Dennis Broe reviews the recent Rembrandt exhibition at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Rembrandt the outsider? At first glance nothing could be further from the truth. Rembrandt is being feted throughout the Netherlands this year, the 350th anniversary of his death in 1669, with over 23 exhibitions celebrating not only his painting but also the ascendancy of Dutch naval and trading power in his century, the 17th, with Amsterdam becoming the world’s largest port and Holland the empire that succeeded the Spanish and Portuguese. Rembrandt became the most prominent, one of the best paid, and most successful portrait painters of the Dutch merchant class that powered this empire, so in what sense could he be thought of as an outsider?
Here is the argument: His drawings in particular show him in active sympathy with the downtrodden and poor in a society that considered poverty a disgrace; his affinity with the Italian painter who was exiled from Rome, Caravaggio: his fall into disgrace and ruin for the last 20 years of his life where as a painter he was ignored which cast him into obscurity, not totally dissimilar to the way the contribution of the fertile lands and exploitation of the Indonesian peasants obscured the source of Dutch wealth; and, finally, his possible exposure of the violence of a Dutch militia which may lay at the heart of his and the Golden Age’s most famous work, The Night Watch. This violence at home echoes the violence in the colonies and reminds us, as Edward Said so elegantly pointed out in Culture and Imperialism, that the two cannot be separated.
The celebration includes the Rijksmuseum’s ‘Alle Rembrandts,’ ‘All the Rembrandts’ which saw the museum for the first time empty its treasure trove of 20 paintings, 60 drawings and 300 prints as well as a major exhibition, ‘Young Rembrandt,’ to open in Leiden, 35 minutes from Amsterdam, in November. Leiden is where Rembrandt was born, was trained – you can also visit the studio of his teacher – and spent off and on the first 26 years of his life. The show features 40 paintings, 120 etchings and 20 drawings. Again at the Rijks, there is both ‘Rembrandt-Velazquez’ in October, featuring the master’s relationship with other painters and over the summer, a ‘live’ restoration of The Night Watch.
The Dutch Golden Age, which lasted for much of the 17th century, was fueled at home by windmills and peat, that is cheap energy, and abroad by its powerful ships which dominated world trade, so that the Dutch controlled a high percentage of all trade in Europe. They were pillars of and pioneered the techniques of much of contemporary corporate and financial capital. Their primary trading business, the Dutch East India Company, the world’s first multinational and first to be financed by the stock market, was also supported by the Bank of Amsterdam, the first central bank. The Dutch operated monopolies in European trade on nutmeg, cloves cinnamon and cornered the market in coffee, tea, cacao, tobacco, rubber sugar and opium. Much of the first part of the century was spent gaining their independence from Spain, finally conceded in 1648. Before that, a 12-year truce, where they were at peace in Europe, allowed them to train their weapons on Indonesia, the source of many of these goods, which the Dutch declared officially as their property in 1619.
The Dutch had guns, the Indonesians spears, and so Indonesia, and most particularly Java, or as the Dutch called it, the East Indies, fell, and a landowning people whose earth was rich in fertile volcanic soil began to lose their land and were forced either to cultivate crops that profited Dutch trading or were forced to leave the soil to work on Dutch plantations. This subjugation, which is the underside of the Dutch Golden Age, is partially recounted in the great Dutch novel of the 19th century Max Havelaar, sometimes referred to as ‘the book that killed colonialism.’ Its author, who called himself Multatuli, Latin for “I Have Suffered Much,” was a disgruntled colonial administrator who had what D.H. Lawrence termed ‘a passionate, honorable hate’ for the colonial system and a penchant for social satire that Lawrence equated to Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain.
A new edition of the book has just been published and in Amsterdam there is a Multatuli house which tells his story. A pastor in this multi-voiced novel, whose apt name is Blatherer, speaking to the Dutch merchant class from the pulpit, explains and rationalizes the colonial system in the following homily: ‘The longer the Dutch have to do with the Javanese the more wealth there will be here and the more poverty there will be there. It is God’s will that it should be so!’
Multatati, like Rembrandt, ended impoverished but in his final years pleading the cause of the Dutch working class, which was just starting to organize. Rembrandt in his time, especially in the drawings and etchings of his early years on display at the Rijks, demonstrated a great sympathy and reverence for the poor in Dutch society, often displaced peasants, as well as a Bosch-like attention to the raucousness and physicality of this class and a sharp at times almost Hogarth-like ability to display the actual vulgarity of those in power. There is the gorgeous cross-hatchings which illuminate a drawing of a bearded old man with a high forehead, all his dignity intact. There are as well leprosy sufferers, a beggar woman with a gourd, a ratcatcher doused in rats plying his trade to a shirking homeowner, and side-by-side etchings of a peasant man and woman ‘making water,’ seen simply as a natural act.
