Rembrandt: Full-Size (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 4, June 10, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. A Rembrandt photographic exhibition in Tel Aviv is as good as 'the real thing' "No way! Not in my museum," exclaimed Prof. Mordechai Omer, aghast that anyone would have the chutzpah even to suggest an exhibition of photographic reproductions in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, of which he is the director. Yet, approximately one year later, there was Omer, all smiles, welcoming visitors to an exhibition of reproductions at the Genia Schreiber Art Gallery on the Tel Aviv University campus, where he also serves as director. "It's better to have copies of a good artist than originals of a bad one," Omer concedes, having changed his mind after seeing the high quality of the copies. "A good artist" is something of an understatement. Omer was referring to "Rembrandt: Full-Size Reproductions," composed of 155 photographs of oil paintings by the 17th-century Dutch painter, possibly the most celebrated artist ever. The exhibit opened on May 2 and will run until June 5, 2008. "They may be photographs, but nevertheless," according to exhibition curator Dr. Doron J. Lurie, Israel's leading Rembrandt scholar, "if only Rembrandt were alive today, this exhibition would be his 'dream come true.' The artist's 'ostentatious and extravagant' lifestyle kept him in financial difficulties throughout his life, and he needed to sell his paintings as quickly as possible; he never had the luxury of seeing them as a group," Lurie explains in the exhibition catalogue. Now, the works have been placed side by side in chronological order so that visitors can examine a large part of the Master's oeuvre, in the same size as the original. The only notable exception is the group portrait of a militia company, "The Night Watch" (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), whose enormous dimensions - 363 x 438 cm or 12 x 14 ft - exceed the available technology to reproduce. To compensate, there is a short video, running on a continuous loop, which reveals the painting's gargantuan size as well as an explanation of its style and content. The only area in which the photographs are wanting is in the replication of surface texture, which is a drawback because Rembrandt applied thick paint (impasto) on his canvases throughout his career. But the advantages to seeing the Master's work via reproductions far outweigh the limitations. "With high quality reproduction, you can walk through the brains of a man who was so creative, industrious, obsessed, inventive and full of compassion," Prof. Ernst van de Wetering, director of the Amsterdam-based Rembrandt Research Project (RRP) and an adviser to the enterprise that made the exhibit possible, tells The Report during a recent visit to Israel. That enterprise, launched by an Amsterdam publishing house to mark the artist's 400th birthday in 2006, consisted of making photographic copies of 300 of Rembrandt's oil paintings, approximately one half of the 600 works currently attributed to him. There's no shortage of Rembrandt reproductions, but the innovative aspect of this undertaking is that the photographs are the same size as the originals. Lurie notes that some of the artist's works are as small as 15 x 12.5 cm (6 x 5 inches), as in an early self-portrait when the artist was a young ragamuffin, while others, such as his group portraits of Amsterdam's elite, executed when Rembrandt was at the zenith of his popularity, often exceed 180 x 215 cm (6 by 7 ft). In the traditional mode of studying artists, through books and slide lectures, those differences are lost, notes Lurie. "The cost of materials, the time it takes to paint, and the price to the buyer vary so drastically that one needs to see [the paintings] full-size," he says. Lurie notes that reproductions played a pivotal role in Rembrandt van Rijn's professional growth. He believed himself to be in competition with the major masters of the Italian Renaissance: Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian. Like them, Rembrandt came to sign his works with his first name only, but unlike many northern European artists who made pilgrimages to Italy to observe and record the abundant masterpieces there, Rembrandt never left the Netherlands. He preferred to see the works of the Renaissance through engraved reproductions. Using these copies as his point of departure, he often tried to "improve" on them as well. Prof. van de Wetering observes that Rembrandt did not disparage reproductions at all. "He was a great collector, with many copies - paintings as well as graphic art - of other artists' works. He was an art historian, competing with the history of art," said van de Wetering, a University of Amsterdam art history professor. Rembrandt also encouraged copies of his own work by his students as pedagogic devices, van de Wetering said on the occasion of the exhibition's opening. "If Rembrandt walked into this exhibition, he would be completely overpowered and overjoyed. He would say, 'Did I make that?'" says Van de Wetering, who speaks about Rembrandt as if he were an old family friend. He goes on to remark - only partially in jest - that "copies are better than the real thing," clearly enjoying the startled reactions of the guests. He explains, "When people look at originals, they can't touch them, are overwhelmed by the prices paid for them and approach them as holy. Secondly, the photo is usually taken under almost ideal conditions, in a studio with bright, even light. In Rembrandt's case, this is especially important because many of his works are dark." Not surprisingly, the exhi-bition provoked discussion about the artist's alleged "Jewish connection." While no one doubts Rembrandt's Protestant origins, he is said to have had a special affinity for the Jews. But it turns out that many of these connections are based on myths. Rembrandt had Jewish sitters and can be linked to six Jewish personalities, including a rabbi, a physician and a next-door neighbor. But three of them sued the artist - including his next-door neighbor for a faulty dividing wall in their adjoining cellars. It is noted that Rembrandt's home (today the Rembrandt House Museum) is located on Joodenbreestrat (Jewish Broadway), but the "Jewish" prefix was added only in the 18th century, long after Rembrandt lived there. And yes, Rembrandt did paint several scenes that have contributed to his image as being sympathetic towards the Jewish people (see box on page 39) but one of these, "The Jewish Bride" (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum), has been proven to be neither Jewish nor a bride. Perhaps the best known personage who linked Rembrandt to Judaism is Israel's national poet, Haim Nachman Bialik, who celebrated Rembrandt's Jewish soul. In a foreword for a German-Hebrew book on the painter edited by Jewish artist Leonid Pasternak in Berlin in 1923, Bialik claimed that Rembrandt had great sympathy for his Jewish subjects and should be at least accorded the status of an honorary Jew. Curator Lurie goes on to state that Israel is also complicit in perpetuating the questionable Jewish connection. "Look where the Tel Aviv municipality has placed Rembrandt Street," he points out. "It is not in the same neighborhood as Leonardo and Michelangelo streets. Rather it is adjacent to streets named for Jewish artists like Soutine, Modigliani, Antokolsky and the biblical Bezalel. Why would anyone living in that neighborhood think that Rembrandt was anything but Jewish?" Lurie chides. The Jews are not the only group who want Rembrandt in their fold. Something about the sensitivity and universality of his message makes him a popular target for adoption. Van de Wetering notes that in Russia, for example, he has been seen as philo-Slavic. And the Nazis, attempting to rationalize the pilfering of countless treasures for the Third Reich, tried to Germanize Rembrandt and turn the theft into a homecoming. Extract from an article in Issue 4, June 10, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.