“A painting by Rembrandt not only stops the time that made the subject flow into the future, but makes it flow back to the remotest ages.”
- Jean Genet: a French novelist, playwright, poet, essayist and political activist.
One of the most influential and innovative artists of all time, Rembrandt (1606 – 1669), a 17th century Dutch painter and etcher, was one of the prime movers of the Dutch Golden Age of Art, and was arguably unrivalled in his portraits, biblical themed illustrations as well as the usage of lights and shadows. His artistry was popular since his early years but he was also much sought after as a teacher and took in about 50 students over his lifetime, some of whom went on to achieve considerable repute.
Though he is renowned for many of his works, including superlative ones like 'The Storm on the Sea of Galilee', 'Danaë' and 'The Return of the Prodigal Son', his most famous painting is the 'Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq', better known as 'The Night Watch' (1642). Owned today by the Amsterdam Museum and on permanent loan to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, it was commissioned by Captain Frans Banning Cocq as well as Willem van Ruytenburch (his lieutenant) along with sixteen other members of their Schutterij (citizen militia).
It was a revolutionary painting for its time in that it transformed the concept of an otherwise orthodox group portrait into one bustling with action. It is almost as if the characters might, at any moment, jump out into the real world. As a visual, it is a grand spectacle that originally filled a humongous canvas of 13 by 16 feet, but was unfortunately trimmed in the 18th century, possibly in order for it to fit the space between two columns. But even the truncated version is a riot of lights and colours, which are sharply contrasted by shadows.
To get a sense of the powerful visual impact of the painting, watch this video where a flash-mob recreates The Night Watch in a mall to celebrate the painting's return to the Rijksmuseum, post an extensive renovation of the museum.
Ironically the name is mostly a misnomer. While the 'watch' is highly debatable as it is unclear as to where the militia is headed, the 'night' is definitely incorrect. The painting had layers of grime covering it over hundreds of years, so the assumption was that it was a night scene and nicknamed thus. But restoration threw light on the matter, turning night into the actual day that Rembrandt had set his action in over three centuries back.
Interestingly, it is thought that the painting was a failure and led to the artist's ultimate decline, which is apocryphal since the work was a tremendous success since its very beginning. It was more likely that it was Rembrandt's style that was slowly being overshadowed by the new art genres.
The Night Watch was a masterpiece in its time and continues to have a rich legacy even in the 21st century, having inspired generations of artists, across forms, including classical as well as rock musicians, writers, and of course film-makers.
One of the screen earliest depictions of the painting is in the 1936 biopic “Rembrandt”, while Jean-Luc Godard made use of it in his film “Passion” (1982), where the painting is enacted by actors in one of the scenes. In the movie Godard asks the viewers to focus on the faces of the actors and not the composition, similar to what they would have done with a painting of Rembrandt. It was a visual delight, winning the Technical Grand Prize for cinematography at Cannes.
“Night Watch” (1995) is a made for television film by David Jackson that stars Pierce Brosnan and Alexandra Paul, who play UN agents sent to investigate the theft of the artwork which leads them to a series of art forgeries.
As a digression: Rembrandt's paintings were extensively forged, including by his own students as practise and otherwise, leading to art historian and curator, Wilhelm von Bode, to state,
“Rembrandt painted 700 pictures. Of these, 3,000 are still in existence.”
A brilliant must-watch is “Nightwatching” (2007) by Peter Greenaway, which is about the artist and his art. The film depicts that Rembrandt was aware of a murder conspiracy within the group being painted, and used subtle symbolism to depict the same. It also focuses on parts of his personal life including on his relationships. The movie premièred in competition at the Venice Film Festival.
A year later, Greenaway made a documentary, “Rembrandt's J'Accuse” (2008) where he explains the murder conspiracy and the possible motives for the same through 34 supposed allegoric secrets portrayed in the paintings, which are shown by corresponding scenes from his feature film. He is also critical of the general disinterest and ignorance for the visual arts, which he terms visual illiteracy.
It is however difficult for all but a few to truly appreciate a masterpiece like The Night Watch, especially since it is so symbolic. This requires, at the very least, a basic knowing of the language of the visual arts as well as history. And so by viewing films like the above, we can use one visual medium to transcend our limited understanding of another. And that, amongst many others, is the power of Cinema.
“The best history is but like the art of Rembrandt; it casts a vivid light on certain selected causes, on those which were best and greatest; it leaves all the rest in shadow and unseen.”
- Walter Bagehot: a British essayist and journalist.
Do you agree that cinema can be a medium that can help connect an individual to more supposedly esoteric art forms like paintings? Tell us in the comments below...