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Private Moments, Precisely Observed

Review * An etchings show includes luminous works by Rembrandt that set a tone of interior reflection.

November 25, 2001|LEAH OLLMAN | Leah Ollman writes about art and culture

The mystique that hangs so heavily around the figure of Rembrandt was, to some extent, of his own design. He played up his humble origins and cultivated a reputation as a renegade. He lived high, when he could, and died cash-poor. Questions of attribution clouded his work even in his own day, making its value and authenticity slippery matters of continual debate.

His art, on the other hand, has never been much concerned with mystery and intrigue. It's about the real thing. Honest to the physical world and of penetrating psychological depth, it elevates truth to human experience above all else. Myth, religion and the more distanced verities of history permeate Rembrandt's work, but gain their credibility only through the convincing representation of individual experience.

Rembrandt's profound humanism comes across immediately in "The Age of Rembrandt: Etchings From Holland's Golden Century," at the San Diego Museum of Art. A sequence of his small, emotionally dense portraits opens the show, setting a tone of interior reflection and a standard of sheer visual radiance that remain unmatched among the 13 lesser names and, for the most part, lesser talents included. It's a modest show--just 49 prints in all--of small-sized works, but it illustrates well the styles that prevailed during Rembrandt's lifetime (1606-1669) and how brilliantly he transcended them.

It was through etchings that Rembrandt's fame first spread internationally. Portable and affordable, prints (engravings, primarily) were conventionally made as knockoffs of paintings, a lucrative way to stretch the mileage on a painting commission. Rembrandt invested printmaking with greater import and was seminal in the etching's rise as an expressive, self-sufficient medium. He often printed his etchings in various states, altering and refining them with dry point or engraving to intensify their effect.

This show, organized by the San Diego Museum of Art's Steven Kern, drawing in part from the museum's collection, doesn't dwell on the artist's technical experimentation as much as it surveys the range of themes he explored in the nearly 400 etchings he made in his lifetime.

Only 14 of those prints appear here, but several are stellar examples of his craft and sensibility. A tiny portrait of the artist's mother, presumably in mourning, could fit in the palm of one hand, but evokes a vast sense of emptiness and grief. A neighboring image of preacher Jan Cornelisz Sylvius is similarly concentrated, and webbed to overall darkness with fine crosshatching. The preacher's eyes and brow, however, gleam in that darkness. Their luminosity compels attention, articulating through light the sitter's sensitivity and intellect.

Rembrandt's dramatic use of chiaroscuro--contrast of light and shade--has often been identified as theatrical, and yet it serves more often to illuminate a private reckoning than a public spectacle. There's a great interiority to Rembrandt's portraits that extends, as well, to many of his narrative scenes.

The soulful self-scrutiny that appears to go on in these portraits is matched by Rembrandt's clear-eyed observation of the skin of things. He was honest to a fault, favoring bluntness over flattery. He relished the real thing. "Diana Bathing" is typical of his earthy portrayal of women in the nude. Snubbing the classical ideal, Rembrandt casts his Roman goddess of the hunt as a fairly plain-faced woman, complete with familiar lumps and sags. Whether he's meaning to bring the gods down to Earth or to raise up the human to the level of the divine, the effect is the same--she is an individual who mirrors the viewer's reality.

Rembrandt's attention to particularities gives even his religious images the feel of genre painting. In "Christ Preaching," the divine and the earthly meet again. A diverse group of young and old, upright and stooped encircle Christ, attentive to his words--all but a child in the foreground, who lies on his belly facing away from the orator, drawing in the dust with his finger. He's immersed in an alternate world. Because Rembrandt has drawn each of the members of this small assembly so vividly and variably, it's clear that they too each possess their own world of concern rather than simply standing in as props to reflect the glory of their teacher.

Genre painting came of age in Holland during Rembrandt's time, a period of terrific prosperity. The United Provinces of the Netherlands declared independence from Spain in 1648. At the time, as the show's attractive little catalog points out, Holland was the richest country in Europe and possessed the continent's largest port. The country's middle class had emerged as a formidable constituency, and the art of everyday life enjoyed broad appeal.

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