s career, and this exhibition, the faces become dourer and more fearful. It is hard nowadays for someone of liberal sensibilities not to mirror them. I walk out into a square named after a naval battle, under a monument to an admiral, and wonder for how much longer we will live in Water World. 

Email Janan at [email protected]

Find out about our latest stories first — follow @ftweekend