February 23, 2011

Robinson on Rembrandt

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On Wednesday evening, Frank Robinson, the Richard J. Schwartz Director, gave guests a sparkling glimpse of Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijin’s genius. Titled “Robinson on Rembrandt,” the hour-long public talk at the Johnson Museum was more a tour of a well-loved place than a classroom lecture.  Robinson was an admirable guide, greeting guests effusively and inviting them to think hard about the nuances in each work.

Robinson acquainted visitors with Rembrandt as a storyteller. Etching was one of Rembrandt’s principal mediums. The process is arduous, but it is often preferred to engraving because unlike the engraving burin, the etching needle can be used as easily as a pen. The etcher begins by striking the design onto a “ground” covered copper plate (“ground” often comprises wax, asphalts and resins). He then submerges the plate in dilute acid, such that the acid bites into the exposed areas to form grooves. During his lifetime, Rembrandt made about 280 prints, seven of which are held by the Johnson.

Rembrandt was fascinated with biblical narratives, particularly that of Abraham, and gave these stories insightful interpretations through his work. The Dismissal of Hagar and Ishmael (1637) ranks among Rembrandt’s “small masterpieces.” The incident in Genesis fascinated 17th century artists because of its legitimacy concerns: when Abraham sends away his mistress Hagar and illegitimate son Ishmael, after his wife Sarah was enraged by Ishmael’s mockery and feared for her son Isaac’s inheritance. Rembrandt gives the event symbolic weight: Abraham’s right hand and foot are turned towards Sarah and Isaac while his left hand and foot are pointed towards Hagar and Ishmael.

One of several light-hearted moments during the lecture occurred when Robinson urged guests to spot the ram in the 1655 print, Abraham Sacrificing Isaac. The print depicts the instant when an angel stops Abraham from sacrificing Isaac, and directs Abraham to a ram as a sacrificial substitute (The ram was eventually spotted in the left region of the work).

Although he was more well-known for his melodramatic paintings, Rembrandt also gave mundane moments their beautiful due. In Woman Sitting Half-dressed Beside a Stove (1658), a woman who is neither very young or attractive sits looking down, unselfconsciously, as if in deep thought or great tiredness. It is a portrait of an unadorned self, captured in a private, insignificant moment. Perhaps through the intricacy of his needle strokes, Rembrandt turns the scene into poetry—he renders the incident poignant, and the woman beautiful.

Rembrandt’s work was also intensely personal. His self-image and perception of Christ evolved significantly over time.  His earlier works during the High Baroque period of the 1630s feature Christ as an all-powerful immortal. By the 1640s, he depicted Christ as less commanding, and more vulnerable in the same biblical scenes (notably when Christ raised Lazarus from the dead). Intriguingly, he often painted himself as a villain in these narratives.

Robinson’s enthusiasm clearly infected visitors. After the lecture, many guests lingered to study the displayed etchings. Some marveled at the intricacy of the etchings, while others attempted to spot the difference between the lifetime and posthumous etchings of Rembrandt’s The Dismissal of Hagar and Ishmael.

For those who came, serious lovers of Rembrandt and curious students alike, it was certainly a walk to remember

Original Author: Daveen Koh