350 years after Rembrandt’s death, the forces of light and dark that he seemed to wrestle with in so much of his work (both literally and metaphorically) seem to be overtly present in our current context. It was with this in mind that I approached the work I produced for the exhibition Rembrandt @ 350, at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, in conjunction with the Netherlands Embassy. Artists were invited to respond to specific work of the Dutch Master and submit for selection. Of the two works I created, one was selected for the exhibition (in my view, the stronger more challenging of the two was omitted). This is the second time I have worked in response to Rembrandt, and it was interesting to me that the work was considerably further removed from the originals in comparison, this time conceptually heavier, driven by the nature of our current context. The exhibition first appeared at National Gallery of Zimbabwe in Harare, and has now travelled to the National Gallery at Bulawayo where it hangs until 20th December. Below are the two works created and the texts that accompanied them.
3rd December 2019
Wrestling with the Darkness
This work considers the small but intense painting, The Raising of the Cross. Rembrandt paints himself participating in one of the most prominent moments of Western texts, an event that simultaneously embodies the inter-related, extreme poles of evil and righteousness. He seems to be wrestling with these forces and it is written into every aspect of the work. He paints an alter-ego, staring out of the space at his actual self – the painter, staring out at the viewer. An acknowledgement of a shared presence, a shared participation, a shared culpability. You, as much as I, have within you the potential for immeasurable harm and immeasurable good. These are our actions, this is our world, this is our darkness, you, and I are part of this great evil, this great sacrifice – you, as much as I, are the reason for this necessity.
Of Rembrandt’s paintings, this composition is perhaps the most striking for its discomfort and unease. It is startling in its tension and its ability to disturb: The weights are not balanced, the diagonals not resolved, the colours disquieting. The figure of Christ appears more human than deity; diminished, undignified. He stares to the void on the left: The past; histories of darkness. This moment is prior to the call to His Father, prior to the Centurion’s piercing, prior to the final tearing of the temple veil. This moment is the embodiment of chaos – the collision of light and dark.
I have chosen to respond significantly larger than the original work, endeavouring to evoke a similar sense of unrest and distress, I hope to have achieved a sense of the immense struggle of Rembrandt. There is little reference to the figurative details of the composition, rather, a consideration of the structure in an attempt to retain the sense of chaos. The materials I employ are those I have been using in recent months. They speak to the matrix that surrounds us; that of control and fragility. This work aims to reflect the great forces at play in our own context. Those forces aiming to wrestle the chaos, the darkness, the despair, into some state of order.
The Redeemer Unseen
This work considers Rembrandt’s Christ on the Cross (1631), a small, very powerful work in which Christ hangs illuminated in the visual and metaphorical darkness. I am captivated by the manner in which Rembrandt strips every extraneous consideration apart from the figure of Christ who seems to have lost connection with the terrestrial context and by virtue of the carefully balanced composition is suspended timelessly, endlessly. His isolation seems absolute, His illumination other-worldly. Unlike The Raising of the Cross, this Christ is deified; transcendent. We do not look from below, as may be expected, but at eye-level with Christ. We are drawn to consider the righteousness of the sacrifice. We are called to confront ourselves and consider, what is the nature of the redeemer. How does this figure confront/transcend the darkness that surrounds him.
I have worked considerably larger than the Rembrandt painting with the intention to draw the spectator into the work – rather than contemplating the sacrifice from afar. The Christ figure is unseen, and a view of the structures underpinning the darkness is visible. The viewer is challenged to consider the nature of these structures and the nature of the darkness itself and how they may respond in their own context. I have employed the materials that have intrigued me in recent months – those that suggest violence, demarcation, protection, division and control, as well as those that evoke aspects of fragility and temporality.
3 Replies to “Rembrandt @ 350”
Thank you for sharing this! I am intrigued by your interpretation of such a biblical subject. Was it purely for the sacrifice,alienation, cruelty of it all? You could’ve chosen other Rembrandt works – how come the religious ones?
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Thanks for reading. I made a speech to the U6 Leavers at the Final Assembly, and it was largely based on my statements above – in fact, my thoughts about both the painting and the speech developed simultaneously (perhaps I will post the speech here). A paragraph reads:
“This is an image based on one of the most prominent and influential moments in all of Western texts, an event that simultaneously embodies the extreme poles of evil and righteousness. Rembrandt chose this moment to divulge an element of profound understanding. He was not known to be particularly religious, nor is our own belief relevant for the purposes of this speech. But we can take as the foundation of the image, the idea contained in the story, that Jesus Christ, who was wholly good, was sacrificed in atonement for the evil of humankind.”
I found the work best elucidated the ideas of good and evil because of the nature of Jesus as described by the biblical texts – he represents the highest order of good that we may strive for – removing the Christ figure from the second painting allows us to focus on a one-sided view of the world. Perhaps my using it was fairly literal or obvious, but it established a context. The alienation and cruelty are factors, but they are heightened in the context of this particular sacrifice.
They are also particularly beautiful paintings.
Thanks for the comment!
Your verbal interpretations are moving and lucid- and your art interpretation is tenderly yet savagely powerful…. Thank you! Oh, this makes me yearn to view the original Rembrandt paintings “in the flesh” and with eyes full of wonder…. Thank you Greg.