August 2006

Arts & Letters

Rembrandt 1606–1669: From the Prints and Drawings Collection

By Justin Clemens
NGV International, to 24 September

In the late sixteenth century, the Dutch – inhabitants of a derisory artificial country – started to punch seriously above their weight. While beating off Nature, the Hapsburgs and the Pope, ardent Calvinists went on a creative rampage, transforming the political and intellectual character of the age. The arriviste republic spawned many noted scientists, philosophers, generals – and artists, of which Rembrandt was, of course, one of the greatest. You get a sense of this from the exhibition of his works now quietly on display in the NGV’s modest Robert Raynor Gallery. Inadequately publicised on account of the hyper-hyped Picasso blockbuster, which has sucked resources from other NGV departments like an insatiable vampire, the Rembrandt show is nonetheless – dare I say it? – “world-class”, as befits a four-hundredth birthday celebration (the big day was 15 July).

Despite their military success, the Dutch were thoroughly business-minded – why hoard arms when you can make more money selling them to your enemies? – and they had a penchant for dressing, posing and being depicted with the new goods their trading empire obtained. Mirrors, along with images of all kinds, spread through their homes. Rembrandt fed off this epoch-making narcissism like a vulture on carrion. He was obsessed by the human figure, including his own; in his self-portraits, he posed for himself as if he were someone else, simultaneously artist and patron, fabricator and flesh. This imposture was achieved not by landscape or social setting, but by the endlessly fascinating play of variegated dress. Hats, ruffs, sashes, cuffs, tassels, buttons and mantles, in all states of magnificence and decrepitude, populate his works.

Rembrandt wanted viewers to know how inventive he was, right down to the materials and techniques he used. As the art historian Svetlana Alpers notes, “in his notorious reworking of etchings through a number of states, he called attention to invention as a process.” Rembrandt’s works, then, reduce their human subjects to the effects of fancy-dress routines, often printed on very nice paper.

Justin Clemens

Justin Clemens writes about contemporary Australian art and poetry. He teaches at the University of Melbourne.

Cover: August 2006

August 2006

From the front page

Image from ‘Her Smell’

Toronto International Film Festival 2018 (part two)

The ordinary and the extraordinary at this year’s event, and the perils of criticism

Image from ‘The Harp in the South’

‘The Harp in the South’ at Sydney Theatre Company

Kate Mulvany’s adaptation proves that Ruth Park’s epic endures

Guthrie gone

The ABC’s future will now be a front-and-centre election issue

Feeding the Muppets

What does the Morrison government have to offer in terms of serious policy?


In This Issue

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Situation ethics

God save his soul

The Sleepy Jackson’s ‘Personality: One Was a Spider, One Was a Bird’

A word from Deakin

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

The view from the bridge


More in Noted

‘Less’ by Andrew Sean Greer

The Pulitzer Prize–winning novel is an engaging story of love and literary misadventure

Hannah Gadsby: ‘Nanette’

Believe the hype about the Tasmanian comedian’s Netflix special

Cover of A Sand Archive

‘A Sand Archive’ by Gregory Day

Day grasps landscape as an intimate living thing

Cover of The Lebs

‘The Lebs’ by Michael Mohammed Ahmad

A fresh perspective on Muslim youth in Sydney’s west


Read on

Image from ‘Her Smell’

Toronto International Film Festival 2018 (part two)

The ordinary and the extraordinary at this year’s event, and the perils of criticism

Image from ‘The Harp in the South’

‘The Harp in the South’ at Sydney Theatre Company

Kate Mulvany’s adaptation proves that Ruth Park’s epic endures

Feeding the Muppets

What does the Morrison government have to offer in terms of serious policy?

Paul Feig’s sophisticated ‘A Simple Favour’

This camp study of sociopathy is far from simple


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