Rembrandt’s dark genius shines in new graphic novel by Typex

by Charles Onians

AFP-JIJI

A new no-holds-barred graphic novel biography of Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-69) strives to fill in the often dark, drunken and erotic gaps in the tragic life of one of the most famous Dutch artists.

“Rembrandt” by comic-book artist Raymond Koot, better known as Typex, shows the painter as you’ve never seen him before: cantankerous, obsessive and unfaithful.

Rembrandt’s life spanned the height of the Golden Age, when the Netherlands was awash with bourgeois and aristocratic money, much of it spent on acquiring art, and the book is both sociological and historical.

“High-quality art is a sound investment,” dealer Hendrick van Uylenburgh, who helped launch Rembrandt’s career, tells the young artist in the book. “It gives status and prestige.”

“Rembrandt” is being published as his most famous painting, “The Night Watch,” is moved back into Amsterdam’s revamped Rijksmuseum, which commissioned the book during its 10-year renovation.

The book features characters from Rembrandt’s life and art, including the main figure in the center of The Night Watch: black-clad, red-sashed militia leader Captain Frans Banning Cocq.

Banning Cocq at one point questions Rembrandt about an 18-year-old Danish girl the artist slept with the night before, who ended up killing her employer.

Typex, 50, described by Australian singer Nick Cave as “the second-greatest Dutch artist” after Rembrandt, wrote and illustrated the book by “squeezing five years into 2½ years,” with 14-hour workdays, a tempo the obsessive Rembrandt would likely have respected.

“I read a bookcase of books about Rembrandt, made a lot of notes, put all the books to one side and got to work,” Typex said. “A lot is not known about Rembrandt. What’s known are the official papers, the property contracts, marriage and death records. That’s known, and here and there (there is) a small commentary.”

As a result, much of the book is based on anecdotes, but hung on an historically accurate framework of names and dates.

The book illuminates the art record of Rembrandt’s life, which literally fades into the obscurity of his increasingly dark self-portraits.

“He had a lot of tragedy, everyone around him died, that’s how it was in those days,” said Typex. “But I didn’t want to make just a sad book.”

Typex notably takes a novel approach to the death of Rembrandt’s common-law wife Stoffels.

“I told it all from the perspective of the rat that brings the plague — it’s not at all a sad event for the rat, he gets food and is having the time of his life,” Typex said.

At another point, Florentine grand duke Cosimo de’ Medici is shown arriving in Amsterdam, trying to track down Rembrandt.

“Tell him that for paintings with pretty girls and bright colors he should look to the print dealer on the corner, not me!” a virtually destitute Rembrandt tells the grand duke.

“And now, all of you get out,” a typically irritable Rembrandt cries.

“He was a difficult man, obsessed,” said Typex. “He could have had it easier if he’d been less outspoken, fallen in with the tastes of rich people. But he just didn’t have the social capacity for that.”