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sexta-feira, setembro 07, 2007

Peter Greenaway on Nightwatching

"Four ideas about Rembrandt, couched almost as questions, were germinal to NIGHTWATCHING, and I suppose I have been thinking about them, on and off, ever since I was at art school in the mid-sixties, when Rembrandt’s reputation was unassailable amongst my lecturers. The ideas could be summarised under the headings of money, sex, conspiracy and the very condition of painting. The first question is social, the second question voyeuristic, the third question is intellectual, and the fourth question is philosophical, and probably, though a general public might not see it as such, the last question is the most important.

The first question is how could so seriously rich and respected a painter in mid-life, end his life in penury? The second, what was the significance and influence of the three different women in Rembrandt’s life, and with a painter whose insight into character and an inner life is considered so relevant, how did his private domestic life influence his painting? The third question is how do we hope to find a way to understand the Nightwatch with its many curious visual anecdotes, unexplained activities, breaks with traditions and the persistent and prevalent sensation that we are being told something, but we do not know quite what?
And finally, the last question - and that is - what in fact does painting do? And of course such a question is also relevant to cinema. What is fact does cinema do?

If we visit each question again. It is difficult to understand why a man so rich - considered to be a guilder millionaire in the 1640s, with all the trappings of fortune - big house, smart, good family wife, large atelier, many pupils, printing shop - should end up so badly. Financial mismanagement surely cannot entirely be blamed. There are no records of real wanton spending or abject drunkenness, and his output was continuous and prolific, even after the bankruptcy declaration. Rembrandt would have had to squander money very vigourously to be so high and then fall so low, and there is no evidence. Many have blamed political and social change economically altering the market, but other painters did not fail, and the success of the Dutch painting school continued to develop for another generation until the French marched into Holland in 1674. Some have blamed a change in artistic fashion - a move towards more Italianate models, but Vermeer follows Rembrandt in the century and he succeeded with non-Italian characteristics. Some have suggested Geertje stole and spent and squandered, but it is not easy to see that she could have created such a financial problem. More understandably, some have suggested that Rembrandt began to speculate on the shipping and trading markets - a quick way to loose money. Such speculating was often necessarily keep secret to avoid exploitation and market competition - such secrecy could explain why there are no ready records to prove the theory entirely, though there are some telling comments in various bureaucratic documents. It could be that Rembrandt was persuaded to speculate against his better judgement, and there is some recently uncovered evidence to suggest this.
To find a consistent way to suggest this change in fortune - this film follows the painting of The Nightwatch’s manufacture from start to finish, and offers to suggest a possible plausible reason why Rembrandt was ruined, by suggesting a concerted social and financial vendetta, of which high-minded Calvinism could be responsible, through envy that a painter, an out-of-town, lowly craftsman could play the markets like a merchant and strut successfully on the stage made for them and not for him. Most of all it speculates on how a quite tightly-knit society, through a concerted effort, could punish a man who broke the rules of Dutch community. Rembrandt exhibited overt success, lived openly in sin with a servant, was not prepared to kneel before patrons. They were mortified that he could criticise, mock and scorn their self-righteousness and taint them with moral crimes and possibly include them in severe accusations of criminality, all publicly displayed in a painting commissioned by them for all to see. They curiously paid for their immorality to be advertised - a severe and mocking accusation. In sum, their arrogant murder of a rival who stood in their way to preferment was perceived by Rembrandt who used the Nightwatch as a J’accuse indictment. That first brave J’accuse indictment by Zola in the anti-Semitic Dreyfus Affair may well have lead to Zola’s death by asphyxiation by person or persons unknown when the stove chimney to his bedroom was blocked and his rooms filled with carbon monoxide. This Rembrandt J’accuse indictment could well have lead to Rembrandt’s death; it certainly seems to have heralded his social and financial ruin.

