Remembering Rembrandt

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photo by Reinoud Kaasschieter

As one of the shining beacons in the cultural landscape of the Netherlands, Baroque master Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn is celebrated not only in the country of his origin but all over the world. With this in mind it is therefore little wonder that the show stopping star attraction of Amsterdam’s newly reopened Rijksmuseum is Rembrandt’s virtuoso masterpiece The Night Watch (1642).

Dominating the room both in terms of its size and also its sheer presence the piece dwarfs all other works in its vicinity. Like a black hole the painting almost seems to suck all the life-force that is around it, drawing one deep into its chiaroscuro milieu. The painting takes the form of a group portrait of militiamen and is officially titled The Company of Captain Banning Cocq. It is generally accepted that the painting portrays the company in the process of setting out on a march, and this dynamic crystallising of such a fleeting moment is uncannily relational to the effect that photography achieves; the painting’s unrehearsed spontaneous nature can be regarded as highly visionary in its abandonment of the static and the uniform for the fluid and the free-form. The group are presented not as a well oiled, well drilled company but as a rabble. Instead of cohesion there is fragmentation, and it is this fragmentary quality that makes it seem so very modern.
Just as it may be seen to share traits with the medium of photography, The Night Watch may also be seen to chime with cinema in terms of its stylistic manipulations of light. In cinema generally, and in particular Hollywood, it is common practice to use studio lighting for means of a greater control over the image and to achieve a certain dramatic effect. Film Noir is a good example of this as these films employ stark lighting which juxtaposes against areas of darkness, and this creates the same sort of effect as elicited with the chiaroscuro arrangement in the painting.
Old Hollywood also frequently employed ‘star lighting’, meaning a technique whereby a more central character would often be illuminated with a high key light which resulted in there being a certain glow to the frame, whilst the more peripheral characters however are presented in a more muted and understated light to mark their being of lesser importance. This same selectiveness to the lighting scheme is also at work in The Night Watch, as some men’s faces are thrown into more light than others; there is one girl for instance who is depicted in a bleached glow that seems to strike a parallel with the as mentioned star lighting of Hollywood cinema. It is such a frivolous handling of the subject matter coupled with the uncannily cinematic shaping of light that makes The Night Watch truly Avant-garde.
As a result of the work’s enduring appeal it has been subject to multiple and multifarious reproductions, becoming a genuinely transnational image. One of the first of these reproductions is an oil painting by Gerritt Lundens, a meticulous rendering that actually hangs right alongside the original. Dated from only slightly later than the original it was clearly painted by the human hand. However, despite this distinctly corporeal quality it arguably lacks any true degree of authenticity. As the philosopher Walter Benjamin remarked in his landmark essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, ‘the whole sphere of authenticity is outside technical…reproducibility. Confronted with its manual reproduction, which was usually branded as a forgery, the original preserved all its authority’. In this instance the ‘forgery’ is that of Lunden’s painting, whose presence next to The Night Watch has as much of a sense of imposition and weightiness as a garden shrub would do if placed alongside a Giant Redwood.
This process of reproduction also serves to endanger the very nature of the original work entirely when considering mechanical reproduction and the medium of photography. The Night Watch is a painting which has been seemingly endlessly replicated photographically, often for the purpose of being printed in books. What is arguably lacking in these replications is any ‘aura’, as it is Benjamin’s belief that ‘that which withers in the age of mechanical reproductions is the aura of the work of art’. What was noticeable was that many people when looking at the painting in the museum were looking through a lens, perhaps in an attempt to ‘capture’ the work for themselves permanently. However, this process of a capturing and preserving of the painting that the camera seemingly facilitates may actually be regarded as superficial as according to Benjamin: ‘By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence’.
With the manual reproduction by Lundens however it could be argued that there is still a degree of uniqueness to the work as it is in actuality a copy of the pieces state at its very inception. As the painting’s caption explains, The Night Watch was trimmed down for means of transit to Amsterdam Town hall and the cut strips were not preserved, and therefore in one sense in restoring the original composition of The Night Watch it is perversely almost more authentic and illuminating than the cropped original. What is being alluded to here is that this process of reproduction needn’t result in a cheap, ersatz rendering of the original, rather with the correct sort of appropriation a trace element of the work’s ‘aura’ or essence can in fact be maintained and celebrated.
This sense of celebration is displayed with the site specific phenomenon of a flash mob performance that acted out The Night Watch in a shopping centre, and it is a shining example of re-situating the work outside of the gallery confines both in a bid to democratise and enliven the painting for a wider audience. This flash mob event was staged to coincide with the promotion of the Rijksmuseum’s reopening, and it is just such ostentatious cause célèbre events that will personally ensure that the aura of Rembrandt’s masterpiece shall not wither and die but instead continue to burn brightly for centuries to come.