Subtleties that shine through the shadows


Special To The Japan Times

Recently, thanks to the power cuts caused by the damage to the Fukushima nuclear reactors, many of us have been rediscovering exactly what light is again. Instead of something to be taken for granted, unvarying and instantly available at the flick of a switch, it has once again become altogether more tentative, vacillating, and mysterious. Such a reawakening to the subtle qualities of non-electric light is the best preparation for the exhibition now on at the National Museum of Western Art: “Rembrandt: The Quest for Chiaroscuro.”

Rembrandt (1606-1669) is one of those painters who frequently disappoint the young and inexperienced. Attracted by what is one of the greatest reputations in art, modern audiences are often baffled by his canvases, which can seem dull and tenebrous, populated as they are by puffy, sombre-faced figures, almost cloaked in shadows. In this age of electric effulgence, the twilight world created at the end of Rembrandt’s brush seems somehow funereal.

A casual look at this exhibition is likely to reinforce this negative impression as the show mixes a couple of early unsightly apprentice pieces and a handful of better paintings with around 100 black and white prints made by the artist.

The exhibition has ticked the two all-important boxes for local audiences: a) bringing in works by a recognized “brand name” artist, and b) finding a Japanese connection. Though, it has to be said that this is perhaps one of the most tenuous of links to Japan, hanging as it does on the triviality that Rembrandt sometimes used Japanese paper imported via the Dutch trading post at Dejima, Nagasaki, to print on.

This all important “oriental connection” is slightly reinforced by the inclusion of “Self Portrait as an Oriental” (1631-33), which shows the artist in the turban and garments associated with an Eastern potentate. This is also one of the few touches of color and exoticism at the exhibition.

But while Rembrandt’s oeuvre may often seem dark and murky, it is the lack of light in his paintings that makes us so much more aware of it and of how it moves, shimmers, reflects, and merges into shadows. More than his draftsmanship, it is his depiction of light that gives us a feeling of air and depth, and which creates the illusion of reality on the canvas.

“Minerva in Her Study” (1635) is a particularly good example. Although the subject is rather ludicrous — purporting to be the Roman goddess of wisdom swotting away over an open book, possibly in an attempt to retain her academic laurels — Rembrandt nevertheless gives the scene a palpable reality through his mastery of light.

In addition to gentle tonal gradients and the skilful modeling of shadow, he also employs a rough impasto to make certain items such as the table in the foreground and the pearls on her necklace appear nearer. He also uses smoother polished brush strokes to make the background recede. The meticulousness of his methods can be observed by closely observing each and every pearl and noticing that the impasto highlights subtly diminish as they supposedly curve away from us. It is in such fine touches as this that Rembrandt is to be enjoyed.

The theme of the exhibition attempts to place the great Dutch painter in the context of chiaroscuro, an Italian art stylistic trend that sought to use effects of light and shade to create dramatic effects in painting. The most famous exponent was Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). However, with few paintings by Rembrandt and none by other chiaroscuro painters, the theme is a forlorn hope, though anyone familiar with both painters’ works will probably concede that Rembrandt’s treatment of light is much more subtle and fascinating.

With almost 10 times as many prints as paintings, the show hinges on this lesser-known medium of Rembrandt’s art. Because of the limitations of etching compared to oils — namely its lack of color and texture — the artist tended to use light in a simpler and more narrative manner in his prints, echoing Caravaggio’s rather stagy painting style.

This can be seen in “The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds” (1634), where the light picks out the panicking shepherds and their animals while the surrounding countryside remains mired in darkness, rather like a beam of light descending from a UFO! “The Three Crosses,” a series of drypoint prints on different materials, including Japanese paper and vellum, show light employed in a similarly dramatic manner.

This exhibition has obvious omissions and some definite shortcomings, but anyone visiting it should not be overly distracted by these, as Rembrandt’s art will always reward close study and attentive viewing.

“Rembrandt: The Quest for Chiaroscuro” the National Museum of Western Art runs till June 12; admission ¥1,400; open 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.), closed Mon. For more information, visit