European Surrender

Mark Tansey (1949-). 1984, the Triumph of the New York School. Photo: Museum Kurhaus Kleve.

One of the most famous paintings of the Spanish painter Diego Velázquez is the Surrender of Breda. Velázquez painted the event in 1634-1635, ten years after it took place. The painting is a symbolic interpretation of the surrender of Breda in 1625, when Spanish troops defeated the beleaguered Dutch city. Two generals confront each other, while smoke comes over de heads of the defeated soldiers. On the right are the self conscious, well equipped Spanish troops. The general Justin of Nassau hands over the keys to the Spanish general Ambrogio de Spinola. The two generals meet each other, not in hate, on the contrary, Ambrogio comforts the general. A military drama becomes a human drama.

The painting inspired the artist Mark Tansey to symbolize the end of the battle between the Avantgarde artists from Europe and America. Old Europe of the ‘École de Paris’ and surrealists, represented by Picasso (with fur coat and just lightning a cigarette left from the table), Matisse (dressed like a WO I French general), Duchamp and André Breton, signing the surrender, have been beaten by American abstract expressionists.

The French army has a WO I outfit, lances and horses, symbolizing old Europe. The victorious American arts critic Clement Greenberg (who favoured American abstract expressionism) is seated behind the table with Jackson Pollock in the back, supported by a modern American Army with tanks. The New York School of abstract expressionists had won after a fierce but unequal battle. Appearances are deceptive however. The military victory may be clear cut, the future is far from secure for the American divisions. Their feet are standing in a swamp, the Europeans stay on solid ground. This painting also represents the difficult relations between French and American culture.