Of the many exhibitions celebrating the Dutchman this year, “Rembrandt-Velázquez: Dutch and Spanish Masters” at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam promised to be the best. The Rijksmuseum owns the most Rembrandts (it put all of them on its walls earlier in the year). And its partner on this show, the Prado (celebrating its own 200th anniversary), owns the most paintings by Velázquez. The prospect of these fabled institutions joining forces on a two-for-one of this caliber was as tantalizing as any of the year’s monographic anniversary exhibitions.
But “Rembrandt-Velázquez” is a diluted, disappointing and dumbed-down show that, given the subject — the relationship between Dutch and Spanish painting in the 17th century — could have been so much more rewarding.
I could devote this article to listing all its faults, but why bother? At the heart of the show, after all, are two of the greatest painters who ever lived. Great art defeats even clumsy exhibition-making. So instead of focusing on shortcomings, let me tell you about two aspects of “Rembrandt-Velázquez” that have stayed with me.
The first I got to take it home. It’s an essay in the catalogue by Cees Nooteboom, the celebrated Dutch writer who was raised Catholic in the Protestant Netherlands. This — and a lifetime as an art lover and Hispanophile — make him well-qualified to write on the show.
Nooteboom’s amiable essay, in an otherwise desultory catalogue, reminds us that the artists in this show (not just the two headline acts, but all the others as well, from Johannes Vermeer and Frans Hals to Jusepe Ribera and Francisco de Zurbarán) made their work in the context of the Eighty Years’ War.
That exhausting conflict, which, as Nooteboom writes, both “created the Netherlands and impoverished Spain,” was ostensibly about religion. Because the religious conflicts were arguments about the nature of the relationship between God and people (one side, the Spanish Catholics, favoring images and the Church’s intercession; the other, the Dutch Protestants, favoring the word and the idea that everyone has a personal hotline to God), the implications for art — for its very permissibility — were enormous.
Nooteboom contrasts the “white and silence in stripped-down spaces” of the Netherlandish churches with the “gold and incense” filling the cathedrals of Spain. Yet this idea of austerity in one country and opulence in the other wasn’t so straightforward, in part because the Eighty Years’ War wasn’t just about religion. It was about brute power and economics. Nooteboom writes of “the flagrant insolence of the rebellious northern provinces” in their assault on the absolute authority of the Spanish monarch. And here, too, power dynamics played themselves out in painting.
What I liked about Nooteboom’s essay was its “touch” — personal, embodied, conversational. You feel behind every paragraph a lifetime of learning, and a great depth of curiosity and sympathy. But exhaustive detail is not the writer’s aim. There is a humility in Nooteboom’s tone, a poetic reserve, that leaves room for the reader.
These same qualities, transposed to the art of painting and dialed up to an extraordinary pitch of aesthetic intensity, underpin the distinct achievements of Velázquez and Rembrandt. Both artists are all about touch. Both knew the artistic value of reserve, of disinterestedness. They understood the benefits of not imposing oneself and of leaving some things suggested rather than explicitly stated.
This was partly a technical matter — a question of learning how to use brushes and paint and an ever more sophisticated understanding of optics to meet the challenge of creating lifelike effects. But it was also a philosophical matter: an acknowledgment, at times Shakespearean in its acuteness and depth, of what is unknowable — about ourselves, about our fellow human beings and about our mortal fates.
The Rijksmuseum exhibition is structured around pairings of Spanish and Dutch pictures, only a few of which, in truth, feel other than glib and tendentious. Among the many great individual paintings are Velázquez’s “Vulcan’s Forge” and Rembrandt’s “The Sampling Officials of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild” (also know as “The Syndics”). But it is spurious and unenlightening to place these two enormous pictures side by side, as the curators have done.
One or two juxtapositions did seem inspired: Velázquez’s “View of the Gardens of the Villa Medici, Rome,” for instance, hangs next to Vermeer’s “View of Houses in Delft,” and the impact is swift and intense, like the combined aromatic notes — orange peel, pine resin, clean wet linen, fresh waffle — of an intimate perfume.
But (and this is the second aspect that has stayed with me) one pairing in particular moved me so deeply that the rest of the exhibition almost melted away, and I left the galleries as you leave a middling restaurant, having forgotten about everything you ate because the wine was so good. It was the placement, halfway through the show, of Rembrandt’s late “Self-Portrait as the Apostle Paul” beside Velázquez’s “Buffoon With Books.”
The identity of the so-called buffoon isn’t known for sure, but he was a dwarf in the Spanish royal court, probably Diego de Acedo. Unlike many other little people at court, de Acedo didn’t serve as a playmate to the royal children or a general entertainer and figure of fun. Rather, he was a member of the royal bureaucracy with serious responsibilities, which is reflected in Velázquez’s rendering: He poses with books and an inkwell and wears the clothes of a gentleman rather than the informal costumes of other people with dwarfism.
Velázquez’s touch is, as ever, incomparable — nothing labored, everything just so, as the black volumes of his sitter’s body activate the nebulous, dead space all around.
How does de Acedo look next to Rembrandt? Whatever connection there is between the two paintings exists primarily in the imagination. But I sensed an extraordinary affinity. You could stare into each face for hours and never exhaust its mysteries.
The Dutchman depicts himself as an apostle wearing a turban and holding a book. Like de Acedo, he turns from the pages in his hands to look out at the viewer. He appears puzzled and perhaps somewhat skeptical. You’re drawn in by the chiaroscuro — by what slips into shadow, toward the unknowable — but also by the paint’s rich textures, which are picked out by localized light.
Rembrandt’s raised eyebrow rhymes with the wobbly wrinkles streaking his forehead, and those in turn rhyme with the folds and pleats of his tightly wound turban. The cloth feels taut, secure; the flesh beneath oily, blotchy, deliquescent.
Both portraits are remarkably direct. Despite their trappings, they seem to cast off society. And although both conjure a sense of resolute presence, they undermine this with flickering hints of befuddlement and a specifically masculine pathos. Both subjects wear costumes that are less than entirely convincing, for instance, somehow reinforcing the impression that, for all their human dignity, they are also (as perhaps we all are) like monkeys at a tea party.
But I am groping here for ways to explain their impact — and failing. In the end, these two paintings defeat all attempts to match their eloquence. There’s nothing wrong with trying, I suppose. But at a certain point, you need to know when to shut up.
Rembrandt-Velázquez: Dutch and Spanish Masters Through Jan. 19 at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. rijksmuseum.nl.
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