Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Rembrandt and Jesus in Philadelphia

I don't think the Catholic Marketing Network Trade Show and the Catholic Writers Guild Live Conference will be in Valley Forge next year, but there are other venues to visit if one can stay later (by design). With my missed flight/flight delay last week, I wish I could have visited the Philadelphia Museum of Arts' special exhibition on Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus. I picked up a flyer at the airport announcing the event. As the museum's website explains:

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669) is universally acclaimed as the greatest master painter of the Dutch Golden Age, the 17th-century efflorescence of art in the Netherlands. Thanks to an inventory of his home and studio conducted in July 1656, we know that Rembrandt kept in his bedroom two of his own paintings called Head of Christ. A third painting—identified as a "Head of Christ, from life"—was found in a bin in Rembrandt's studio, awaiting use as a model for a New Testament composition. Today, seven paintings survive (from what was likely eight originally) that fit this description, all painted by Rembrandt and his pupils between 1643 and 1655. Bust-length portraits, they show the same young man familiar from traditional artistic conceptions of Christ, yet each figure also bears a slightly different expression. In posing an ethnographically correct model and using a human face to depict Jesus, Rembrandt overturned the entire history of Christian art, which had previously relied on rigidly copied prototypes for Christ.

This exhibition, the first Rembrandt exhibition in Philadelphia since 1932 and the first ever in the city to include paintings by the Dutch master, reunites the seven paintings of this exceedingly rare and singular series for the first time since 1656. Of these portraits, three are being seen in the United States for the first time. Complemented by more than fifty related paintings, prints, and drawings, Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus allows visitors to consider the religious, historic, and artistic significance of these works. Objects of private reflection for Rembrandt, the paintings in this exhibition bear witness to Rembrandt's iconoclasm and his search for a meditative ideal.

In addition to major paintings, many of the selected drawings in this exhibition have been rarely exhibited or lent owing to their light-sensitivity and fragility. Indeed, never before have so many of Rembrandt’s finest paintings, etchings, and drawings that depict Jesus Christ and events of his life been assembled for an exhibition.

The Wall Street Journal reviewed it last week:

Rembrandt van Rijn was among art history's most gifted interpreters of the Bible, bringing a blend of sobriety, tenderness and insight to the sacred narratives he portrayed. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in his numerous depictions of Jesus Christ, the focus of "Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus," an exhibition now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Presenting about 50 paintings, drawings and prints—several borrowed from European collections and rarely seen in the U.S.—the exhibition offers a fascinating narrative of artistic innovation and spiritual growth. In the middle of his long career, we learn, Rembrandt began to portray Jesus with features subtly resembling those of contemporary Amsterdam Jews, a move starkly at odds with artistic tradition, yet in no way contrary to the text of the Bible. . . .

Three rooms of fairly small works flesh out the show's intellectual background. The first presents images of Christ in prior European art, demonstrating canonical approaches to portraying this all-important figure, whose physical appearance receives scant mention in the Bible. The second shows Rembrandt's engagement with these traditions through his youthful graphic work, including a famous red-chalk drawing after Leonardo's "Last Supper." And the third offers a sampling of Rembrandt's earliest images of 17th-century Dutch Jews.

Here, we learn that Rembrandt lived on the edge of Amsterdam's largest Jewish community, which was populated by both Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews, almost all of whom were refugees from persecution elsewhere in Europe. The mostly impoverished Ashkenazim, with their untrimmed beards, long hair and traditional garments, particularly captured the artist's attention, as can be seen in a sensitive black chalk drawing of a seated Jewish craftsman at work and in a rapidly executed oil-on-panel "Portrait of a Young Jew" (c. 1648). . . .

Although "Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus" makes its central point well and clearly, the preponderance of minor works, historical background material and pictures by students may cause visitors to wonder if additional top-quality paintings by Rembrandt might have made for a stronger presentation. At the show's original venue, the Louvre in Paris, four more of Rembrandt's New Testament scenes were included, two of them masterpieces. In Philadelphia, the cavernous galleries devoted to the exhibition leave many works seeming marooned, and the extensive use of large, didactic wall texts compounds this problem. Nonetheless, by focusing on the important issue of Rembrandt's midcareer approach to the physiognomy of Jesus, this show ultimately highlights the need for a truly major exhibition on Rembrandt and the Bible, especially here in America, where the master's great biblical history paintings are so seldom to be seen.

My husband and I have a DVD titled The Face: Jesus in Art which features some of these paintings. I have seen some of them at the Louvre and at Jacquemart-Andre in Paris. It will not be in Philadelphia long--then it travels to Detroit. What an experience to see them all together in person!

No comments:

Post a Comment