Rembrandt still outshines Vermeer

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

The first exhibition at the newly renovated Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Art (TMMA) was always going to be an important one. After a two-year closure to let the builders in, it wouldn’t have sufficed to just have a run-of-the-mill exhibition. Something special was required, and with “Masterpieces from the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis” the TMMA has succeeded in putting itself back on Tokyo’s art map as if it had never been away.

The main attraction appears to be Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with A Pearl Earring” (1665), which is being given the same kind of treatment popular rides at Disneyland are given, namely a taped-off maze-like queue leading to the “holy of holies.” And the atmosphere of devout reverence that surrounds this work could easily trick you into thinking that you were looking at a masterpiece on a par with the Mona Lisa or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But you’re not.

Actually Vermeer’s painting is rather small and drab, despite its Scarlett Johansson associations. With its lone figure thrust forward by a solid black background, it’s not even a typical Vermeer, but something much simpler. A better example of Vermeer’s trademark style — i.e. subtly painted interior scenes with female figures in the background — is available across Ueno Park at the National Museum of Western Art, where the “Young Lady With a Pearl Necklace” is on display at the “From Renaissance to Rococo” exhibition.

But, interestingly, the Mauritshuis exhibition also includes an additional Vermeer. This is an early work entitled “Diana and Her Nymphs” (1653-4). You might miss this because mythical subject matter is the last thing associated with Vermeer, whose fame rests on low-key domestic scenes, but it is a charming painting that reveals the painter’s interest in muted but attractive colors.

However, if you go to this show only to view the Vermeers you will be missing a lot. The exhibition boasts works by painters who, although not as fashionable as Vermeer, have generally — and usually rightly — been considered his superiors throughout most of recorded art history. These include Frans Hals, Anthony van Dyck, and Rembrandt van Rijn.

Hals is best known for his “Laughing Cavalier” (1624) in London’s Wallace collection. In this show, we have that merry fellow’s possible offspring, “Laughing Boy” (1625), painted with loose, energetic brushstrokes that perfectly capture the child’s effervescent mood.

Van Dyck, who made his name as a portrait painter is represented by a pair of portraits, “Peeter Stevens” (1627) and “Anna Wake” (1628), representing a couple who later married. These works succeed in being both stately and intimate, with a softness in the brushstrokes that creates an illusion of effortlessness.

The leading reason to visit this show, however, must be the seven Rembrandts, five of them portraits. As usual, pictures in a catalogue or newspaper fail to do justice to his genius, but experienced face-to-canvas, these works have a magical quality.

The artist often sought to achieve a kind of spotlighting effect, with figures highlighted against dark backgrounds. Superficially, this is similar to the chiaroscuro effects associated with the Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, but Caravaggio’s paintings are often too stagey and the contrasts too sharp, which creates a kind of garish flashbulb effect.

Rembrandt’s shadows are softer and more gradated. In “Susanna” (1636), which depicts an Old Testament tale of voyeurism, sexual blackmail, and chastity, they seem to flow gently around the highlighted figure of Susanna. While she occupies the spotlight, one of her tormenters lurks concealed in the shadows, presenting viewers with the challenge of finding him.

Rembrandt’s modeling of the human figure can sometimes seem deficient, with his faces occasionally having a jack-o-lantern quality, like the slightly grotesque “The Laughing Man” (1629-30). But even in cases like this, once they are bathed in the unique light he is able to bring to his works, such flaws become irrelevant.

His treatment of light swimming in shadows also gives his works a deeply spiritual feeling. This is best observed in the pair of self portraits that juxtapose the young painter of 23 with his older self, 40 years later. Painted in the year or his death, the latter portrait is thought to be possibly his last. Instead of the self-consciousness of the younger man, the old Rembrandt looks at us with an expression of beatific wisdom and seems to glow with an ethereal quality that suggests a higher life beyond his approaching death.

Compared to works like this, “Girl with A Pearl Earring” merely seems like a prettily painted doll — and, unlike most of Vermeer’s paintings, this doll doesn’t even have its own doll’s house. Luckily, the newly refurbished Tokyo Met will continue to provide it with an appreciative home over the rest of the summer.

“Masterpieces from the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum runs till Sept. 17; 9;30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,600. Closed Mon.