At an exhibition of the Rijksmuseum’s Dutch masters, the viewer is captivated by the care and penetration in the work of Vermeer, Rembrandt and Hals. By Patrick Hartigan.
Rembrandt and the Dutch golden age
Rembrandt and the Dutch golden age: masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum, an exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales until February 18, demonstrates the extraordinary levels of care that were once required to make pictures look “real”. It is also a demonstration of the way painting, as a process of channelling the world through the use of refined raw materials, can be anchored within broader life cycles and material interactions.
The Dutch golden age refers, more or less, to the 17th-century Netherlands, then known as The Republic. Among the painters most celebrated from this time of economic and cultural prosperity, on the back of maritime power and expansion, are Johannes Vermeer and Rembrandt van Rijn. While works by these painters are included here – an impressive number, scope and selection in the case of the latter – the exhibition brings to light a rich hive of lesser-known figures.
At the tail end of the exhibition, Still life with fruit, oysters, and a porcelain bowl (1660-79) by Abraham Mignon simultaneously delights in the artificiality of its construction and the ripeness of its contents. Here we stand face to face with the beauty and bewildering detail of food: a pomegranate’s jewels, the sturdy skin of grapes, the architecture of chestnuts, the meaty integrity of oysters. While the backdrop behind the display of food, porcelain and insects abruptly disappears into darkness, tiny reflections found in the grapes and an upturned glass on the left of the picture remind us of a world outside and beyond. In the glass, through a window, we see the church tower where the artist lived. There’s something of the Russian matryoshka doll here: the window of the painted panel opening onto more and
more windows, layers of paint disclosing layer upon layer of life.
Mignon created this sumptuous painting – one that absolutely has to be viewed in the flesh to savour its richness – over a period of 19 years, almost half the 39 years that comprised the life span of that hand and brain.
Returning to the opening room, where a superb collection of portraits hang, the physical and emotional drama of a pair of life-size portraits by Frans Hals locked my gaze and body. The middle-aged female subject of Portrait of Feyntje van Steenkiste (c.1603/04-1640) stood slightly askance from me, her gathered dress brushing against a similarly directed chair, while a pair of vividly painted hands rested in a gentle clasp at her waistline. Costume and Calvinistic gravity belie a physical urgency in this portrait that makes releasing oneself from it somehow tricky.
Across many paintings in this exhibition, a twofold relationship of hands holds the viewer’s attention. There’s the fact of the painting, an object lovingly brought into existence by the hands of the artist, and then there are the hands focused within the picture. In Ary De Vois’s The merry fiddler (1660-1680), a panel somewhere between the dimensions of an A4 and A5 sheet of paper, the thrifty Calvinist spirit and impeccable collar come undone on a scruffy, unshaven drunkard clasping his ligneous livelihood in one hand and beverage in the other. While the figure lurches and leers at something to our right, about waist high, we appreciate the sobriety required to paint those dirty fingernails, the magnificent clarity of his dark blue satin tunic.
Gabriël Metsu’s The Herring-Seller (c.1661-62), another small work, shows a play of hands around a fish. The seller holds the slippery silver morsel up to the scrutiny of a potential customer, an elderly woman standing outside what we presume to be her home. We, the audience, mirror the old woman: we peer into the scene while regarding the delicacy of Metsu’s product.
A slice of background along the right side of this painting adds something of an eccentric postscript to the narrative. There, the eye is led down a slope towards a rocky coastline, within which a tiny figure in French Baroque costume – his coat reflecting the red of the herring seller’s dress, his cane the old woman’s crutch, his manner and isolation sheer madness – looks out to sea. It was a disconnect affirmed by the fact there are no such coastlines in the Netherlands and Belgium, one that lent this little gem a surreality that brought to mind earlier Netherlandish painters such as Hieronymus Bosch.
The sense of wonder embodied in that herring was amplified after viewing the nearby Winter scene (c.1652-53) by Jan van de Cappelle. Upon a frozen lake amid frost-coated trees and cloudy sky, a couple of fishermen can be seen walking away from a hole in the ice, tackle boxes in hand. Between these paintings we are led to imagining the slippery fish being lured from the depths of the cold and dark hole. In both painting and physical habitat, we find a world in which everything – every element and material and object – has crystal clear value and purpose.
Known for his love of pickled herrings, Rembrandt confronted the question of human existence more frontally and emotionally in late masterpieces such as Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul (1661). The life imprinted around those eyes – a forehead thickened and glazed with the weariness of an ancient seabed – draws us towards the question Rembrandt asked again and again in his late portraits: “What of this thing we call ‘life’?” The answer might surely lie in your painting, your question, master.
On a wall facing Rembrandt’s portrait from a separate room, hangs Vermeer’s Woman reading a letter (c.1663). It shows a possibly pregnant woman reading a letter near an unseen window. The composition of shapes and forms and light testifies to the breathtaking poise for which this artist is known. And yet this Vermeer literally left me cold. The bluish coolness of its light and surfaces, besides those found in the glorious satin coat at the picture’s centre – the woman’s skin, the studded leather chair and wooden rail supporting a background map – all made me query the extent and execution of this painting’s recent restoration, a process of “cleaning” during which glazes and varnishes would have been removed to gain “clarity”.
Having unlocked detail, the brass buttons on the chair and some of the pigments in the coat, one appreciates how easily equilibrium can be lost in paintings. It reminds me of the way poor reproductions blue with age. I think in particular of the one I’ve been seeing – increasingly trying to resist seeing – since my childhood, while crossing the harbour in Sydney, through the high-up window of a penthouse: a vase of flowers by Matisse or Picasso or God knows who, washed blue beneath the influence of cheap ink and that hot western sun.
Ageing and melancholy inks aside, this is an exhibition to relish for its abundant surfaces and agelessness, for levels of care and patience and penetration utterly foreign to contemporary standards. To give oneself over to these paintings is to have a state of blasé-ness towards one’s physical surroundings and the trappings of survival momentarily disrupted. While looking at the works, one suddenly sees people anew – the nose of a viewer getting close to a small panel, a mother feeding her baby – before, on exiting, being startled by the specificity of nature – the grey tones of bush, the harsh even light, a squashed fig underfoot – a world we glide through while so often failing to slow down and properly look.
VISUAL ART The Lady and the Unicorn
The Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until June 24
CULTURE White Night Melbourne
Venues throughout Melbourne, February 17-18
THEATRE Romeo and Juliet
Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens, Hobart, until March 3
CULTURE Adelaide Fringe
Venues throughout Adelaide, February 16-March 18
VISUAL ART Ben Quilty: Notes on Chaos
Tolarno Gallery, Melbourne, February 15-March 17
VISUAL ART Rosemary Laing
TarraWarra Museum of Art, Victoria, until February 11
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 10, 2018 as "Dutch treats".
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