"Rembrandt in America" displays at the MIA
Before the still photograph and the moving image, we only had artists to interpret and record our visual world. Our histories and mythologies -- the stories we imagined -- were retold in paint on canvas.
This is what you must keep in mind when you find your throat choking on a rising well of tears, as you make eye contact with a grief-stricken, forever 53-year-old Rembrandt.
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts' "Rembrandt in America" is ordered chronologically, so visitors will meet that Rembrandt later on. The first room holds two of his earliest known works, which are quaint studies of the senses. The exhibition is a telling of Rembrandt van Rijn's life in Holland, and throughout the show visitors are asked to question "authenticity" or, put more clearly, who's hand brush stroked the story.
Man in a Fur-Lined Coat, c. 1655-1660
In Rembrandt's time, apprentices gleaned knowledge from their art masters, and their dues were partly paid in paintings. This means Rembrandt could have signed works that he did not touch otherwise, or perhaps he just formed the hand or the necklace in a piece. The game of "who made this?" is part science (counting tree rings in wood panels, examining paint layers in x-rays, testing pigment chemicals) and part a process of comparison (the intuitive feeling you get from seeing a piece by Rembrandt, and not his peers or students).
For example, in the third room there are two large portraits, one of a man and one of a woman. There is a comparative flatness to the woman's image in the dead limp of her hand and in her skin. She does not cohere, and is probably the result of a collaboration between apprentices and Rembrandt. The man, however, has an expression that is clearly masterful. Rembrandt's talent is evident in the emotion of his eyes, and the painting feels whole.
Rembrandt differed from his peers in more tangible ways as well, including the sometimes "unfinished" quality of his work, his use of broad and rapid brushstrokes, and his portrayal of beautiful women not as shiny and smooth, but lovely in spite of wrinkles and heavy flesh. Even in young women, Rembrandt is not interested in an idealized goddess. The first etching in the last room (which is filled only with prints) is Naked Woman Seated on a Mound. She is saggy, droopy, and creased, but we are not repulsed; her imperfections make her someone we know and love.
Portrait of a Girl Wearing a Gold-Trimmed Cloak, 1632
The details in his work are also fascinating. What appears to be black is not really black but blues and other hues, reflected light is a flick of orange up close and an illumination from afar, and subjects often have pouches of tired skin under their eyes, thinness over their veins, and pocks from blemishes picked.
These are the ways he elicits an empathy, by immortalizing figures -- whether beggars or royals -- in raw humanity. Rembrandt captured life in hills of pigment in a direct and undeceiving way. His people see you, and you see them.
In the last room of paintings, there is no doubt that Lucretia and Self-Portrait are the work of Rembrandt's hands and eyes. Without moving media, without electricity, without even knowing the story behind these works, we are moved emotionally through time.
IF YOU GO:
"Rembrandt in America"
Through September 16
Minneapolis Institute of Arts
2400 Third Ave. S., Minneapolis
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