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Rembrandt and the Dutch golden age: Masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum

December 3, 2017

"The United Provinces are the envy of some, the fear of others and the wonder of all their neighbours."

Sir William Temple, English statesman and essayist, 1673

 

image: 'Warships in a heavy storm' by Ludolf Bakhuizen, 1695 - courtesy of Rijksmuseum and AGNSW.

  

Rembrandt and the Dutch golden age: Masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum focuses on the art produced in the Dutch Republic during the 17th century.  At this time the Republic of the Seven United Provinces (the Dutch Republic) was a world power with trading posts from South Africa to Indonesia and Brazil, and the Dutch East India Company had monopolised trade routes to Asia and was moving the luxury items of the day – silk, spices, porcelain – to the European market.

 

image: ‘The governors of the Guild of St Luke, Haarlem’ by Jan De Bray , 1675 - courtesy of Rijksmuseum and AGNSW.

 

Unsurprisingly, the remarkably wealthy Dutch merchant class sort to celebrate themselves and their affluent lifestyles through the commissioning of portraits, still life, landscape and lifestyle artworks. An extraordinarily gifted group of artists (including Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn) were free to shift their focus from the preoccupations of Church and State to the more realistic tastes of a prosperous Dutch merchant class; as pragmatic in their art commissions as they were in their free trade.

 

image: ‘Still life with golden goblet’ by Pieter de Ring, 1650–60 - courtesy of Rijksmuseum and AGNSW.

 

"In what other country in the world can one find so many of the pleasures of life alongside all imaginable oddities? In what other country can one enjoy such total freedom?"

René Descartes, philosopher, 1631

 

 image: ‘Woman reading a letter’ by Johannes Vermeer, 1663 - courtesy of Rijksmuseum and AGNSW.

 

"For a perfect painting is like a mirror of nature."

Samuel van Hoogstraten, artist, 1678

 

And for those of Henry’s readers who, like me, will find themselves searching for Vermeer’s ‘Girl with the Pearl Earring’. Bad news. Despite her image being all over the merchandising artefacts of the ‘Rembrandt and the Dutch golden age: Masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum’ exhibition she is missing! 

image: ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer 1665 courtesy of the Hague

 

Here’s consolation. A review on Peter Webber’s ravishing 2003 movie based on a speculative ‘glimpse’ into the life and times of Johannes Vermeer based on the novel be Tracy Chevalier.

 

You couldn’t expect this movie to be anything less than gorgeous. It is definitely made for an audience who love to look at beauty and who can enjoy the shadows cast by a drop pearl earring on a perfect cheek.

 

Biopics based on the lives of famous artists are hazardous. It is, in general, the work of the artist which is the triumph. The actual making of the work is frequently (particularly in the case of the Old Masters) a singularly labour intensive process and hardly a spectator event. Ed Harris in ‘Pollock’ managed to work this dilemma when directing his biographical film based on the life of the bipolar and alcoholic Jackson Pollock by making strong visual parallels between the intensity and passion of the creator behind the extraordinarily expressive canvases. We saw the very thin line Pollock walked between controlled, freeform brilliance and personal and creative chaos. Julie Taymor’s ‘Frida’ allowed for more traditional movie making narrative. Married to the famous political activist and 21-years-her-senior muralist Diego Rivera, and living in the heady days of the rise of the Communist Party in Mexico ‒ an affair with the famous exiled Russian Leon Trotsky thrown in for good measure ‒ Frida Kahlo’s story easily unfolded onto the bigger-than-life screen.

 

Girl with a Pearl Earring’ is approached from a different angle again. Based on a speculative account by novelist Tracy Chevalier about the little known life of an artist whose works captivate as completely now as they must have in the 17th century, we are given a painstakingly detailed account of the politics and idiosyncrasies of Dutch society, complete with the luscious look of shadow, texture and lighting that are so intrinsic to Vermeer’s work. To be honest, when my mother, sisters and girlfriends were all reading and raving about ‘Girl with the Pearl Earring’ I found the slow-moving tale just a bit too ‘nothing’ to get into. However, being a self-admitted ogler of beautiful things I knew that the film would totally captivate me, particularly as it was starring the voluptuous Scarlett Johansson and the equally ravishing Essie Davis (playing ‘Mrs’ Catharina Vermeer).

The suitably ravishing Scarlett Johansson portrays Vermeer's 'Girl with a Pearl Earring'

 

Paul Webber ‒ with the assistance of cinematographer Eduardo Serra ‒ cleverly constructs a film where every frame could be a Vermeer canvas. We are continually visually seduced by the soft curves of Riet’s (Johansson) pouting lips and captivated by the contrast of the richly hued jewels caressing Catharina Vermeer’s beautiful pale throat.

 

The story line is flimsy. Essentially it is about the havoc that unusual beauty can create in an environment that is based on the strictest codes of behaviour and status. That the well-known portrait of Riet ‒ head and shoulder, fully clothed and turbaned ‒ could elicit such comments as ‘it is obscene’ from Vermeer’s jealous wife, and large sums of money from the rich and lecherous art patron Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson) testifies to the power of beauty and the curse that any extreme ‘gift’ may be to its owner. Riet is dismissed from service in the Vermeer household basically because she is beautiful.

 

If you love looking at beautiful things ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ is 90 minutes of pure visual poetry.

 

Rembrandt and the Dutch golden age: Masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum

Art Gallery of New South Wales

until 18 February 2018

 

Download Paul Webber's film 'Girl with a Pearl Earring' or seek it out at any good DVD store.

 

And back to Henry.

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