Talk about star power! Not since Etre moderne, a “best of MoMA” show that took over the Fondation Louis Vuitton in late 2017 while the iconic New York museum was being renovated, have I experienced such concentrated artistic fame in a standalone exhibition.
The concept is simple: a pair of Spanish and Dutch 17th century masterworks, thematically linked, are placed side by side on each wall, in a kind of Godzilla vs Mothra of Baroque mastery. Some of the pairings show inspired lateral thinking on the part of the curators. Early on, there’s a clean, white Sanraedam church interior, next to a trussed Zurbaran lamb. Later, a pairing of Velazquez and Rembrandt’s self portraits - both stares containing their painter’s characteristic psychological penetration.
Look over there, and it’s Velazquez’s sweaty scene from Vulcan’s Forge, lined up against Rembrandt’s The Syndics. Then there’s my favourite pairing of all, Vermeer’s deceptively quiet View of Houses in Delft next to Velazquez’s movingly carefree Roman scene, View of the Gardens of the Villa Medici.
The show’s two titular artists, the twin peaks of 17th century western art, never met. Both were preoccupied with status. Both employed world-changingly free brush strokes on their subjects. Both of their home nations were embroiled in a financially ruinous war at the time.
But few of these nuances hit home during the exhibition. Instead, the celebrity of these paintings - a mix of the Rijksmuseum’s permanent collection and some spectacular loans, often from the Prado in Madrid, the partner organisation for this exhibition - overwhelmed everything else. Including this viewer’s ability to focus.
Ultimately, the works on show are less in dialogue with each other than with this viewer. Look at us, they say. You’ve seen us before. Aren’t we important?
Rembrandt-Velázquez: Dutch & Spanish Masters is at the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam). October 11 2019 - January 19 2020