Friday, May 8, 2015

Douglas Messerli | "The Rembrandt Variations" (on Rembrandt: A Decade of Brilliance [1648-1958])

the rembrandt variations

Rembrandt: A Decade of Brilliance (1648-1658), San Diego, Hoehn Family Galleries at the University of San Diego / I attended the show with Marjorie Perloff on May 7, 2015


In two small galleries, high on the hill of the University of San Diego campus, curator Adrian Ecles has gathered a remarkably beautiful and amazing insightful show of mostly religious etchings done by Rembrandt van Rijn within a single decade. The works were created in multiple versions by etching lines incised on copperplate with a burin, and varying that pressure of the sharp needle, scratching his images into the layers of varnish upon the plates, differing the levels of acid through several “baths,” and through using a wide range of papers from Japan, China, Germany, and Italy, which, through the level of the density of light these papers reflected or infused, create nuanced images The several masterworks in this show, accordingly, are presented in series of two, three, and even four versions—from the Hoehn family collection or on loan from Oxford’s  Ashmolean Museum, The British Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Norton Simon Museum of Art, The Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens, and other private collectors—allows the show’s visitors a lesson in art history that is fascinating and revelatory.
     Although each of us may have a notion of which of the “variations” of Rembrandt’s works we prefer, the show makes no aesthetic evaluations, and, in fact, each of the works, in their manipulation of the same images, helps to further reveal the others.

      The show begins with a lovely self-portrait, and also contains a single pastoral landscape, but, for the most part, these etchings explicate biblical passages, sometimes combining several texts within a single image, as in the variations of the important (and high-selling work even within Rembrandt’s own life, described as “The Hundred Guilder Print”), Christ Healing the Sick, wherein an iconic vision of Christ not only heals some of the figures gathered around him, but blesses the children, while simultaneously admonishing a fortunate youth and preaching his proverbial sermon about the camel passing through the eye of a needle. This work alone demonstrates Rembrandt’s “brilliance” in the medium, and would be worth a trip to the gallery.
      In the variations of Christ Shown to the People: The 'Ecce Homo,'" two works portray a series of attending, jeering, and curious types gathered on either side of Christ, peering from high street-side windows and gathered in front in a frieze along a wall. But in a third work, Rembrandt has completely erased the frontal figures, creating an eerie absence, as if this vision of Christ had suddenly lost a large part of his audience, which, in turn, draws our attention to the more actively mocking figures at the sides and looking out from windows at the top.
      Several lovely smaller works reveal Christ as a 12-year-old boy, or as young child being take to the temple by his parents. Others portray the revelation of Christ’s birth to the shepherds, Christ’s birth in the manger, and the family’s escape into Egypt.
     One of the most fascinating of the etchings is St. Jerome Reading in an Italian Landscape, the subject of which is not the saint himself but his lion companion, roaring up with a ragged mane in the center of the work, with a sketchy Jerome, his faced obscured by a hat, presented to the left and front; but in yet another version of the etching, the dominant object becomes a villa in a nearby hill, Jerome, sketched only with a few light lines, nearly disappearing from sight.
      The Agony in the Garden, presenting a pained Christ wrestling with an angel, is presented in two versions, one in full brightness with the lines lightening up the dark thematic subject, while the second, printed on Japanese paper, shadows the images in a manner that more closely expresses the emotional sorrow of the narrative.












      Another masterwork is Christ Crucified Between Two Thieves: The Three Crosses (of 1653-55), in which, in the different versions, highlights the pained expressions of the thieves or the image of Christ himself, blood dripping profusely down the his thighs and legs. Here the horror of death by hanging from the cross, as Perloff reiterated, is so palpable that one almost wishes to turn away—except that, in Rembrandt's depiction, it is also an image so haunting that it is nearly impossible to abandon one’s gaze.
      My only peeve with this show was that it is not nearer to my own home in Los Angeles, so that I might have returned to it again and again before its closing at the end of May.

San Diego, May 8, 2015

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