Monday, September 18, 2006

Celebrating Rembrandt

More often than not, museums celebrate the significant anniversaries of great artists with exhibitions culled from their own holdings. Sometimes these assets are modest in number, occasionally limited to a single example - prized or otherwise - while others are truly wondrous in breadth and depth.

The latter is clearly the case with the exhibition at the Morgan Library in New York celebrating the 400th anniversary of Rembrandt’s birth.

No institution in North America boasts as impressive a collection of Rembrandt’s etchings as does the Morgan and given the understandable reluctance on the part of most institutions to loan such precious works, it isn’t an exaggeration to say audiences are unlikely to have many opportunities in the future to view a collection of such scope in one place on either side of the Atlantic. After all, these are extremely fragile as well as rare treasures. (To my amazement and delight, the level of illumination in the exhibition space was surprisingly bright given current practices of protecting works on paper from excessive exposure to light.)

All of the great favorites are present in the Morgan’s installation, sometimes represented by more than one state: The Hundred Guilders Print, Christ Crucified Between Two Thieves (“The Three Crosses”); Abraham’s Sacrifice; Christ Shown to the People; Jan Six’s Bridge; numerous self-portraits, portraits, nudes and landscapes. The self-portraits include an amusing series depicting various moods and expressions of the youthful Rembrandt as well as the more familiar unpitying ones of his old age. Also present are the only one of himself and his first wife, Saskia, and the charming Self-Portrait, Leaning on a Stone Wall, in which the 33-year old artist, entering the peak of his financial if not creative powers, strikes a dashing pose wearing an elegant cap and costume.

Rembrandt the printmaker often reworked images numerous times, sometimes taking them through as many as eight states. While museum-goers may be fortunate to attend exhibitions that announce the re-uniting of long-since separated works for the first time in memory, the Morgan possesses a number of examples of these multi-state prints within its own vaults, including rare states of more than a few.

As Rembrandt scraped and re-scraped the copper plates, the images frequently became more animated, the scratches literally being longer strokes in each successive attempt to burnish away the previous state. At the same time their mood often becomes darker, the emotions deeper, with all but the central figure(s) obscured. Figures disappeared altogether in some instances or were completely reversed in others such as a prominently-placed horse in a later state of “The Three Crosses”. Shadows, dramatic from the outset, crept over larger portions of the overall image as seen when comparing an early and late state of The Hundred Guilders Print. And as is always the case in any work by Rembrandt, the light source emanates from within the paper, the glow often becoming warmer with each successive state..

There is no predictable pattern to these re-workings nor its it always the case the overall emotion becomes more evocative with each reworking. In isolation, a single state can and does provide us with the depth of feeling and richness of human observation as well as the dramatic use of light that characterized Rembrandt’s unique vision; however, when comparing two states of The Flight into Egypt, the darker image seems to better capture the feeling of the viewer’s own shadowy observation. In other examples, a later state might revise his retelling of the narrative altogether, such as in the Christ Shown to the People, where the crowds beneath the platform on which Christ is presented, disappear entirely to replaced by two foreboding black arched windows.

The show at the Morgan Library runs through October 1.