The Master of Light and Shadow

The master Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) continues to dominate the history of art and our visual imaginations. A skilled painter, draftsman, and etcher, Rembrandt transmuted the striking chiaroscuro effects that he adopted from the work of Caravaggio into a deeply personal form of expression, making himself a master of light and shadow.

The differences in the use of chiaroscuro between the two masters are instructive. Caravaggio highlights the often bitter confrontation between the individual and the external world through light and shadow. The harsh lighting effects create a glaring illumination of the human subject, revealing the contorted body in an unwelcome manner, intruding upon the seclusion of the subject, exposing dark secrets. Caravaggio’s “The Conversion of Saint Paul” is an extreme but by no means an atypical example. We see Paul prostrate on the ground, having just been thrown from his horse by his vision of God. Caravaggio reduces the entire scene to Paul, the horse, and a servant but the light itself (here a metonymic representative of God’s presence) intrudes upon the canvas as a fourth character.

Indeed, it is the light that seems to create motion within the work. Paul is frozen in the stasis of hypnotic reverie, his arms raised in a V figure above him, embracing the ecstatic vision; the horse, now becalmed by the servant, stands strangely still with its foreleg precariously hovering above the saint, its body serving as a screen for the vibrant luminosity of the deific presence. The light here is invasive, overwhelming; it intrudes upon the subjects (man and beast alike) and uproots them from their private existence.

Rembrandt largely employs chiaroscuro as a means to disclose the inner self of the human subject. Whereas Caravaggio utilizes chiaroscuro to highlight the forbidding externality that imposes itself on the person, Rembrandt exploits the technique in order to unveil the human being’s enigmatic interiority. The light in Rembrandt, while clearly deriving from an external source, paradoxically seems to irradiate from the essence of the human subject.

Caravaggio’s “The Conversion of Saint Paul” (cropped)

In his “Aristotle with a Bust of Homer”, the light appears to be a byproduct of the act of contemplation. The radiance of Homer’s baldpate resonates with the illumination of Aristotle’s face, his features gathered in pensive reflection. The light therefore serves not to emphasize the external realities of the space occupied by the subject, but rather to reflect the internal workings of character and the mind. Rembrandt reaches into the dark spaces of his subject and exposes the subject’s inner self, thereby confronting the viewer with the somewhat unsettling presence of another human being.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Rembrandt’s series of self-portraits, perhaps the most celebrated group of works within the history of western art. In his youthful portraits, the light revealed a man of building confidence and growing ability; as Rembrandt aged, the light in the self-portraits served to heighten the intensity of his craggy features, the wizened forehead and the penetrating dark gaze.

The self-portraits not only occupy a special position within Rembrandt’s oeuvre, they also inflect the character of our understanding of the artist in important ways. Although the pragmatic explanation for the profusion of self-portraits is usually that Rembrandt simply painted himself when he lacked other models, the self-portraits as a group transcend their practical exigencies in order to attain a special level of communication with viewers. Gazing at a Rembrandt self-portrait is a unique experience. The artist arranged a picture for our viewing in which he views us. His patient but demanding stare meets our own. By looking out at us through the canvas, Rembrandt teaches us how to look at him.

Moreover, he seems to attempt to engage us in a strange sort of dialogue. There is something compelling about this artist who so demands to be seen and to be known. And we continue striving to understand him, to seek him out. Yet he always withdraws, despite his seeming ubiquitous presence. He eludes our grasp and confounds our attempts to reach him.

A new 2-DVD set released by Kultur Video entitled The Rembrandt Collection presents yet another series of attempts to reach Rembrandt. Bringing together four documentaries concerning various aspects of the artist, the DVDs attempt to access Rembrandt through the records of his life, his surviving works, and the legacy of those works. The documentaries are all quite individual, approaching their subject through very different conceptual and evaluative frameworks, making the collection as a whole a rather heterogeneous but nonetheless compelling affair.

The first film presents a brief but serviceable outline of Rembrandt’s biography. Rembrandt, Painter of Man begins with two self-portraits, Rembrandt’s first and last, that were painted 40 years apart. The narrator tells us that Rembrandt’s great life-long subject was “the spirit of man in movement, joyful or tormented”. The narration is somewhat laconic; the life of the artist is merely sketched.