A painting from 1639 is a Chardin-like genre scene of a boy watching two pheasants, one hanging from a hook, the other sprawled on a ledge. The viewer’s sympathy though is not with the plump boy, but with the slaughtered pheasants. A rape scene of a monk with his female prey in a cornfield from 1646, a little after The Night Watch, and reveals the exploitation of the clergy. Finally, at the point where Rembrandt is being forced out of his home by his creditors, there is a pen and brown ink drawing of the biblical Susanna being accosted by two elegantly attired elders who, having surprised her at bathing, point to her nakedness and in a majestic economy of line implore her to surrender herself to them.
Rembrandt also has historical and aesthetic affinities with another outsider artist, Caravaggio, whose dark palette and mastery of light and shadow – with the emphasis on shadow in his violent and bloody biblical scenes – influenced the Dutch artist. Rembrandt, who purportedly never left Holland, was likely exposed to the style, which would become crucial for his own mastery of light and shadow, by a group of Dutch artists, called Caravaggisti, who brought the dark style back to Holland. Caravaggio was exiled from his home in Rome as Rembrandt was forced to leave his. The Italian artist also had an affinity for street people, having been exiled for public brawling, and also died with little recognition, not to be rediscovered until the 20th century by Roberto Longhi, Pasolini’s teacher, as Rembrandt was himself only reclaimed as a major artist in the 19th century because of the attention of the Impressionists.
In his late 40s, Rembrandt was forced to sell his house and the many art objects and antiques he had acquired, supposedly due to poor financial investments and lack of commissions. It was the turning point of a descent into poverty. He died in 1669, was buried in an unmarked grave, and as was the custom for paupers his ashes were dug up and discarded 20 years later.
One reason his sales no longer flourished was that in the 1650s and 1660s, in the high era of the Dutch empire, a new style, ‘courtly, elegant, and smooth,’ that is more imperial, was coming into fashion and erasing the taste for his animated brushwork and anything-but-restrained use of colour.
There was perhaps another reason and that is examined in Peter Greenaway’s film Rembrandt J’Accuse which, through what it terms a forensic examination of The Night Watch, makes the argument that the painting is anything but celebratory and solemn in its presentation of an Amsterdam town guard or militia as a brawling band. It was an expose of its central figure, the militia captain Banning Cocq, as being a violent ruffian who may have murdered his way to the top and may have taken part in an unsuccessful attempt at overthrowing the city government. A gun goes off behind the captain, indicating the violent and thuggish quality of his charges; a rooster in the lower portion of the painting mocks his name; and Rembrandt himself appears near the centre, cupping his hand and seemingly whispering in someone’s ear potentially about the official and his dirty secret. In Alexander Korda’s 1936 fiction film about The Night Watch, a disgusted Cocq who supposedly hated the frenzied violence of the painting, asks Rembrandt, ‘Do those look like gentlemen of rank and position?’ Greenaway claims that Rembrandt’s ostracism was in part due to his exposé in the work.
Greenaway argues his case from a spectral and minute analysis of the work itself, with little supporting evidence, but the view that Rembrandt was ostracized for exposing the plot and the officer – a view the BBC took seriously enough to recently refute and which may be gathering steam – is simply one more indication that far from being the primary representative of the Dutch Golden Age, Rembrandt was one more victim of it.
One of his most tender drawings in 1658, at the time he was forced to vacate his house, has a woman, exhausted from the day’s activity, sitting by the kitchen stove fire, her shirt at her waist, and unable to move so that her half-nakedness is not voyeuristic, but an expression of her exhaustion at a world that has made life hard and almost unbearable for her. Her resignation seems an almost autobiographical representation of the artist’s own struggles under an empire that had rejected him and his sympathy for its exploited and oppressed outcasts.
Dennis Broe's latest book is Diary of a Digital Plague Year: Coronavirus, Serial TV and The Rise of The Streaming Services. He is also the author of Birth of the Binge: Serial TV and The End of Leisure. His TV series blog is Bro on The Global Television Beat. His radio commentary can be heard on his show Breaking Glass on Art District Radio in Paris and on Arts Express on the Pacifica Network in the U.S. He is the author of two novels: Left of Eden, about the Hollywood blacklist and A Hello to Arms, about the postwar buildup of the weapons industry. He is currently teaching in the Masters' Program at the Ecole Superieure de Journalisme. He is an arts critic and correspondent for the Morning Star and for Crime Time, People’s World and Culture Matters, where he is an Associate Editor.
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