19 January 2012

My Thoughts on Rembrandt

Earlier this fall, I recommended the Rembrandt exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The exhibition included lots of prints and drawings, but I thought the most exciting parts were a series of Rembrandt's painting sketches and his painting Supper at Emmaus. I saw the exhibition three times. It was a real treat, and it definitely gave me many things to think about in my studio lately. On my second visit, I spent the whole time looking at Supper at Emmaus from 1648 (pictured right), which I believe is on loan from the Louvre. (The last time I spent time with a Rembrandt painting was in 2009 at the Uffizi in Florence, when I studied his Self Portrait as an Old Man.)

I found Supper at Emmaus to be moving. Actually, it's the most incredible painting I've looked at in a while. *I wanted to post on this specifically because of a revelation I had right after studying Supper at Emmaus. It wasn't a unique experience, per se, but it's something I have been thinking about often since it happened. I shared this story with my workshop participants last week in Sedona, and I also wanted to share it with you.

As you wandered out at the end of the Rembrandt exhibit, you had to exit through the gift shop area. I glanced around for a reproduction of Supper at Emmaus. There were a lot of options -- cards, prints, books, calendars, pens, aprons, etc. I looked at everything, but didn't wind up buying anything because I was so struck by the inaccurate (just about awful) reproductions of Supper at Emmaus. And because I had just studied the painting for a couple of hours, I could see exactly everything that was "off" about them.

Right away when I got back to my studio, I looked for an image of Supper at Emmaus online. Not surprisingly, I found at least six different "versions" of the image (see left). And, sure enough, they were all "wrong" to me. Wrong color, wrong light, wrong contrast, wrong atmosphere, etc. (I'll save for another time a conversation about how my perceived color and visual experience is probably different than yours... :)

This is not a new conversation, and I know there is value in the notion that seeing "something" is better than seeing "nothing" when you're talking about art and reproductions. Certainly, I consider this every time I post the image of a new painting of mine online. But this was the first time in a long time that I saw an actual painting (other than my own) and its reproduction practically simultaneously.

This experience just reminded me of how important it is to see artwork in person. Of course, my vivid memory and visual understanding of Supper at Emmaus is already fading. I have some notes on it, but, really, it's fading fast. The reproductions are starting to look less wrong to me -- or at least, I can't as quickly point out exactly what's wrong about them. Maybe eventually, one or two of the reproductions might even look "right" to me. But what's interesting and lovely about the whole thing is that I will always remember the shocking feeling and the absolute clarity I had when I saw the reproduction just seconds after the real thing was imprinted in my mind. In a way, the reproduction is now a catalyst that will always bring me back to the experience of studying the real thing.

My point in bringing all this up is to remind myself (and maybe you) how the physical presence of a painting can be so moving, and how complicated it is that a lot of the art we see today is only viewed online or in books. So much of the importance and content of a painting is not found in the image or subject matter, but in the texture, atmosphere, gesture, mark-making, smell, weight, thickness, layering, sensitivity, and... humanity.

I hope that viewing paintings online or in books encourages in you a genuine curiosity and connection - that perhaps moves you enough to go see it in person or, if possible, have it in your home.

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