However, the impact of the documentary derives from its employment of the images. Every image derives from Rembrandt’s paintings. His life is told through his work. The result is quite charming. The film touches on the major works, including “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp” and “The Night Watch” (the latter will be featured prominently in two of the other films as well), and the important moments in his life such as his marriage to Saskia, the birth of his son, the death of Saskia, and so on. One does not learn much more than one would by reading an encyclopedia entry but the effect is strikingly different. Through the simplest of means and a faith in the power of Rembrandt’s brush to communicate the subtleties of thought and emotion, the viewer is brought into a closer relationship with the artist than would be afforded by words alone or mere snapshots of Amsterdam and interviews with a variety of talking heads.

Perhaps the strangest and least accommodating film of the set is Restoration of The Night Watch, which painstakingly documents the 1976 restoration of one of Rembrandt’s most famous masterpieces. Rembrandt painted “The Night Watch” in 1642, apparently for a commission by a captain and 17 members of his civic militia guard. The title is actually a misnomer. First, the civic guard at this time was not likely to go on patrol; it was more of a social club. Second, the scene is not set at night. Rather it was the heavy application of varnish that made the painting appear to be a nocturne to the viewers of the 18th century who gave it the name by which it is still recognized. When the painting was restored, the vibrancy of the central beam of light disabused viewers of this misconception; it is quite clear that the group is emerging into the light of day.

Rembrandt’s “Aristotle with a Bust of Homer” (cropped)

This film records all aspects of the 1976 restoration, from the careful patching of the cuts in the canvas made by a butterknife (more on that in a moment) and the relining of the canvas to the removal of the old varnish and the application of a fresh coat. The painting is quite large and therefore all attempts to work with it entail a great deal of effort and manpower. The crew sets aside a special room for the purpose and created a dolly that allows workers to maneuver above the canvas (which was laid out on the floor for a good portion of the restoration) without stepping on it.

Hardcore fans of painting restoration (are there such animals?) may find elements of the film exciting but a general viewership will doubtless be rather bored. Watching a man measure out the size of a patch and then carefully cut it out of the material, set it in the hole, remove it, reshape it, try again, and so on will prove rather tedious, I am afraid. This is the type of film that was probably shown at the Rijksmuseum (the Amsterdam museum that houses the painting) shortly after its restoration.

The most entertaining aspect of the film is certainly the soundtrack — a bizarre combination of a neo-classical composition for winds in the manner of Stravinsky, a funky modern jazz piece in the style of Herbie Hancock, and a few musical moments that are slightly reminiscent of the Charley Brown animated features. It is far too pronounced with respect to the majority of scoring for such films but in this case it is a saving grace.

The most interesting aspect of the story of the restoration is actually never told within the documentary but a viewer who is unaware will be asking one question throughout the film: what the hell happened to the painting in the first place that forced restorers to fix the plenitude of slashes in the canvas? The film never reveals the crime that instigated the restoration. I, however, will reveal it.

“The Night Watch” was the victim of three assaults. The first is not very well documented but seems to have occurred around the time of World War I when a Navy cook, furious over his discharge, took his revenge upon the revered work. The attack that instigated the restoration documented in the film occurred on September 14, 1975 when Wilhelmus de Rijk, an unemployed schoolteacher who was clearly mentally unstable, sliced the painting multiple times while holding the museum guards at bay before he was finally tackled. While eviscerating “The Night Watch”, de Rijk repeatedly cried out “I have been sent by the Lord. I have been forced to do this by forces out of this Earth.” Although many critics have celebrated this work’s divine inspiration, apparently God did not think too highly of it. The painting was attacked once again in 1990 when an escaped mental patient doused it with sulphuric acid. This time, only the varnish was affected. Now the film was made long before the most recent attack but one might have expected it to at least inform the viewer of the attack that made the restoration necessary. Without the only titillating part of the story, the film falls rather flat.

