Saturday, June 30, 2012

Rembrandt in Minneapolis

The Rembrandt show that opened last week at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts is a wonder. Well, I guess Rembrandt himself was something of a wonder. But we’re used to see his paintings hanging in solitary majesty here and there in the Dutch Wing of large museums, where they often seize our attention, leaping out from the midst of blue-gray Van Ruesdael landscapes and sloppy portraits by Franz Hals. The brilliant and delicate handing of fabric, flesh, and shadow stand out.

The exhibit at the MIA gives us something different: a large selection of Rembrandts’ own work hanging in the midst of other, generally very fine and Rembrandtesque paintings done by his students and contemporaries.

We follow the course of his development, the transformations of his style, and also the arc of his personal life from budding but unknown talent, to wealthy and celebrated painter of the high and mighty haut-bourgeoisie of early seventeenth-century Amsterdam. In the middle rooms we become acquainted with the death of his wife, mounting domestic and financial difficulties, and a decline in both fortune and social standing, though not in artistic interest.

At one time there were close to a thousand “Rembrandts” hanging in museums, private homes, and speculators’ vaults around the world. Today that number has dropped to roughly three hundred, as experts cull from the list the paintings that are now felt to be the work of imitators. Rembrandt made lots of money teaching other talented painters to paint just like him, and the resultant canvases were his to keep, sign, and sell, if he deemed them worthy—that is to say, if he felt he could make money from them without compromising the Rembrandt “brand” too much.

Part of the fun at the MIA show is to second-guess the experts. A number of the paintings in the show are supreme masterpieces that you could stare at for twenty minutes without losing interest. The skin, the clothes, the lighting, the countenance—all of them perfect. In this group I would put several paintings from 1632: Portrait of a Girl Wearing a Gold-Trimmed Cloak, Private Collection, New York; Portrait of Joris de Caullery, San Francisco; Portrait of Marten Looten (LACMA); and An Old Man in Military Costume (Getty) I would also add Self-Portrait at 53, 1659, (National Gallery of Art, Washington). I’m sure I’m forgetting quite a few.

But there are also sveral paintings in the show attributed unequivocally to Rembrandt that lack the preternatural subtlety of his best stuff. And some of the paintings in the show now attributed to students are also very fine. Evidently Rembrandt was not only a great painter, but also a pretty good teacher.

During the last decade of his life Rembrandt appeared to lose interest in flesh tones. It’s easy to see that the brushstrokes become loser, the paint shinier, the blacks more crudely black. In fact, quite a few paintings in the fourth and final room of the exhibit might almost have been done by Velasquez, Manet, or Daumier.

The portrait of Rembrandt’s son Titus is probably the most genial in the show, though it’s a matter of dispute whether Rembrandt himself painted it. It’s a solid work, though it has little of the dignity and strength with which the Rembrandt brand is usually associated.

Which brings to mind the question of whether even the best of Rembrandt’s portraits convey genuine psychological insight, or a merely generic perfection and intensity. I left the galleries with the impression I’d been in the company of someone far larger than life—someone who remains more than a little incomprehensible. Definitely someone to take seriously.

No comments: