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

The NBN-ding story

New developments in the interminable debate over broadband in Australia

‘The weekend’ cover

‘The Weekend’ by Charlotte Wood

The Stella Prize–winner returns with a stylish character study of women surprised by age

Penthouse magazine cover Aug 1993

Tasteful sexuality

An oral history of the Warwick & Joanne Capper ‘Penthouse’ shoot

Rhetoric vs reality

The government has no agenda for addressing the worsening economy


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

‘The weekend’ cover

‘The Weekend’ by Charlotte Wood

The Stella Prize–winner returns with a stylish character study of women surprised by age

‘Act og Grace’ cover

‘Act of Grace’ by Anna Krien

The journalist’s propulsive debut novel tackles the aftermath of the Iraq War

‘Here Until August’

‘Here Until August’ by Josephine Rowe

The Australian author’s second short-story collection focuses on the precipice of change rather than its culmination

Image of ‘The Godmother’

‘The Godmother’ by Hannelore Cayre

A sardonic French bestseller about a godmother, in the organised crime sense of the word


Read on

Image from ‘Judy’

Clang, clang, clang: ‘Judy’

The Judy Garland biopic confuses humiliation for homage

Image of Joel Fitzgibbon and Anthony Albanese

Climate of blame

Labor runs the risk of putting expediency over principle

Afterwards, nothing is the same: Shirley Hazzard

On the splendour of the acclaimed author’s distinctly antipodean seeing

We will not be complete

The time for convenient denial of Australia’s brutal history is past


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