Wednesday, November 18, 2009

How Does He Do It? Rembrandt's The Syndics, 1662

If my journey to Madrid was a pilgrimage to Vélasquez and Goya, Amsterdam held the promise of Rembrandt. Like Las Meninas and The Third of May, Rembrandt’s paintings have become so clichéd thanks to their mass distribution in every possible medium, that I wondered if there was anything left for me to see. And though it took some time to shift from seeing the images I expected to see to those before me in the Rijksmuseum, once in the world of Rembrandt van Rijn, it was as though I was there for the first time.

The major drawcard of the museum is The Nightwatch (1642), which is truly breathtaking, primarily for the splendid gold coat of the lieutenant. But it was The Syndics (1662) that caught my eye for hours. What an extraordinary painting. These five men and their servant were the sampling officials of the Amsterdam Drapers' guild in 1662. Unlike the arresting dress of the lieutenant, it is not the fabric of their official garb that holds us, or held me, before these esteemed gentlemen. It is their eyes, and their direct engagement with us that compelled me to keep looking at them. No matter where we stand, all but one of the syndics follows us with their eyes. As we enter the not so grand hall in which the syndics temporarily sit, from the opposite end, they make quite clear that they have noticed my arrival. Stopped in motion, they watch me walk in the room, perhaps I have interrupted them, intruded on a conversation I am no supposed to hear? I all but hear them demand to know “What’s she doing here?” But it is unclear, maybe they were expecting me and they are merely announcing my arrival: “she is here!” Such is the world of a painted masterpiece, and the ambiguity of their look is just the point: I may not know what they are thinking, but what is clear, is that they know and acknowledge my arrival.

The oldest among them, Volckert Jansz, in the process of standing up or, maybe he is sitting down, looks ever so slightly downwards. As a result he does not watch me. The youngest —we know this by his dress and his hair — Aernout van der Mye (second from the right) is the one we strike up the strongest connection with. And yet, he is also the one in the most shadow. How does that work? Surely the focus of the paining should be in the light? But it’s true, contrary to all logic van der Mye has the strongest eyes, vibrant features, full lips, and ruddy cheeks that give him an energy, an attractivenes. He has a fire in his face, his eyes, his hair, that somehow gives him a seduction, his intensity makes him reach out of the painting, to me at least. He also smiles quiety with me, perhaps at me, in animated engagement with me. The others are more reserved, quieter, their pale, aging skin, their calmness sees them less eager to flirt with me, they rest content with their place in the painting. It is very difficult for me to move away from Aernout van der Mye: the connection that develops with him starts to leaves behind the others in the painting. And I am left to wonder: How does Rembrandt do this? Evoke such animation and emotion, in a painting?

When I regain my composure and recover from my flirtation with Aernout van der Mye, I note the brilliance of the composition: the table at an angle, the figures at different heights, impossibly both looking in different directions and surveying me with their look. I am also transfixed by the light that falls on the embroidered carpet that covers the table, the gloves of Jochem de Neve on the right of the painting. Again, I am left to wonder: How does Rembrandt do this? I shall save my discussion of light, especially as it falls on skin for my discussion of the portraits. Here, I want to briefly mention the page of the ledger that the syndics are studying together. The thick, yellow, handmade paper is so realistic, so tactile that I can feel the texture of the hand woven surface as I adoringly watch van der Mye lift they page, and Willem Doeyenburg in the process of discussing something he finds written thereon, a discussion that takes places through he movement of his thumb and forefinger. Here, in The Syndics, Rembrandt extends the passionate rendering of the hand for which he is renowned into the exquisite texture of paper, as though the hands that touch it infuse it with their beauty and magic. And so, having settled down from my flirtation with van der Mye, I fall into a relay between faces, hands, books, and we must not forget, collars. Again, like the pages of the ledger, the brilliant white collars, each different from the next as they mark the age and social position of their wearer are like the extension of the face.

A word of warning for those determined to make new discoveries, the Rijksmuseum is under renovation for the next few years, and they have chosen the masterpieces for display. It was fine by me, because rather than discovering paintings I had not yet seen, the diminished display made me make discoveries within canvases I thought I already knew.

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