The second question - about Rembrandt’s women - reveal three different sorts of classic gender relationships - with Saskia, a dynastic marriage of convenience that became a business partnership and the painted evidence shows this. The second, with Geertje, on the rebound from Saskia’s death, and with Rembrandt suffering great misery, was a long carnal affair, like a long drinking binge to shut out and blot out unhappiness, pushed to the limits of excess, grimy, dirty, self-humiliating, subsequently regretted and vigorously denied, was also revealed in the work. And thirdly, the relationship with Hendrickje - twenty years younger than him, and a servant in economic dependence, a classic older man exploiting his lust, finding a free house-manager and unpaid baby-minder, and unprotesting bed-partner, the classic older man younger woman sentimental relationship that reprises a father daughter relationship, and a master pupil relationship.
The relationships of course are more complicated than that. They always are. To fit them into a surer context for the purposes of the film, (and not to be completely deny the historical facts) it is considered indeed that both Geertje and Hendrickje are long time members of Rembrandt’s household and well known to Saskia, though there never was any thought of impropriety when Saskia was alive. Availability was a key to Rembrandt’s association with Geertje and Hendrickje. His money and social standing should surely have made him seek partners further up the social ladder. Did he prefer not to for shaming himself with social superiors, was his background as a miller’s son with minimum education make him wary of the educated women - and many Dutch women of no particular social advantage were formidably educated as the high percentage of letter-writing in contemporary Dutch painting would suggest. Or was it the crippling financial arrangements made by Saskia at her death that meant Rembrandt would lose half his fortune to his very young son in the event of his remarriage - another indication of Saskia’s wise level-headedness as a business partner in their dynastic marriage.
Rembrandt has been castigated for painting ‘real’ women - eschewing the heroic traditions where every woman has to be a Juno, a Minerva, a Venus - complaints of flaccid bellies, drooping breasts, and the marks of garters on a calf are frequent. Did his wives sit for him? What sort of sexual manners, habits, fantasies, and relationships did they enjoy? The Dutch are supposedly contradictory - Calvinist and yet extremely tolerant, sensuous and then very matter-of-fact, fastidious and then flagrant. In the end Rembrandt painted very sensuous erotic paintings of women, surely from personal experience. Few would suggest that his vision and his experiences came from the copy-books.

The third question was intellectual and sought answers to the many mysteries and queries and puzzles in the painting. Here is a list of some of those mysteries.

1. Is it significant that Banning-Cocq wears a satanic black outfit?

2. Is it significant that Willem van Ruytenburch is dressed in brightly-lit angelic gold?
An iconoclast at the Rijksmuseum thought so when he slashed both figures with the evil versus good paradigm in mind.

3. Is it not curious that there is such a difference in height between the two men? Willem van Ruytenburch hardly comes up the Banning-Cocq’s throat. Surely simple propriety could have equalled out the heights of the two men - Willem looks demeaned by being made a ‘shorty’.

4. The outstretched hand of Banning Cocq does not seem to fit so well into Banning-Cocq arm or sleeve. Is there a reason for this?

5. There is a very demonstrative shadow of Banning Cocq’s hand on Willem’s belly. Is this a deliberate provocation of a sexual nature?

6. The head of the lance held by Willem van Ruytenburch seems to be a flagrant genital substitute - complete with dominant penis and a suggestion of testicles - could this really be so accidental?

7. Banning-Cocq limply holds a glove by the finger with exaggerated distasteful nonchalance in his right hand. The held glove is a right hand glove. Since his right hand is already gloved - and his left-hand very extravagantly ungloved - this held glove cannot be his. Who¹s is it? And what is it doing here? What is going on?

There are three musketeers in the picture - all copied with Rembrandtian panache from a military hand-book.

8. The musketeer loading the musket is ostensibly doing it the wrong way around - an image of incompetence? Or has Rembrandt been admonished for making Dutch military secret too public for the Spanish?

