Match-ups of artistic giants have long been a popular theme for major museum shows. Recent years have seen a string of such exhibits, pairing off such artists as Matisse and Picasso, Van Gogh and Gauguin, and Pissarro and Cezanne. The city of Amsterdam is hosting the latest such blockbuster, a side-by-side showing of the works of the 17th Century’s greatest superstars, Rembrandt and Caravaggio. KUOW art critic Gary Faigin has just returned from attending the exhibit, and he found an interesting link to the work of some local artists in what he saw at the show.
There is one crucial difference between the current Rembrandt/Caravaggio show in Amsterdam and previous two-artist exhibitions such as Pissarro/Cezanne, Van Gogh/Gauguin, or Matisse/Picasso. Pissarro and Cezanne actually lived and painted side-by-side, as did Van Gogh and Gauguin, while Matisse and Picasso were rivals and friends for much of their careers. All of them had a well-documented, ongoing dialogue with each other, and our understanding of their work is strengthened by seeing their pictures displayed together.
No such connection can be made between Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio and Rembrandt van Rijn. Not only was Rembrandt only four years old when Caravaggio died in 1610, he never saw any of the Italian artist’s actual paintings. Though Caravaggio started an artistic revolution that made waves throughout Europe, Rembrandt learned about this revolution second-hand from Caravaggio’s Dutch and Flemish followers, artists whose works Rembrandt was personally able to see and appreciate. Like his near-contemporaries Rubens, Velazquez and La Tour, Rembrandt adopted the stylistic traits of the Caravaggisti, using life-size figures, stage lighting, and a cast of street characters, to create gripping, close-up dramas. But since an actual relationship between Rembrandt and Caravaggio was non-existent, an entire show devoted to the subject proves to be a bit of stretch.
Still, the curators have done their best to make up for the weakness of their basic premise by providing an outstanding collection of the two artist’s strongest work, hung in pairs which (mostly) share similar themes or compositions. A lot of institutional muscle must have been expended to achieve all-star match-ups such as the inclusion of both artist’s versions of the "Sacrifice of Abraham," or their naked boy pictures, "Love Triumphant" (Caravaggio) and "The Rape of Ganymede" (Rembrandt). None of these paintings has ever been showed together, and it’s highly edifying to compare the flamboyant, homoerotic Cupid in Caravaggio’s painting with the purposely ugly, urinating, anti-classical toddler being lifted heavenward by an eagle in the adjacent Rembrandt — Italian eroticism and idealization, versus Dutch earthy humor, deflating the pretenses of mythology.
For me, the aha moment came when I encountered the two great dinner table paintings, "Supper at Emmaus" (Caravaggio) and "Belshazzar’s Feast" (Rembrandt). I’d seen both paintings before — they are both in the National Gallery in London — but never side-by-side. Caravaggio’s "Supper" contains some of his most superlative descriptive passages, especially in the painting of the still-life elements such as the food, pottery, and tablecloth, and the torn, projecting shirt on the elbow of the nearest figure. Rembrandt’s tabletop is also brimming with gleaming objects, brilliantly described, and his figures wear clothing heavy with detail. But whereas Caravaggio’s painted surface is enamel smooth and brushstroke-free, Rembrandt has built up parts of his canvas in thick, crusty layers, the jewels and cape of the Babylonian carved out of heavy ridges and slabs of paint like a bas-relief. Though artists previous to him had used impasto in scattered passages, in works like "Belshazzar," Rembrandt explored a completely new way to use paint, seeing it not as merely a tool for creating an illusion of form and light as in Caravaggio, but as a three-dimensional material whose tactile properties a painter might feel free to exploit and explore.
The ultimate expression of Rembrandt’s experiments with paint as material is in the famous "Jewish Bride," here paired meaninglessly with "The Conversion of Magdalene," a painting with which it shares only the same number of figures — two — but little else. In this late Rembrandt, the sleeve of the bridegrooms cloak is built up in a massive array of painted mounds, clots, plateaus and swirls that has thus far baffled experts trying to deduce its process, let alone its purpose. While most of Rembrandt’s paint experiments seemed to produce an increased illusion of the object depicted, here the paint seems to almost be on the verge of having a life of its own, independent of the substance it is meant to depict, celebrating its own materiality.
In the short term, art history belonged to Caravaggio, not Rembrandt. Artists who followed the two giants of the first half of the 17th Century almost all ignored Rembrandt’s rough, dimensional use of paint in favor of Caravaggio’s gleaming illusionism. “Surface,” the actual texture of paint on canvas, was not an important issue in painting until the advent of modern art in the late 19th Century, some three hundred years later. When it did return to artistic consciousness, it did so with a vengeance, as can be seen in thickly-painted, highly textural works by artists like Van Gogh and Monet, artists who were merely the first in a long line of contemporary artists continuing what Rembrandt began.
Modern artists who use thick paint in a relief-like manner generally fall into two categories: those who carve the painted surface to further mimic the subject they are depicting (like the early Rembrandt), and those for whom the actual dimensionality of paint is of interest independent of what is being portrayed (like the late Rembrandt). Here in Seattle, there is no shortage of artists representing both camps — the careful crafting of a complicated paint surface is a feature of much recent work.
One prominent local artist who uses dimensional paint as an illusionistic tool is Robert Helm. Widely known for his modest-sized, surrealistic panels in which birds, rocks, and wood grain figure prominently, Helm relies on trompe l’oeil to further a sense of mystery and contradiction. It’s impossible to tell exactly how he creates his painted surfaces, pitted like the moon in places, polished to a marble sheen elsewhere, and that’s partly the point. Helm, like the early Rembrandt is part painter, part sculptor, with the line of division purposely vague.
No such mystery adheres to the work of Ben Darby, whose work was featured at the now-closed Bryan Ohno Gallery. Darby’s work featured a comic universe of unlikely elements like rubber chickens, silverware, and phalluses. Throwing all subtlety to the winds, many of Darby’s painted elements were actually molded in the paint, raised in relief like so many plastic parts in a ready-to-assemble model making kit, interacting with painted landscape elements which are more conventionally depicted.
As for artists using coagulated, dimensional paint as an expressive element in its own right, two recent shows provide some excellent examples. Mark Takamichi Miller in his recent exhibit at Howard House displayed tiny, cut-out human figures based on found photographs, mounted directly onto the wall. The clotted, wrinkled, tortured-looking paint surface of these miniature figures appeared crushed and distorted, like a rag doll run over by a truck.
Less contorted, but with the oil paint in even higher relief, were the abstractions on view at Francine Seders last month of Olivia Britt. Britt has evolved a technique for creating slabs of pure oil paint inches thick, carved into uneven surfaces like a relief map of the Grand Canyon — here creased like a deep trench, there scooped out like a crater. Other paintings feature pockmarked plains and folded mounds, with each surface set apart by deep color as well as texture.
Art-making methods have become far more various since the long-ago time of Rembrandt and Caravaggio. The fine arts now include such new media as video, photography, and collage. But as Rembrandt himself demonstrated and subsequent generations of artists have reaffirmed, the properties of paint alone — used with freedom and imagination — has a nearly infinite potential to engage the creative mind and hand.