The Nightwatch extended and Ellsworth Kelly at the Rijksmuseum

A visit to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in mid-July certainly isn’t what it once was.  It isn’t deserted, but it very definitely is a lot quieter than I have ever seen it.  You can stroll up to a Vermeer without having to wait your turn as you filter your way to the front of the crowd around it.  Rembrandt’s Nightwatch is still in its glass box constructed for recent restoration work.  But here too you simply walk up to the barrier for the best view.

The Nightwatch was one of the reasons for my visit.  I’ve seen it often enough, and had the chance to view it better than ever before during our school’s involvement with a Rineke Dijkstra film project a couple of years ago.  But at the moment there are some interesting additions to Rembrandt’s masterpiece. The story behind this requires a little explanation.

In 1715, when the painting was moved from its original location to the Amsterdam town hall, it was too big for the new location.  The solution for this problem was simply to reduce the size of the painting to cut a little off on three sides, and really quite a large slice from the left hand side. 

With the help of the miniature version of the painting made by Gerrit Lundens in the mid-1650s that shows the whole painting and a great deal of digital technology, the museum has recreated the missing pieces, and while the original is still out of its frame have added them to the four sides, extending the painting considerably.

The museum website has documented the whole process…..

Operation Nightwatch – Rijksmuseum

The biggest change in the way the painting is viewed with the additions is undoubtedly that the two central figures who for the last 300 years have been extremely central in the composition are now significantly shifted to the right.  The effect is that they feel  more than ever that they are stepping out and moving towards the now bigger space on the left.  It’s fascinating to see how such an “old friend” can change!

Ellsworth Kelly

The other reason for a Rijksmuseum visit today has been to see the exhibition of sculptural work by Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2015).  Spread around the museums gardens, and with the backdrop of the museum itself, a collection of nine of the American’s razor sharp abstract sculptures have been assembled from around the world. 

Kelly’s work has always had a special alure for me since my student days.  He was an artist I looked at a lot as made the steps towards making my first abstract works.  Even now I still regularly look at his work as a reference to what I make now.

In the museum garden the sharp flowing lines of the sculptures and their smooth and even surfaces draw a fantastic contrast with the intricacies of the Neo-Gothic architecture of the Pierre Cuypers’ building that was completed in 1885.

All the Rembrandts

Rembrandts paintings are such big statements. Last week I was in the Mauritshuis in The Hague showing the pupils I teach The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp. Today I’m in the Rijksmuseum with it’s Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild, the Jewish Bride, the portraits of Maerten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit and of course also the Nightwatch. All familiar images that I regularly see on my visits to these museums. 

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But today it has been slightly different, for alongside the big statements there are images of such delicacy, intimacy and plain and simple smallness.  For its exhibition Alle Rembrandts the Rijksmuseum has pulled everything out of their storage depot, all the paintings, all the drawings and all the prints.

The drawings in the exhibition are often quite limited in their format, a page from a notebook perhaps, but the etchings, peeping out from their little windows cut in the generous mounts are something else. 

Rembrandt captures a look, a glance and a mood, often in little more than a square centimeter of surface on the etching plate given over to the subject’s face. A individual peers out from amongst a tangle of the most finely scratched lines.  Faces lit by the combination of the blackest of black printmakers ink and the raw bloom of the slowly discoloring paper.   Never mind the impressive clothes and stature of the full size, full figure painted portraits, these are openings into the lives and world of emotion, concentration, activity and sometimes, apparent boredom.  

And then after this simplicity and intimacy, you enter the last rooms. These are spaces packed with drama and spectacle. Rembrandt sets to on the big Biblical themes; the crucifixion , the entombment, Christ presented to the people and Christ preaching. They’re bigger prints than earlier in the exhibition. They bristle with action, the handling of tonal work is, well, as you might expect from Rembrandt, dramatic. I haven’t seen some examples of Rembrandt’s crucifixion series for a while, it is spectacular and fascinating to see different stages of the printing process alongside one another.  Having seen Grunewald’s huge crucifixion not so very long ago, I do find myself wondering how a Rembrandt painting of this subject, based on his etchings, and of Nightwatch scale might have been.