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4/4/2019 Rijksmuseum: All the Rembrandts review – human chaos made glorious | Art and design | The Guardian

All the Rembrandts review human chaos made


glorious
Rijksmuseum, AmsterdamFrom a child’s tottering first steps to Amsterdam’s answer to Dad’s
Army, this epic exhibition shows the Dutch master’s extraordinary humanity and lust for life

Jonathan Jones
Fri 15 Feb 2019 10.21 GMT

I
n front of Rembrandt van Rijn’s huge painting The Night Watch, people chat, squat, walk
about and joke, showing nothing like the hushed silence exacted by other world-famous
masterpieces. For this is a comic work of art. You’re allowed to laugh – it’s hilarious. The
citizen militia company of Amsterdam’s Second District, gathered for their official group
portrait in 1642, crowd into the picture, get their hands in front of each other’s faces, even
fire off a gun by accident. Others look off in all directions, wave banners clumsily and get their
pikes in a twist.

The glorious human disorder of Rembrandt’s incomparable anti-history painting is revealed in a


new light by the Rijksmuseum’s All the Rembrandts, a subtle and awe-inspiring exhibition for his
350th anniversary. That disorder spreads from gormless lumpen faces into the work’s very
structure. Behind the brightly illuminated figures of Captain Cocq and Lieutenant Ruytenburch,
their men are arranged in the kind of grand pyramid beloved of formal classical artists. But
Rembrandt has composed this pyramid only to subvert it. Everywhere you look, harmony is
collapsing into chaos.

It says a lot of a country when its most celebrated work of art is such a rollicking celebration of the
mixed stuff of humanity. The Night Watch has pride of place in Holland’s Rijksmuseum. To mark
the 350 years since his death in 1669, the museum has also dug out every other Rembrandt it owns
– paintings, drawings and etchings – in a show that amplifies and to some degree explains the joy
of The Night Watch.

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4/4/2019 Rijksmuseum: All the Rembrandts review – human chaos made glorious | Art and design | The Guardian

Raunchy red … The Jewish Bride, circa 1665. Photograph: Carola van
Wijk

Rembrandt was unquestionably one of the world’s most accomplished painters. You only have to
gaze at the massed layers of effulgent colouring on his sumptuous canvas The Jewish Bride, with
its sensual meeting of arousing gold and raunchy red, to know that. Is he also a draughtsman and
etcher of supreme skill? The proof is abundant throughout this show in a vast unfolding of his
works on paper. No one has ever drawn life more brilliantly that Rembrandt does in – for instance
sketch of a small child learning to walk. His etching technique is so fine that his prints are just like
drawings, with the added impact of massed ink that can create even more dramatic shadows than
his paintings do.

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4/4/2019 Rijksmuseum: All the Rembrandts review – human chaos made glorious | Art and design | The Guardian

Entire presence … Sitting by a Window, circa 1638. Photograph:


Hofstede de Groot, Den Haag

Yet it is the emotional intelligence of Rembrandt that is incomparable. He was an expressionist


250 years before expressionism. It doesn’t matter if he is painting on a grand scale or etching on a
tiny square of paper. The medium is not the message. With Rembrandt, the message is the
message – and it melts your heart.

He never stopped seeing the pain all around him. That’s the great revelation of his etchings. In his
prints he could show the uncomfortable realities his rich clients would rather not see. In a
particularly devastating array of graphic works, he draws the street people of Amsterdam. Just
like his bigger, painted portraits, they make you feel the entire presence of a fellow human being.

It’s uneasy and shocking to move from these proletarian portraits to his great painting The
Sampling Officers of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild (The Syndics). This is a portrait of well-heeled,
authority-wielding men. They look back at you with austere probity. By the time Rembrandt
painted these pillars of society in 1662 he himself was an outcast, a bankrupt on the skids. The
Syndics seem to be judging him, and us. They despise the human mess of our lives.

Rembrandt’s landscapes are another of this show’s de-centring moves. Setting his graphic works
next to his paintings uncovers how much time he spent ruminating in the countryside around
Amsterdam, drawing deliberately eccentric bucolic scenes. He painted very few landscapes in oils,
but this exhibition proves him one of the greatest of landscapists. And a very modern one.

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4/4/2019 Rijksmuseum: All the Rembrandts review – human chaos made glorious | Art and design | The Guardian

L:ove of the unpolished … Nude Woman Resting on a Cushion, circa


1658. Photograph: Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

The same love of the unpolished that makes his landscapes so tender creates erotic electricity in a
room that is labelled “Intimate”. Rembrandt’s nudes are real people and all the sexier for it. The
model in his drawing Nude Woman Seated by a Fire looks a bit uncomfortable being drawn – and
cold, hence the fire. He honestly shows all this. But his lust for life sings across the centuries.

And so you come out, dazzled, and take all these images of the raw, the cosy, the adoring and the
pitying to The Night Watch. It has never looked greater than it does when you’ve had your eyes
opened, by this exhibition, to the poverty and wealth of being human.

• At the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, until 10 June (ticketed entry)

Topics
Rembrandt
reviews

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