Friday, November 25, 2011

Rembrandt in Detroit

I just went to the new Rembrandt exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts, that incredible treasure of a museum in the center of a city of abandoned factories and foreclosed homes.


The exhibition brings together a remarkable series of studies of a single young Sephardic Jew by Rembrandt and the other painters working under his tutelage in Amsterdam, and shows how this unnamed young man becomes the model for Rembrandt's moving images of Jesus.

The greatest painting brought to Detroit by this exhibition is the Louvre's great Supper at Emmaus. Here you can see the same pose as the above study, these dark reflective eyes, the tilt of the head, so differentiating the resurrected Jesus from the obviously still very alive disciples and servant, who recognize him as he breaks the bread. The more you look at this, the more you realize how tight is the composition: the line from the disciple's head on the left to the attentive servant on the right, passing right through the radiant head of Jesus, is just one of the multiple points of composition.

In a Poussin, say, one would first notice compositional geometry like this. But here, I didn't. In the context of the exhibition, with its focus on Rembrandt's interest in a Jewish Jesus, and his familiarity with the large Jewish community in Amsterdam, it is the way these figures seem grounded in a real world that struck me most of all. That world of brown and red shadows, of fabric and flesh, of bodies above all, is suddenly invaded by a figure -- Jesus resurrected -- who is at once the same and different. Unmistakeably human in his sad and powerful presentness, he is also part of another world, radiating from inward, almost transparent as if light shone through his rose-hued clothes as well as in his face. This is a human being who has been through terrible things. It is not survival of sorrow, but transfiguration of sorrow, that I see in him.

There was enough sorrow in 1648 to go around, according to the exhibition catalog. The Khmelnytsky Uprising in the Ukraine, for one, had loosed both Cossacks and peasants onto the Jews; some lucky few managed to get away to places of relative safety and even tolerance like Rembrandt's Amsterdam. They must have brought with them memories and signs of unspeakable horrors. Are those also part of the haunting melancholy of this painting?

3 comments:

Tammela said...

Woo, a Ukraine reference! Khmelnytskyy isn't too far from me.

CHEN said...

I just went to this exhibition today!I like his portraits of Jesus. His Jesus looks pretty much like human. He is enduring the sorrow and very deep into his meditation. Hmm...where does the sense of divinity come from? The light color of his skin might help a little bit?
And I saw Joseph Wright's "Matlock Tor by Moonlight", which looks similar to "Dovedale by Moonlight". In this painting, I really pay attention to how the moonlight interplay with the clouds and the water. The contrasting reflections of the moonlight in the still water and in the rapid stream are so interesting!

Holiday Amsterdam said...

I've just got back from Amsterdam describing my experiences in three words: I loved it.
Had a great time at the flower market and red light district! Found myself a nice rental through
Amsterdam Holiday Apartments They had a nice clean canal house and too expensive either