Visual Arts

Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 15Oct 2011)

Head of Christ

Head of Christ by Rembrandt, as pictured on the museum's website

What they say it is:

According to the Philadelphia Museum of Art website,

This exhibition, the first Rembrandt exhibition in Philadelphia since 1932 and the first ever in the city to include paintings by the Dutch master, reunites the seven paintings of this exceedingly rare and singular series for the first time since 1656. Of these portraits, three are being seen in the United States for the first time. Complemented by more than fifty related paintings, prints, and drawings, Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus allows visitors to consider the religious, historic, and artistic significance of these works. Objects of private reflection for Rembrandt, the paintings in this exhibition bear witness to Rembrandt’s iconoclasm and his search for a meditative ideal.

If I were to summarize my basic feeling toward this exhibit, I expected somewhat more content in a Philadelphia Museum of Art specialty exhibit.  Perhaps I hadn’t done enough preparation for my visit, but I’d assumed there would be more actual Rembrandts on display.  To my disappointment, the show included a significant focus on Rembrandt’s students and contemporaries, coupled with a small number of the master’s own pieces.  I cannot deny that this affected my enjoyment of the exhibit.

This show did allow me to make a personal discovery that I prefer oil paintings much more than sketches and etchings, at least with regard to the museum experience.  The weekend crowds that always accompany a major exhibit made viewing small or draft pieces very challenging, while larger, more complete paintings were much easier to appreciate. 

The many working sketches on display made me feel as though these were included to fill out the smallish show, though the museum was clearly using these to show the evolution of the final product.  I thought that many of the related, complete pieces would have stood on their own without any need for supplementation with working sketches. 

As a non-expert, the framing of the show led me to wonder as to the question of Rembrandt’s ethnic or religious background.  So many of his pieces focused on the Jewish experience, and the exhibit made a point of explaining that Rembrandt lived in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood and used Jewish men as the models for his many portraits of Jesus.  In fact, at the ¾ mark of the exhibit, I finally learned that Rembrandt was Protestant.  Perhaps this is common knowledge and I am merely ignorant, but  I left the show wishing that this information had been presented earlier in the exhibit and saved me several minutes of confusion.  CLAY SAYS....

We attended this exhibit with high hopes, given the typical high quality of the museum’s special programs. I should immediately disclose that Rembrandt is not one of my particularly favorite painters, and we may not have seen this exhibit except for tickets gifted from Tara’s family.  My own tastes lean toward more modern or flamboyant visual art movements (think Pollock, Miro, Picasso, street art) though I definitely appreciate (and often enjoy) the merits of more restrained classical work.

I cannot say I was particularly wowed by this show.  Like Tara, I had no idea that the exhibit included relatively few Rembrandts and focused so heavily on works by his students and other contemporaries.  Drawings and sketches were plentiful, and though I gave it my best shot, I had trouble getting excited over the tiny pencil drawings that led to the development of larger works.  Also on display were several recreations—student copies of masterpiece paintings that are the only remaining vestige of great works by Rembrandt.  Again, sort of neat to look at, but I was privately forcing myself to stay interested in many of the offerings.

This issue of copies raises an interesting question—as non-experts, most of us come to the museum to see Rembrandt not because we understand him, but because we’ve been told (by the experts) to pay attention.  Therefore, I am likely not the first museum visitor to find the copies less-than-thrilling. . . but really, why do I feel this way?  If the title cards were switched, I’d have no way of knowing that a student—not the master—was the creator of a given work.  Yet knowing that I look upon a copy creates in me a phenomenal devaluation of the work’s worth, in spite of my best efforts to ignore the context and focus on the pure “art” before me.  An odd experience, to be sure, and one that I will continue to mull over.

In this case, I am clearly at a disadvantage because my own visual art tastes lie largely elsewhere. I’d probably find the same copies or sketches much more interesting at an exhibit about Warhol or Matisse.  So I don’t want to necessarily damn the exhibit due to personal biases, but I think a potential visitor should be forewarned that the show is largely concerned with Rembrandt’s process and contemporary influence, while including a smallish number of his biblically-inspired works.  The show continues through October 30, so perhaps you’ll want to decide for yourself.

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