“There’s never a bad time to pull out the old masters,” says Dr Petra Kayser, the curator of prints and drawings at the NGV. And one of those masters will be taking centre stage at the gallery again, for the first time in a generation.
Largely regarded as the most important artist in Dutch history, and one of the greatest in the world, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn is estimated to have produced at least 300 paintings, 300 etchings and 2000 drawings in his lifetime. Now his life and work are being celebrated in the NGV’s newest exhibition – the most comprehensive showing of his work in Australia since the gallery’s last major Rembrandt exhibition 25 years ago.
Rembrandt: True to Life shows the evolution of his talents over four decades – from his early years in Leiden in the 1620s, to his move to Amsterdam in the 1630s, when he was at the height of his success, until his bankruptcy in the 1650s. The exhibition starts and ends with two of the artist’s paintings to show the full scope and timeline of his career, which the NGV’s collection naturally lent itself to.
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“We’ve got a really great, comprehensive print collection, and we’ve got two Rembrandt paintings in the NGV, a very early painting and a very late painting,” Kayser says. “So we’re kind of bracketing [his career], starting with the early works, and then the late works at the end. And in between we’ve got all the prints to show his work in the 30 to 40 years defined between those paintings.”
More than 100 of those prints are displayed, made from Rembrandt’s original etchings. A form of printmaking that originated in the 16th century, etching is a much lighter and faster process than traditional engraving, allowing for more fluid and spontaneous designs. However, artists in the 17th century had yet to truly use this advantage, sticking to linear patterns – until Rembrandt.
He pushed the medium beyond what had been done before, creating incredibly detailed self-portraits, nudes, biblical depictions and landscapes. For the exhibition, the prints are organised by theme to highlight Rembrandt’s skills across a range of styles.
“It’s thematic, because most artists in 17th century Holland specialised,” says Kayser. “They were landscape painters and portrait painters and painters with everyday life, and Rembrandt does all of those. So [it shows] the breadth of his work and the way it develops.”
Displayed alongside the prints are some of Rembrandt’s most notable paintings, including his Self-Portrait from 1659, on loan from Washington DC's National Gallery of Art, as well as portraits borrowed from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Louvre in Paris.
In the middle of the exhibition is a re-creation of Rembrandt’s “cabinet of curiosities”. Having never traveled outside the Netherlands, the artist brought the world into his home, amassing an enormous collection of art, artefacts, and natural objects sourced from across the globe. A room in his house was devoted to displaying the items, which included shells, corals, Chinese porcelain, Greek busts, helmets and swords, which he used for inspiration.
Kayser has curated an impressive re-creation, filling a glass cabinet with items from the NGV’s own collection and from the Melbourne Museum, including a 180-million-year-old ammonite fossil.
It’s an eye-catching centrepiece in a space that’s otherwise minimalistic. The exhibition is pared back and intimate, with dark walls and dimmed lighting inviting visitors to lean in and view the intricate details of Rembrandt’s prints and paintings up close. There’s also a practical reason for the stark, dramatic backdrop.
“Because prints are light sensitive, you can only exhibit them for a few months at a time, and then they have to be put away for a few years,” says Kayser. “Because we’re custodians of this work, we have to ensure that it’s well-kept and it doesn’t deteriorate. They’ve survived for 350 years – we want them to last another 350 and beyond.”
Rembrandt: True to Life runs at the NGV from June 2 to September 10, 2023. Admission fees apply.
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