Rembrandt's Insight Shines In Bma Show

January 16, 1991|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Greatness is accorded the treatment it deserves in "Rembrandt: The Museum's Collection," the Baltimore Museum of Art's inspiring and deeply moving exhibit of Rembrandt prints (through April 21). The fact that this is a home-grown show, drawn from the museum's collection rather than from sources around the world, and the fact that it consists of modest-sized prints rather than big, splashy paintings, should not lead the prospective visitor to think of it as anything other than one of the most important exhibits we will ever be offered.

It contains about 95 works covering the artist's printmaking career from the early 1630s to 1661, the year when his last known prints were made. (He died in 1669.) The subject matter includes biblical prints, portraiture, genre scenes and landscapes.

In an introductory area, Rembrandt's printmaking techniques are explained so that the viewer can understand and differentiate etching, drypoint, engraving. Explanatory labels for individual prints reveal Rembrandt's sources and how he used and altered them.

In other words, there is much to be learned. But all of that amounts only to scratching around the edges of Rembrandt; at the heart, of course, is the deepest understanding of the human condition of any artist who ever lived, and in this show that quality appears so often and so fully that the cumulative effect of these prints is almost overwhelming. Rembrandt lived in a different time, a different place, and a more religious age than our own. But no existentialist ever probed the loneliness, the doubt, the fears and the sadness of the human spirit half so well. He speaks not to us but of us.

There are so many examples one could cite here, from the anger expressed in the early "Head of a Man in a Fur Cap, Crying Out" (about 1631) to the quiet resignation of the late "Woman at the Bath With a Hat Beside Her" (1658).

At times the depth and complexity of Rembrandt's insights are breathtaking. In "Adam and Eve" (1638), he has chosen the moment when Eve offers the apple to Adam. She has a look of cunning as he both reaches for and shrinks from the apple; we see that he knows that what he is about to do is wrong, knows he will do it anyway, and is above all appalled at the knowledge that he can knowingly and deliberately do wrong.

In "Self-Portrait With Saskia" (1636), the expression in the artist's eyes is that of the visionary, but we see also that the essence of the vision is of the ultimate futility of life in the knowledge of death. Behind him, his wife gazes out with a look of steady calmness; she has, we sense, already faced and conquered the demons Rembrandt still wrestles with.

In "The Virgin and Child With the Cat: and Joseph at the Window" (1654), Rembrandt has adapted a pose by Mantegna, but changed the expression from one of piety to one of love between mother and child; he has also put Joseph outside the window gazing in with the look of the outsider on his face -- he knows he is outside this union, not just physically but spiritually.

And the expression on the face of "Ephraim Bonus, Jewish Physician" (1647), as he pauses on the steps in a moment of introspection, is simply indescribable: There is so much of life in that face that one cannot define it, one can only feel it.

This is a show to go back to again and again; don't be beguiled into thinking there's plenty of time by the fact that it will be up for more than three months. Go early and often, and take a magnifying glass, for some of these images are quite small. But only in size, never in significance.

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