Sydney Morning Herald Column

Rembrandt & the Dutch Golden Age

Published December 2, 2017
The star attraction: Vermeer's 'Woman reading a letter' (c.1663)

“There is one work by Vermeer, the undoubted superstar, and six by Rembrandt, including two from the NGV’s permanent collection. Three portraits by Frans Hals give some indication of this artist’s remarkable flair and dash. After that, it is a pot-pourri of genres and tendencies…”
No, I’m not writing about Rembrandt & the Dutch Golden Age at the Art Gallery of NSW. This paragraph comes from a review of Dutch Masters from the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2005. That show, held when the fortunes of the NGV were at a low ebb, was a textbook example of a package exhibition marketed as a blockbuster. Almost everything was drawn from one source. The catalogue featured a single essay written by a Dutch curator outlining key points about art and life during the Golden Age. The NGV’s input was minimal at best.
The current ‘blockbuster’ at the AGNSW features one work by Vermeer, the undoubted superstar, and six by Rembrandt, including one from the NGV’s permanent collection. Two portraits by Frans Hals give some indication of this artist’s remarkable flair and dash… Does anybody feel a sense of déjà vu?

Rembrandt's 'Self-portrait as the apostle Paul' (1661)
Rembrandt’s ‘Self-portrait as the apostle Paul’ (1661)

The difference is that in 2005 the Rijksmuseum sent Vermeer’s The love letter (1669-72), whereas this time they’ve sent Woman reading a letter (c.1663). One need not play favourites with two great paintings. In 2005 the pick of the Rembrandts was a youthful Self-portrait (c.1629). This time it’s the late, rather tragic Self-portrait as the apostle Paul (1661). It would have been marvellous to see these pictures side-by-side, but it seems Australia’s credit only extends to one Rembrandt self-portrait at a time.
The husband and wife portraits by Frans Hals were smaller but livelier in 2005, allowing us a better sense of that virtuosity the Impressionists would come to admire.
Rembrandt’s Two old men disputing (1618) (once called The Two Philosophers) from the NGV, makes a guest appearance in Sydney, but couldn’t talk its way into the catalogue. This omission is symptomatic of a publication that is more perfunctory than its predecessor, with a smaller essay, no proper checklist and a token bibliography. Seven Australian authors wrote entries for the 2005 catalogue, but beyond the acknowledgments pages, no Australians are mentioned in the current version.
Rembrandt, 'Two old men disputing' (1618)
Rembrandt, ‘Two old men disputing’ (1618)

The AGNSW has roughly 30 fewer items than the NGV show, which was bulked up by silverware, glass and ceramics. The current exhibition relies on a set of Rembrandt etchings, which are hardly rarities (the NGV alone owns more than 250), but more stimulating than the miscellaneous objects. Pieces such as The three trees (1643, also uncatalogued), and The three crosses (1653), are all-time classics of the printmaker’s art.
The depressing statistic is that a quarter of the paintings on display have already been shown in 2005. The list includes: Rembrandt’s Portrait of Dr Ephraim Bueno (1646-47), Ferdinand Bol’s Portrait of a Man (1663), Karel Dujardin’s Self-portrait (1662), Jacob Backer’s Portrait of Johannes Lutma (c.1646), Jan de Bray’s The Governors of the Guild of St. Luke, Haarlem (1675), Govert Flinck’s Portrait of Gerard Pietersz Hulft (1654), Hendrick Ter Brugghen’s The adoration of the magi (1619), Pieter Claesz’s Vanitas still life with the Spinario (1628), Jan van der Heyden’s The stone bridge (1660-72), Salomon van Ruysdael’s The watering place (1660), Aelbert Jansz van der Schoor’s Vanitas still life (c.1660-65), Abraham Mignon’s Still life with fruit, oysters and a porcelain bowl (c. 1660-79), Rachel Ruysch’s Still life with flowers on a marble table top (1716) and Jan Davidsz de Heem’s Still life with flowers in a glass vase (1665-70) – which features as a detail on the cover of the AGNSW catalogue.
Adam Pynacker’s Landscape with enraged ox (1665-70) from the AGNSW’s permanent collection is included in both shows, but only catalogued by the NGV. Despite the exhaustive labours of the Rembrandt Research Project, one of the pieces in this show, Samson and Delilah (1626-30) is still merely “attributed to” the master. The chief curiosity of the exhibition is The beheading of John the Baptist (c.1640-50), which was credited to Carel Fabritius in 2005, but is now merely “circle of Rembrandt”. That’s a fair call, as the painting looks to be the work of more than one hand.
Circle of Rembrandt, 'The beheading of John the Baptist' (c.1640-50)
Circle of Rembrandt, ‘The beheading of John the Baptist’ (c.1640-50)

The pattern of repetition could be extended even further if I were to look at works backing up from The Golden Age of Dutch Art, held at the Art Gallery of W.A. in 1997.
The point being made so laboriously is that this is not good enough. Some will argue I’m being pedantic. “Surely,” the argument runs, “if all these works were shown only in Melbourne in 2005 what’s wrong with showing them again in Sydney 12 years later?”
Indeed, what’s wrong with showing works by Frida Kahlo that were all seen in Canberra a decade ago?
Not only does this presume audiences don’t travel between cities, and have no short-term memory, it suggests Australians will take whatever we’re given from a major international museum, even if it’s the same as last time. It denotes a passivity, a complete absence of scholarly ambition, a readiness to accept that local audiences can be fobbed off with yet another “treasures” show that features a handful of important pictures and a lot of average ones.
This is partly the result of state governments insisting on exclusivity, which means that shows rarely travel between capitals any more, pushing up costs and, as we now see, allowing for mechanical repetition. If this is the fate of exhibitions in this country then we need to work harder to come up with unique themes that command respect internationally.
For instance, the NGV had incredible difficulty securing loans for their recent show, Van Gogh and the Seasons, but made a success of it by employing a well-connected Dutch curator, pursuing an original theme, using local curators for catalogue essays, and hanging the show in an innovative way that gave a prominence to even the most minor works. Had they been cynical or lazy and just called it “Masterpieces by Van Gogh”, they would still have got big numbers while patronising their audience and advertising their slackness to lenders, sponsors and anyone who believes that so-called blockbusters need to demonstrate quality, insight and commitment.
Rembrandt & the Dutch Golden Age, by contrast, is a box of lollies tossed under the Christmas tree. This is not to dispute there are great paintings in this selection – Vermeer, Rembrandt and most of their peers have nothing to prove to critics and art historians. The problem is that there are more than 3,000 paintings in the Rijksmuseum and the AGNSW has accepted the same ones that travelled to Melbourne in 2005. It may not be an issue for those who didn’t see the Victorian show and haven’t visited the Rijksmuseum itself, but I’m obliged to take a more sweeping view. If the AGNSW imagines a proposed extension means it is about “to join [the] world’s greatest art museums”, it must start to act like a museum not like a shop-front for hire.
Rembrandt & the Dutch Golden Age: Masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum
Art Gallery of NSW, 11 November, 2017 – 18 February, 2018

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 2 December, 2017