Tuesday, November 03, 2009

I saw Peter Greenaway's "Rembrandt's j'accuse" at the Film Forum on Sunday, with Carol. A very interesting (if, perhaps, slightly over-fussy) film, one that does get you thinking about "visual illiteracy" and how much you don't see in paintings.

For those unaware, Greenaway contends that Rembrandt's so-called "Night Watch" contains clues to a contemporary murder conspiracy as well as "naming" those involved. I admit, my first instinct was to fear a Dan Brownian type of overwrought plot but, if he stretches things here and there, he also presents compelling evidence even if I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn of art historians who think he's gotten it entirely wrong.

But by placing the painting in a historical context, that of Dutch group portraits of civilian guards, and pointing out all the "rules" that were broken here, not all simply aesthetic innovations on the part of Rembrandt, Greenaway at least forces the viewer to ask, "Why this?" and to look more closely. Though more (melo)dramatic in its implications, I was reminded of TJ Clark's masterful "The Sight of Death" where he sat with two Poussin paintings for a month, studying them very, very deeply, unearthing relationships that, I daresay, would have bypassed us all had he not spent the time, the brainpower. Here, there are so many oddities, elements that seem inexplicable without reference to events outside the ostensible subject matter of the painting that you almost have to rethink it in some manner, whether or not you buy the murder conspiracy theory. Why the facially hidden figure holding the rifle? Why the hand of a certain individual steadying it for aim? Why are the two females there at all? Other points may or may not be valid, as the humorous contentions of homosexual blandishment via the placement of the spear and the adjacent shadow of the hand (though, in terms of sheer contentious ribaldry, that strikes me as eminently plausible):

Yes, the visuals get a bit annoying, the overlapping scrims, Greenaway himself appearing throughout in a little square mid-picture, etc. Though often, too, via digital manipulation, he's able to isolate elements to make the (his) interpretation all the more clear.

But, more importantly, it makes you want to examine other paintings more closely, imparting the suspicion that you may have been missing a lot all these years. He shows Velazquez' "Surrender at Breda" and, of course, "Las Meninas", both of which have been studied to death but maybe deserve even more insight. I'll be very interested if Greenaway turns his sights there or elsewhere in the future.

Well worth seeing for the art historically inclined...

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