If Rembrandt were alive today, claims Dulwich Picture Gallery, he’d be a cinematographer. It’s a very precise posthumous career choice. Why not a director, special effects wizard, installation artist … or even painter? But this inventive exhibition, which marks the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death, is certain he’d be photographing films. It has even brought in Peter Suschitzky, cinematographer of The Empire Strikes Back, to help craft the show in a way that brings out the great artist’s genius for telling stories with light.
I can’t help thinking that, as a cinematographer, Rembrandt would annoy audiences hugely. When the Game of Thrones makers dared to light a nocturnal battle scene as it might look in a world without electric light, many viewers expressed outrage. I liked it, not least because it was reminiscent of Rembrandt – you won’t find a more mysterious night than the one that engulfs the people hunched around a campfire in his wonderful Landscape With the Rest on the Flight into Egypt. What would those complainants make of a scene in which a maester sat reading in an inky-black room, as a philosopher does here? Or an elderly couple all but disappearing in the gloom of a chamber, lit just by a dwindling fire? These are typical of the extreme lighting effects that Rembrandt uses in this exhibition, in sublime paintings and prints lent from such great collections as the Louvre and Rijksmuseum.
This is a show to delight art snobs with loans of the sheer quality of the Queen’s Christ and Mary Magdalene at the Tomb – except that it wants to be popular, and accessible, and to do so will kick Rembrandt blinking into the age of blockbuster film. Every exhibit has a screenplay-style caption that treats paintings as movie scenes. “INT. TEMPLE – DAY,” says the text for The Woman Taken in Adultery, lent by the National Gallery in London. “A WOMAN crouches on shallow stone steps in a pool of cold light, surrounded by a group of men. A PHARISEE lifts her veil … CHRIST listens.”
It’s a nice gag, but it is done for every single picture in a way that verges on the obsessive. At the end of the exhibition, the wheeze climaxes in film-style credits for everyone involved. I half expected a post-credit joke in which the aged Rembrandt is slumping along a street in 17th-century Amsterdam when Captain America materialises to take him to paint a deathbed portrait of Iron Man.
Rembrandt needs no movie references. What does it mean to present him as a kind of film-maker, telling stories in light? It is true as far as it goes, but inadequate. With Rembrandt, any such partial view misses the big picture of a truly universal artist. The exhibition ends with a selection of portraits including Dulwich’s own harrowingly dark-eyed melancholy youth, which may well be a picture of Rembrandt’s son Titus before he died at the age of 26. Nearby is Self-Portrait in a Flat Cap, from the Royal Collection. From 1642, the year he painted The Night Watch, Rembrandt depicts himself in black velvety headgear and a gold earring which displays his success. Then your gaze is grabbed by his lucid, all-seeing orbs which measure you up with that commanding mixture of judgment and compassion and you feel the full sense of inexplicable awe.
At least Dulwich didn’t take a lead from that flat cap to compare Rembrandt with Peaky Blinders. With loans of this calibre by one of the greatest artists ever to hold a maulstick you can’t go wrong – but they have a damn good try. All we need is to have the paintings clearly lit and a chance to look at them in our own way. That is lost in at least one part of the show where I watched Suschitzky finalise a lighting scheme for Christ and Mary Magdalene at the Tomb. The audience sit on a bench to watch as we begin in darkness, then light gradually increases on the painting in a dawn effect. It holds at full lighting for a minute or so before plunging into gloom to restart the sequence. You’re supposed to listen to an audioguide for the accompanying soundtrack. But what if I don’t want an audioguide? And what if I want to look closely at the furrows and crinkles of Rembrandt’s paint? I’ll get asked by other visitors to move because I’m spoiling the film.
That’s what the exhibition achieves: it replaces the self-directed effort of engaging with painting with the much more passive and remote experience of watching a film or video art. Ultimately, to claim that Rembrandt is a cinematographer and give his paintings arty mood-lighting is to try and reduce his genius to our own slipshod standards. Walter Benjamin once said that every document of civilisation was also a document of barbarism. Well, every celebration of past genius is also a reckoning with the dead. How do we measure up to Rembrandt’s light?
Not very well, if we can’t tell the difference between what movies and television do and what Rembrandt did. It is precisely because he is more challenging and more satisfying than the visual clutter that surrounds us that we come back to him year after year and century after century. At its core, this exhibition does not seem to grasp the true uniqueness of Rembrandt. That’s a bad look in any light.
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