The North Carolina Art Museum is currently exhibiting a large collection of Rembrandt (and pseudo-Rembrandt) paintings under the collective title Rembrandt in America. The focus of the exhibit is on the history of collecting Rembrandt’s works in the US and the difficulty of proper attribution of some of the works. So of course being the kind of nerd I am, I had to go see.
I was less interested in the collecting history than I was in simply seeing Rembrandt’s work up close. Not a huge fan of his work, but there’s no denying his talent and skill. I can certainly admire what he accomplished, commercially as well as artistically. I was also fascinated by the attribution issue, and I thought the exhibit did a nice job of pointing out differences, similarities and reasons for the misattributions. (Although there was one painting in particular, The Feast of Esther, that I don’t know how could ever have been thought to be Rembrandt. I mean, really. Colors! Rembrandt’s palette was uniformly muted to my, admittedly uneducated, eye.)
I came away from the exhibit with more appreciation for Rembrandt and a great love for the detail and personality he was able to put into formal portraits. I especially adore the wrinkles around the eyes. I’m drawn to eyes anyway, and details like that just enhance what I like about eyes. Take the self portrait above. You can’t see it in the tiny little flattened out image, but the eyes are fantastic.
I also left with thoughts on the presentation of art in general. I love museums of all kinds, and I prefer art to be public access rather than holed up in private collections, although I own enough small pieces of original art to understand the desire to collect. I don’t know that if I came across a Picasso or something, I would feel right keeping it to myself. Not to denigrate her work, but Alison Overton is not Picasso. So maybe that makes a difference.
Anyway, that wasn’t my point. I didn’t have any problem with how the Rembrandt stuff was presented, and I can even forgive them for not focusing on the art itself. What I took issue with was the assembly line feel. You could either rent a prerecorded audio guide or download an MP3 of the guide. I did neither. I probably will snag the download at some point and listen just to put order to what I saw. But I disliked that everyone basically lined up and moved along the exhibit just like they were being told to by the audio guide. I sort of followed the line, but I wandered because if something caught my eye, I went and looked at it. The guided tour is fine, but it was constricting. Obviously, if you’re interested in the history of an artist’s work, you sort of want that timeline to follow. I didn’t like the shoehorning of the crowd. Maybe I just didn’t like the crowd. Maybe it’s just because I’m creatively inclined. (I always hesitate to call myself an artist for whatever reason.) A responsible curator should absolutely hang work in a sensible way. There’s nothing wrong with such a structured exhibit. The sense of being bound to that structure was unpleasant, however.
So we’re force feeding art now? Line ’em up, move ’em in, move ’em out. Really? Whatever the purpose of the exhibit, the purpose of displaying art at all is not to cookie cutter people’s perceptions of it. Let’s say I want to create a collection of my photos on Flickr based on color. Here’s a red, a green, a blue, whatever. I can curate the order; I can write up a little tour guide, but I can’t dictate the way a viewer wanders the collection. Why should I? Even if a million people all like the same thing, there are just as many reasons for their liking that thing.
Rembrandt in America is a scholar’s exhibit, really, and an excellent one, but for pure appreciation of a master’s work, skip the history lesson and wander. Knowledge is fine, but wisdom is only gained when you move away from the lesson.