Rembrandt’s Masterly Brushstrokes, the third film of the set, may sound like a subject so specialized that it would only appeal to the art historian or the avid painter but to skip over this fine documentary would be a foolish mistake. The subject matter is by no means presented in a dry, academic fashion, but rather the filmmakers go to great lengths to demonstrate the importance of understanding the exact nature of the materials that Rembrandt utilized in coming to appreciate fully what is at work in his paintings. Furthermore, the film’s narrative plays out a bit like a detective story in tracing the exacting process the researchers employed in order to analyze and recreate the precise mixture of paint that allowed Rembrandt to achieve his striking effects.

It is clear that Rembrandt himself was deeply concerned with the careful rendering of his paints; based on the evidence of a self-portrait and the working methods of some of his colleagues and students, it appears to be the case that Rembrandt grinded his own pigments (a duty usually assigned to an assistant) in order to get the exact color and viscosity he desired. Rembrandt applied paint in thick layers and rough brushstrokes (that is, he applied paint in small globs that give his canvases a highly wrought variety of textures). This gave rise to what he termed the “sparkling” effect of his painted surfaces and his exact technique has been the source of curiosity for historians and painters ever since.

The central object of pursuit here is Rembrandt’s particular brand of lead white. This was a popular paint in the 17th century but used sparingly. Overuse imbues the resulting pictures with a chalky sheen. Rembrandt, on the other hand, tended to be rather generous in his application of lead white, using it to different affects at the various levels of applied paint. The excavation of the cesspool at Rembrandt’s home led to the recovery of a pot with the residue of some of Rembrandt’s lead white, allowing researchers to chemically analyze his actual mixture.

The film then details the 17th century manner of preparing lead white, which involves burying a jar of it in horse manure. The amazing thing about the documentary is that all of this eventually connects to the paintings themselves and the impact they make upon their viewers. The film makes an eloquent case for the belief that an understanding of technique contributes to an understanding of expression.

Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp” (cropped)

Rembrandt and his World views the Dutch master primarily through his places of residence. The main subject of the film is Rembrandt’s home in Amsterdam in a building that was built the year of his birth, still stands today, and was restored to an approximation of what it would have looked like during Rembrandt’s tenure there during the making of the documentary. The film presents a brief peak into the master’s early years in Leiden, using visual effects to recreate houses that are no longer standing but spends the majority of its time on the Rembrandt house in Amsterdam.

We learn that Rembrandt probably worked on “The Night Watch” at this location, but the canvas for that painting was far too large to fit in his studio. Therefore, the filmmakers surmise that Rembrandt probably constructed a small awning in the interior courtyard of the building and painted the work beneath this temporary structure.

We also learn that Rembrandt was an avid collector of art himself, spending huge sums on etchings, paintings, and other objects to add to his vast collection. Although he commanded higher fees than nearly all of the other artists in Amsterdam, his fervor for collecting eventually led to his financial ruin when Rembrandt was forced to declare bankruptcy. However sad a biographical detail this may be, it was a great boon to art historians insofar as it is owing to the bankruptcy papers that we know precisely what was included in Rembrandt’s vast holdings and we even know where the various objects were kept — right down to the exact position they occupied on specific shelves.

Like other films in the collection, Rembrandt and his World gives us limited access to the artist filtered through a specific aspect of his life. And yet it is the creativity with which the film approaches the glimpse it provides that makes the documentary so enjoyable. Once again we see restorers at work but in this case, the variety of material they use to guide them (comprising various drawings that Rembrandt left behind of the interiors of his home) are so conjectural that the entire process of restoration becomes the fulfillment of one’s historical imagination. Indeed, by trying to place Rembrandt in the context of his time and place, the entire film indulges is a compelling form of historical visualization that enriches our experience of Rembrandt’s exemplary artistry.

There is no lack of material for those interested in exploring further the rich history and meanings behind Rembrandt’s many paintings and etchings. The advantage of this particular set is that it brings together four rather different approaches to the man and his time that introduce variety while (for the most part) complementing each other well. But of course, like peeling back the layers of an onion, every glimmer into the art of Rembrandt just demonstrates how much more there is yet to know.

Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” (cropped)

RATING 6 / 10