9. The musketeer firing the musket in the centre of the painting is fully dressed in armour, has an obscured face, is obviously a youth, is firing in a crowded melee with great danger to everyone, is not so securely balanced on his feet and wears an oak leaf twig on his helmet - too many mysteries here to suggest arbitrary concerns - a figure like this would take a day - several days to paint. We are surely sincerely meant to take careful note.

10. There is a man in the centre of the painting making an ambiguous gesture - is he avoiding the firing, helping it, aiming it to shoot?

11. Then the curiosity everyone sees - the girl in the brightly painted dress - is it a girl - some say it is a dwarf - perhaps they are thinking of Spanish painting - say Velasquez’s or Ribera’s Court dwarfs? And Rembrandt orders Spanish prints through the print shops in Antwerp. Spain is the traditional enemy. Is she all that is left of the Spanish threat for these useless merchants playing at soldiers - the enemy is now no more than a plaything, a female dwarf, as in the Spanish court itself. Is the enemy now a Spanish dwarf? She is crowned, she has a chicken dangling at her waist - a spiteful bird with claws, the cockerel crowing his empty macho cock-a-doodle-doo - metaphor for the ultimate cuckold. There is a money bag at her waist - paying off the Spanish threat rather than fight it - are there accusations of cowardice here? And she ostentatiously brandishes a goblet. What does all this mean? Dutch painting is full of signs and symbols, metaphors and emblems, allegories and referred narratives - here surely are they all again. How are they to be interpreted?

12. And this brightly-lit girl has a companion with a hidden face - what are both these girls doing? Running away? Running to? Just running?

13. There is someone else running away - the powder boy on the left - is he a messenger of some sort - a whistle blower, a sneak? A witness eager to tell what he has seen?

14. There is a one-eyed man at the very back of the crowd in the centre peering over everyone’s shoulder - is it a Rembrandt self-portrait? Rembrandt, it is said, after more than a few people have scrupulously studied his 57 self-portraits, had a lazy eye, an astigmation in his left eye, his sinister eye, but this is his right eye - right for left - because Rembrandt had to paint his self-portrait in a mirror.

And on we go.

15. The only figures looking significantly directly ‘at the camera’ at us, are Jacob de Roy in the black hat centre right - and Rembrandt - could this be significant? Are these two people the only two ‘in the know’?

16. The composition of the painting centres strongly on the two central figures, Banning-Cocq, Willem van Ruytenburch, and the man in the middle of them, Jongkind. The pointing hands, the gestures, the compositional lines - are they more than just compositional - are they accusational? And if a little of the painting is removed, cut off from the left hand side of the painting - these characters become even more central. And a little of the left hand side of the painting was cut off. In 1715. The painting stayed under Banning-Cocq control. Did they cut off this portion for merely practical considerations, or is there a more important reason?

17. There is a man - Bloemfeldt - with his comedy hat and false moustache -centre. What is an actor doing in this painting?

18. There are exactly 13 pikes in the picture - thirteen was an unlucky number in the mid-17th century - accidental?

And my fourth question. When is a painter not a painter?
It is the old perennial problem about painting (and cinema), especially illusionistic baroque painting, indeed all painting before the 1860s - why does all painting deny itself and pretend to be something else, why does it always use every trick in the book to be pretend to be ‘real’, even right down to the outstretched hand of Banning-Cocq that is so praised for breaking the painter’s picture surface - the very thing it should not do. And therefore was Rembrandt really a painter at all - was he not - like so many of his contemporaries - a man of the drama stage, composing frozen moments of illusionistic and manipulative theatre, and in so doing prophesying the cinema medium? There is certainly some suggestion that cinematic film noire arose from these tenebrist and post-tenebrist painters - Caravaggio in the South, Rembrandt in the North, and all their numerous followers and imitators - deep chiaroscuro expressionist lighting, moving into a modern world with sharper architectural components and greater possibilities of artificial light - stronger, more directable, bigger in possible scale, but exaggeratedly fashioned in black and white because good colour was not available."


posted by Luís Miguel Dias sexta-feira, setembro 07, 2007

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