VIS­UAL ART: Dutch masters.

At an ex­hi­bi­tion of the Ri­jksmu­seum’s Dutch masters, Pa­trick Har­ti­gan is cap­ti­vated by the care and pen­e­tra­tion in the work of Ver­meer, Rem­brandt and Hals.

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Rem­brandt and the Dutch golden age: mas­ter­pieces from the Ri­jksmu­seum, an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Art Gallery of

New South Wales un­til Fe­bru­ary 18, demon­strates the ex­tra­or­di­nary lev­els of care that were once re­quired to make pic­tures look “real”. It is also a demon­stra­tion of the way paint­ing, as a process of chan­nelling the world through the use of re­fined raw ma­te­ri­als, can be an­chored within broader life cy­cles and ma­te­rial in­ter­ac­tions.

The Dutch golden age refers, more or less, to the 17th-cen­tury Nether­lands, then known as The Re­pub­lic. Among the painters most cel­e­brated from this time of eco­nomic and cul­tural pros­per­ity, on the back of mar­itime power and ex­pan­sion, are Jo­hannes Ver­meer and Rem­brandt van Rijn. While works by these painters are in­cluded here – an im­pres­sive num­ber, scope and se­lec­tion in the case of the lat­ter – the ex­hi­bi­tion brings to light a rich hive of lesser-known fig­ures.

At the tail end of the ex­hi­bi­tion, Still life with fruit, oys­ters, and a porce­lain bowl (1660-79) by Abra­ham Mignon si­mul­ta­ne­ously de­lights in the ar­ti­fi­cial­ity of its con­struc­tion and the ripeness of its con­tents. Here we stand face to face with the beauty and be­wil­der­ing de­tail of food: a pome­gran­ate’s jew­els, the sturdy skin of grapes, the ar­chi­tec­ture of chest­nuts, the meaty in­tegrity of oys­ters. While the back­drop be­hind the dis­play of food, porce­lain and in­sects abruptly dis­ap­pears into dark­ness, tiny re­flec­tions found in the grapes and an up­turned glass on the left of the pic­ture re­mind us of a world out­side and be­yond. In the glass, through a win­dow, we see the church tower where the artist lived. There’s some­thing of the Rus­sian ma­tryoshka doll here: the win­dow of the painted panel open­ing onto more and more win­dows, lay­ers of paint dis­clos­ing layer upon layer of life.

Mignon cre­ated this sump­tu­ous paint­ing – one that ab­so­lutely has to be viewed in the flesh to savour its rich­ness – over a pe­riod of 19 years, al­most half the 39 years that com­prised the life span of that hand and brain.

Re­turn­ing to the open­ing room, where a su­perb col­lec­tion of por­traits hang, the phys­i­cal and emo­tional drama of a pair of life-size por­traits by Frans Hals locked my gaze and body. The mid­dle-aged fe­male sub­ject of Por­trait of Feyn­tje van Steenkiste (c.1603/04-1640) stood slightly askance from me, her gath­ered dress brush­ing against a sim­i­larly di­rected chair, while a pair of vividly painted hands rested in a gen­tle clasp at her waist­line. Cos­tume and Calvin­is­tic grav­ity be­lie a phys­i­cal ur­gency in this por­trait that makes re­leas­ing one­self from it some­how tricky.

Across many paint­ings in this ex­hi­bi­tion, a twofold re­la­tion­ship of hands holds the viewer’s at­ten­tion. There’s the fact of the paint­ing, an ob­ject lov­ingly brought into ex­is­tence by the hands of the artist, and then there are the hands fo­cused within the pic­ture. In Ary De Vois’s The merry fid­dler (1660-1680), a panel some­where between the di­men­sions of an A4 and A5 sheet of paper, the thrifty Calvin­ist spirit and im­pec­ca­ble col­lar come un­done on a scruffy, un­shaven drunk­ard clasp­ing his lig­neous liveli­hood in one hand and bev­er­age in the other. While the fig­ure lurches and leers at some­thing to our right, about waist high, we ap­pre­ci­ate the so­bri­ety re­quired to paint those dirty fin­ger­nails, the mag­nif­i­cent clar­ity of his dark blue satin tu­nic.

Gabriël Metsu’s The Her­ring-Seller (c.1661-62), another small work, shows a play of hands around a fish. The seller holds the slip­pery sil­ver morsel up to the scru­tiny of a po­ten­tial cus­tomer, an el­derly woman stand­ing out­side what we pre­sume to be her home. We, the au­di­ence, mir­ror the old woman: we peer into the scene while re­gard­ing the del­i­cacy of Metsu’s prod­uct.

