Rembrandt exhibition in Amsterdam at the National Gallery of Canada transforms colonization and slavery into artistic achievement

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Moridja Kitenge Banza, From 1848 to the present day, 2006-20.

National Gallery of Canada

Anyone who thought the National Gallery of Canada would return from COVID closures with a conventional and heartwarming display of historic European masterpieces was completely wrong. At the heart of the gallery’s new Rembrandt exhibition, half a dozen portraits of beautiful 17th-century ladies in black white-collar dresses confront a collection of everyday stainless steel teaspoons recently assembled by the Congolese-Canadian artist. Moridja Kitenge Banza.

What happens with the portraits and the teaspoons? Well, it’s complicated – and that’s rather the point.

On the surface, Rembrandt in Amsterdam: creativity and competition is a traditional museum show. This is a study by Queens University art historian Stephanie Dickey of Rembrandt’s middle years – how he built his career in tandem with the city’s economic expansion in early 1600s. This is not a Rembrandt blockbuster: the most famous paintings do not leave the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam or the National Gallery in London, although both have loaned other works. Rather, it is a carefully thought-out assemblage of distant loans from Europe, the United States and Canada, with the help of the Stadel Museum in Frankfurt, which co-organized the exhibition. He then uses these portraits, biblical scenes and landscapes of the artist and his contemporaries to trace the social, economic and cultural context of his art.

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The exhibition tells how Rembrandt, who was already working as a history painter in his hometown of Leiden, moved to the metropolis in 1632 and established himself as a portrait painter in demand by a burgeoning middle class, as well as an engraver. prolific. He also formed a gang of students, some of whom would eventually become his rivals when artistic fashion shifted to lighter, sleeker styles.

The Blindness of Samson by Rembrandt, 1636.

Städel Museum, Frankfurt

Certainly, there are conventional pleasures on offer here. There is a fabulous range of portraits, from the artist’s gentle portrayal of his wife Saskia to the daring pose of Portrait of a man standing (Andries de Graeff), or the self-portrait of 1642 as a solid citizen with a hat and decorative chains. When it comes to narrative paintings, Rembrandt’s ability to infuse great drama into biblical subjects is fully revealed in the horrific Samson’s blindness where the Philistines gouged out the eyes of the Israelite hero under the gaze of a joyful Delilah.

Meanwhile, the exhibition also provides rich context for the National Gallery‘s impressive collection of Rembrandt prints, as well as good teaching material explaining various printmaking processes. And the show offers plenty of opportunities to compare Rembrandt to his many talented contemporaries, such as Jacob Backer, Ferdinand Bol and Govert Flinck, especially in the realm of portraiture as the Amsterdam limners made their careers among the new plutocrats. of the so-called Golden Age.

Moridja Kitenge Banza, From 1848 to the present day / Cross section of a slave ship, 2006-18.

National Gallery of Canada

This is a term the gallery is now avoiding, this is where teaspoons come in. The point is, it was not gold for everyone – not for the poor or the sick and certainly not for the colonized or the slaves. Dutch wealth was built on world trade, sometimes fair and sometimes not. To create From 1848 to the present day, Banza developed his own fictitious currency to barter the teaspoons and arranges them in rows, as a product of these exchanges. Each teaspoon is a small head on a small body: trade included slavery, as Banza makes it more explicit in a second ink and graphite work in which the silhouettes of the spoons line up like bodies on a slave ship.

The spoons are also, as the gallery’s text panel points out, tiny mirrors that reflect viewers back into themselves, just as Rembrandt reflected wealthy citizens – and himself – so many times. But can the portraits of ladies withstand all this contemporary intervention?

Yes indeed. In fact, a historical hierarchy of standard art is asserting itself in the room as curator Dickey lines up three portraits of women holding fans. Flinck is notable for his honest portrayal of a welcoming face, while Bartholomeus van der Helst excels at portraying his babysitter’s shiny black dress – but these two hold their fans limply. Rembrandt’s character Portrait of a young woman with a fan carries hers to her waist as she gets up from her chair as if to greet the viewer. This is by far the most engaging of the trio: Obviously, it wasn’t just fashion or business intelligence that first elevated the Rembrandt brand.

Portrait of a Young Woman with a Fan by Rembrandt, 1633.

The Metropolitan Art Museum

What the National Gallery is doing here is tricky, but perhaps necessary, if viewers remember the 2019 Gauguin Portraits exhibition, which struggled to address the French artist’s exploitation of culture and Tahitian women. The experience of the colonized or the slave is not fundamental for this new exhibition – if you wanted to do this exhibition, you would surely need to obtain the loan of the sympathetic portrait of the artist, Two African men, of the Mauritshuis in The Hague. (It is pictured in the exhibition catalog and appears to depict exotic travelers, not enslaved people.) Instead, the National Gallery only superimposes contemporary concerns on Rembrandt’s artistic achievements. Exceptionally, at the start of the exhibition, Dickey is identified as the author of most of the didactic panels while three others contributed signed texts: art historian Joana Joachim on issues of race and gender, and artist Rick Hill and curator Gerald McMaster on Aboriginal themes.

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Joachim, for example, provides information about the ambivalent attitude of the Dutch Reformed Church towards slavery in the room filled with Christian scenes while McMaster points out that the red drapery in several portraits was dyed using cochineal, an insect collected and traded internationally by the indigenous peoples of Mexico. .

Exposing the implications of Dutch trade is a welcome broadening of the context, but the connection to local indigenous issues may seem tenuous. However, the show’s crucial revelation is that by Rembrandt’s time the Dutch had already established friendly relations with the Haudenosaunee confederacy. The exhibition begins with a reproduction of a wampum belt whose parallel blue lines symbolize a non-interference pact between the two cultures. If Rembrandt in Amsterdam means a discussion of the sources of Dutch wealth, Rembrandt in Ottawa means recognition that in his day Europeans had already reached what is now North America.

Sometimes these reminders and interventions work as well as the teaspoons. And sometimes not. A room showcasing some of Rembrandt’s uniquely Dutch landscapes is unbalanced by the discussion of “New World” landscape traditions that romanticize grandeur without recognizing the existing inhabitants. work of Kent Monkman in 2007 The triumph of evil is a sneaky commentary on that tradition that dominates the much smaller Dutch paintings in the room.

Ruth Cuthand, Smallpox, 2011.

National Gallery of Canada

On the other hand, the connections made at the close of the exhibition resonate deeply. Rembrandt’s life was marked by the untimely deaths of his closest relatives, including three of his four children, their mother Saskia (probably suffering from tuberculosis, at the age of 29) and Hendrickje Stoffels, the servant who became more later the artist’s partner (who probably died of the plague). In the final room, the portraits of Stoffels and Rembrandt’s daughter-in-law (mother of his only grandson), as well as those of unidentified Biblical figures for whom Saskia may have modeled, all hint at the same terrible fragility. Nearby, contemporary Cree artist Ruth Cuthand contributes Smallpox and Pneumonia, two of his beaded depictions of European diseases that killed indigenous peoples.

In a text, McMaster makes the connection to the lessons of COVID but reminds us of what life was like before modern medicine: It is estimated that 90% of the Indigenous population may have been killed by these diseases. Thus, human mortality swirls through the gallery as an exercise in provocation aimed at expanding the history of art draws to a close.

Rembrandt in Amsterdam continues at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa until September 6.


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