Rembrandt and musings on modern man

Two weekends ago, two of my girlfriends and I visited the newest exhibit at the Frist Center for Visual Arts: Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age.  It was interesting to see the influence of Protestantism on art after the Netherlands broke from Catholic Spain, and while still life isn’t my favorite, there were lots of other pieces I really enjoyed.

The first pieces were Rembrandts, and they were my favorite.  I especially liked his Visitation, which I had never seen before.


It also included one of his portraits of Christ (of which there are many).  Not his most famous one, but a very nice one.


Two of my favorite Rembrandts that weren’t in the exhibit were his Storm on the Lake of Galilee and his Return of the Prodigal Son.

The way the Frist is laid out, it’s easy to find yourself in a completely different exhibit while in the middle of walking through another.  While we were walking through the Dutch Masters, we ducked into a modern exhibit by Camille Utterback “whose interactive installations and reactive sculptures engage participants in a dynamic process of kinesthetic discovery and play.”  There were four interactive stations where your movement in front of the wall impacted what you saw in front of you.  For example, one of them had a projection on the wall of letters falling from the sky — when you walked into the room, you appeared on the screen and the letters fell onto you.  You were able to lift the letters up, shake them off, etc.  Another included the projection of modern art on the wall and as you walked into the room the art changed depending on where you moved, how you moved, etc.

After leaving this highly-interactive exhibit and entering back into the Dutch Masters rooms, my friend joked something along the lines, “And now we just look at these?”  She was kidding, of course, but it could be a thought-provoking reflection on our society.  Rembrandt and the great masters created profound works of art after quietly studying their reality.  We could even say contemplating reality.  To full appreciate their art, I think it could be argued that one has to enter into that same contemplation.  Is our modern society able to 1) produce similar masters? 2) appreciate the work of the past masters?

How many people are able to enter that art museum off the street, silence their phones, pause their iPods, leave the noise behind, and engage reality in a completely different manner than what they just silenced and left behind?  It’s not just a matter of looking at the Visitation by Rembrandt, but encountering it.  It’s not going to make noise, it’s not going to change, it’s not going to move, it’s not going to “refresh.”  But if you allow it, it may speak to you.  It may change you. It may move you.  It may refresh you.  But is modern man able to engage it in that way?  I’m not so sure.


15 thoughts on “Rembrandt and musings on modern man

  1. I do think modern people can (and are created to) contemplate. Gadget-driven lifestyles are a modern invention, to which people are adapting because they are told it’s necessary. It isn’t. Eventually, people will realize that.

    “Two of my favorite Rembrandts that weren’t in the exhibit were his Storm on the Lake of Galilee and his Return of the Prodigal Son.”

    Just a note to readers who may not know . . . Storm on the Sea of Galilee was stolen in 1990 from Boston’s ISG Museum. It’s still missing. That’s why it wasn’t in the exhibit.

    The Return of the Prodigal Son is safe at The Hermitage. Thankfully! But they weren’t able to work out a loan agreement.

  2. This is so well-written, and engaging. I appreciate that you didn’t just write about the Art, but about the experience of Art Appreciation. I hadn’t thought of the difference in how we interact with exhibits, but I think you have noticed something significant. I will be pondering this the next time I go to a museum.
    Greetings from the Chesapeake.

  3. Have you read Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “The Return of the Prodigal Son”? There is also a sort of “sequel” “Home Toonight” edited from his posthumous writings. I *think* your post showed up in my “Freshly Pressed” feed because I was writing about that painting last night ( ). Los Angeles also has some fantastic Rembrandts; the ones I see most often are at the Getty and the Los Angeles County Museum of art. If you haven’t seen it, find the recent articles about “Portrait of an Old Man in a Military Costume” spilling his secrets with some CSI-esque conservation work to reveal an incomplete painting under the painting. “Abraham and Issac” is also quite striking.

  4. I studied life in Amsterdam in the Golden Age during my exchange year. Purchasing of art changed after Dutch independence as the main sponsors were wealthy Dutch merchants and not the aristocrats or Catholic church. Paintings like the Night Watch were commissioned by officers of the civic guards, made up of the elite. Next time you are in Amsterdam you should visit the Doelen hotel, which still has part of a tower where this work was painted.