A slice of back­ground along the right side of this paint­ing adds some­thing of an ec­cen­tric post­script to the nar­ra­tive. There, the eye is led down a slope to­wards a rocky coast­line, within which a tiny fig­ure in French Baroque cos­tume – his coat re­flect­ing the red of the her­ring seller’s dress, his cane the old woman’s crutch, his man­ner and iso­la­tion sheer mad­ness – looks out to sea. It was a dis­con­nect af­firmed by the fact there are no such coast­lines in the Nether­lands and Bel­gium, one that lent this lit­tle gem a sur­re­al­ity that brought to mind ear­lier Nether­lan­dish painters such as Hierony­mus Bosch.

The sense of won­der em­bod­ied in that her­ring was am­pli­fied af­ter view­ing the nearby Win­ter scene (c.165253) by Jan van de Cap­pelle. Upon a frozen lake amid frost-coated trees and cloudy sky, a cou­ple of fish­er­men can be seen walk­ing away from a hole in the ice, tackle boxes in hand. Between these paint­ings we are led to imag­in­ing the slip­pery fish be­ing lured from the depths of the cold and dark hole. In both paint­ing and phys­i­cal habi­tat, we find a world in which every­thing – ev­ery ele­ment and ma­te­rial and ob­ject – has crys­tal clear value and pur­pose.

Known for his love of pick­led her­rings, Rem­brandt con­fronted the ques­tion of hu­man ex­is­tence more frontally and emo­tion­ally in late mas­ter­pieces such as Self Por­trait as the Apos­tle Paul (1661). The life im­printed around those eyes – a fore­head thick­ened and glazed with the weari­ness of an an­cient seabed – draws us to­wards the ques­tion Rem­brandt asked again and again in his late por­traits: “What of this thing we call ‘life’?” The an­swer might surely lie in your paint­ing, your ques­tion, mas­ter.

On a wall fac­ing Rem­brandt’s por­trait from a

sep­a­rate room, hangs Ver­meer’s Woman read­ing a let­ter (c.1663). It shows a pos­si­bly preg­nant woman read­ing a let­ter near an un­seen win­dow. The com­po­si­tion of shapes and forms and light tes­ti­fies to the breath­tak­ing poise for which this artist is known. And yet this Ver­meer lit­er­ally left me cold. The bluish cool­ness of its light and sur­faces, be­sides those found in the glo­ri­ous satin coat at the pic­ture’s cen­tre – the woman’s skin, the stud­ded leather chair and wooden rail sup­port­ing a back­ground map – all made me query the ex­tent and ex­e­cu­tion of this paint­ing’s re­cent restora­tion, a process of “clean­ing” dur­ing which glazes and var­nishes would have been re­moved to gain “clar­ity”.

Hav­ing un­locked de­tail, the brass but­tons on the chair and some of the pig­ments in the coat, one ap­pre­ci­ates how eas­ily equi­lib­rium can be lost in paint­ings. It re­minds me of the way poor re­pro­duc­tions blue with age. I think in par­tic­u­lar of the one I’ve been see­ing – in­creas­ingly try­ing to re­sist see­ing – since my child­hood, while cross­ing the har­bour in Syd­ney, through the highup win­dow of a pent­house: a vase of flow­ers by Matisse or Pi­casso or God knows who, washed blue be­neath the in­flu­ence of cheap ink and that hot western sun.

Age­ing and melan­choly inks aside, this is an ex­hi­bi­tion to rel­ish for its abun­dant sur­faces and age­less­ness, for lev­els of care and pa­tience and pen­e­tra­tion ut­terly for­eign to con­tem­po­rary stan­dards. To give one­self over to these paint­ings is to have a state of blasé-ness to­wards one’s phys­i­cal sur­round­ings and the trap­pings of sur­vival mo­men­tar­ily dis­rupted. While look­ing at the works, one sud­denly sees peo­ple anew – the nose of a viewer get­ting close to a small panel, a mother feed­ing her baby – be­fore, on ex­it­ing, be­ing star­tled by the speci­ficity of na­ture – the grey tones of bush, the harsh even light, a squashed fig un­der­foot – a world we glide through while so of­ten fail­ing to slow down and prop­erly look.


Rem­brandt and the Dutch golden age: mas­ter­pieces from the Ri­jksmu­seum, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (above), and Still life with fruit, oys­ters, and a porce­lain bowl (1660-79) by Abra­ham Mignon (fac­ing page).

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