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

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg

Cold comfort

The Morrison government gave us a recession we didn’t have to have

What elitism looks like

Flagrant conflicts of interest abound at the top

Image of Guy Sebastian and Prime Minister Scott Morrison, June, 2020

And now for something completely indifferent

The Morrison government is yet to fully realise that sidelining the arts hurts the economy

Image of Anne Ferran, Scenes on the Death of Nature I, 1986

‘Know My Name’ at the National Gallery of Australia

An exhilarating exhibition considers a persistent gender bias in the visual arts


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’
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

A word from Deakin

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

The view from the bridge


More in Noted

Image of ‘Jack’

‘Jack’ by Marilynne Robinson

History and suffering matter in the latest instalment of the American author’s Gilead novels

Image from ‘The Dry’

‘The Dry’ directed by Robert Connolly

Eric Bana stars as a troubled investigator dragged back to his home town in a sombre Australian thriller

Image of ‘The Living Sea of Waking Dreams’

‘The Living Sea of Waking Dreams’ by Richard Flanagan

The Booker Prize winner’s allegorical new novel about the permanence of loss

Image from ‘Kajillionaire’

‘Kajillionaire’ directed by Miranda July

A family of con artists are the American writer-director’s latest offbeat protagonists in a surreal but heartfelt film


Read on

What elitism looks like

Flagrant conflicts of interest abound at the top

Image of Anne Ferran, Scenes on the Death of Nature I, 1986

‘Know My Name’ at the National Gallery of Australia

An exhilarating exhibition considers a persistent gender bias in the visual arts

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison

Morrison’s climate flip

Australia has a lot of catching up to do on emissions reduction

Image of album artwork for Brazen Hussies soundtrack

Song sisters

The soundtrack to documentary ‘Brazen Hussies’ shows a breadth of feeling about women’s liberation in Australia


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