After a previous failed attempt to see the Dutch Masters exhibition at the Frick, I finally got in. Yay! The show is now closed, and the magnificent loans from the the Mauritshuis are probably on their way back to their motherland of the Netherlands.
Like most visitors that afternoon, I took some time after taking in the Dutch show to view the permanent collection at the Frick. And why not? It’s extraordinary. I myself never feel completely comfortable in the Frick because it’s a mansion preserved in its original state rather than a true museum space, and I prefer museum spaces. I like “museumy” museums, it’s just a predilection I have. This is by no means a major issue. It just throws me off a little to view an artwork, step back several feet to get a better perspective, and bump into a dining room table. Looking at art at the Frick means having to navigate furniture, and personally I’d rather not.
While the visiting show presented an amazing Rembrandt, an even more impressive Rembrandt (in my opinion) could be found in a nearby gallery room. This work, a self-portrait created in 1658, stunned me more than any other painting into realizing once and for all that some works of art just HAVE to be seen in person. We all understand that great works of art lose precious ethereal qualities when viewed in digital form. Not even things like the Google Art Project and its high resolutions and dazzling zoom features can duplicate the experience of seeing a painting physically before our eyes. I can’t pinpoint the precise “lost” quality. Sure, it could be the brush strokes, the paint layering, the scale of the work, or the authentic color “in the flesh” – all things that are compromised on our computer screens. I’m inclined to believe that it has something to do with light; I mean the glints of real life light bouncing off the canvas and dotting the paint formations. You turn your head a bit, and it changes. You move a little to the left or right, and it changes. No photograph can replicate those nuances.
Here is the Rembrandt self-portrait that blew me away. This work, in person, commands the room and transfixes the viewer in a way I can’t accurately describe. He was there – right there – draped in 17th century attire, looking a bit weary but not melancholy, long past youthfulness but not beaten, surviving bankruptcy, but still a man of the Dutch Golden Age, a reddish mark on his cheek, his eyes gentle, plaintive, and a touch somber, yet he is also confrontational. A master handler of paint, Rembrandt never overlooked the humanity, the the tattered or triumphant soul of his subjects, himself included. This man here seems to be telling us his life story. Carrying burdens, but coping with them. I’ve been on a journey, he says. I am a man of my times. God bless Rembrandt. Seriously. I couldn’t tear myself away from this painting, and I was not alone in my admiration that afternoon at the Frick.
How Rembrandt achieved the visual effects he did are of enormous interest to artists, and justifiably so. Scraping into the paint with the end of his brush handle, wiping off glazes right after they were applied, adept manipulation of transparency and opacity, mixing in crushed broken glass – whatever it took to create the desired effect, Rembrandt tried it. He was not strictly married to any one approach, and that certainly allowed him the freedom to get it ‘right”. And yet, none of his technical innovations or experiments would matter one bit if he hadn’t possessed a profound empathy for and perception of the human condition. To be a gifted skillmaster isn’t enough, as I discussed in my post about Mozart. Because skill doesn’t amount to anything if you have nothing to express.
I encourage you all to visit the Frick artwork page for this piece which includes a curatorial narration. And to anyone who plans to visit the Frick, go see this painting. Just go. That’s an order! 🙂