    • Yes, I read this about the Night Watch. In fact, the late Rembrandt’s pieces are my favourite, they are so non-conformist. Dutch art always amazed me with its deep philosophy, especially Breugel and Rembrandt.

  5. the idea that painting is “dead” has been circling for ages now… I don’t see it happening. … the luscious, evocative quality of oil paint and the texture, especially, is what is missing on all computer screens. I think people go into museums expecting to turn off their electronic gizmos and to enter into an “altered” state. I think we’re totally capable of doing that. Whether people WANT to do that is another matter.

  6. redshortcomings says:

    I couldn’t agree more with you – if people would take to the time to reflect, and soak up the atmosphere an art museum has to offer – let alone a grand art museum such as the Louvre, they would be amazed at their own reaction. I’m getting goosebumps just writing about it. It’s a gift that we, as a society, are too busy to appreciate.

  7. A friend of mine recently told me she had no need to visit art galleries, she could just look at the pictures online. I am quite sure I just sat there with my eyebrows raised for so long I may now have wrinkles. I will apply that logic to travel and never go anywhere again beause I can just look at pictures! Modern technology is brilliant, but we are becoming addicted to our smart phones, there are too many distractions and many can no longer appreciate art or nature properly anymore.

    Congrats on the freshly pressed!

  8. Such a very penetrating question. I wonder too if modern mad, with its instant everything mentality can even comprehend the concept of contemplation? Love the comparison between the interactive exhibit and the Old Masters.

  9. skavop says:

    As an artist I find that many people looking at old masters in a gallery resort to trying to remember historical facts about the work they are looking at. They turn to their companion and reel off what they know about Rembrandt’s age, and never really get to engage with what the artist is saying. Art museum guides are the worst for doing this; art shouldn’t be primarily a history lesson, it is one human being communicating with another through paint. When you stop and look at great art with a completely open mind, it speaks to you and moves you, and you wonder how you could ever live without art.

    • But then there are also the ones on an early date trying to impress making stuff up about what the artist “really meant to say” that are completely out-of-context and out-of-line with cultural and historical (and sometimes theological) fact. Things are sometimes portrayed in a certain way because people of that time believed something about a subject or event tbat we no longer believe and which would not logically occur to us. A mix of art, history, and imagination is required to interpret art.

  10. My love to art is as old as me. We had a large collection of prints, albumns from many gallaries and I remember admiring them when I was a little kid. Whenever I visit a new city, I always do my best to see its art gallery/museum. Munich was a true paradise.

    Art feeds on reality. A hundred years ago it was flourishing on protest movements and revolutionary ideas. We now live in emotionally poor and, in many ways, artificial world. With a broad availability of photography, realism in art became unnecessary. Where visual art can find its inspirations? In animated movies, perhaps.

  11. I enjoyed your post and it brings up lots of tributaries of thought. As an artist, I experience the rarity in the general public of the inclination towards contemplating art. (I paint mostly quiet pieces, not-your-fav still life art – I thrive on lots of quiet time so contemplation comes a bit naturally to me and I’m sure I’m not alone in that – no pun intended. But even though temperament may have something to do with it, you are so right in your concerns about culture at large. The loss of prayer as common practice may also contribute to the inability to be quiet and listen.

    My husband read a book years ago by Neil Postman titled Amusing Ourselves to Death. From his description to me, I think it must address the topic of entertainment’s effect on culture which ties into the current gadget tyranny. I also have read various things on how long people typically look at art. I believe Sister Wendy has talked about this. The quality or type of art seems to also play a role in how long people linger. I saw this article recently about the viewing time difference between modern and traditional art.

    I used to live in Nashville, but before the Frist was finished. I live near DC now and am very fortunate to have so many wonderful museums to visit. I too often only linger a few minutes in front of my favorites, but I go back repeatedly. I find that sometimes it’s hard to settle in deeply with something in a public setting.

    Lots to think about…

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