I hope that I am second to none in my fondness for Dutch art galleries — normally, at least. A candlelight evening in the Franz Hals museum, over 40 years ago, memorably transported me straight to 17th-century Holland — or so I imagined. The unmissable Vermeer exhibition in The Hague in 1996 reinforced this magical experience. Just over ten years ago, reviewing a Hockney exhibition in Rotterdam, I discovered that the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen had organised a race for ‘teckels’ (the Dutch for dachshunds) in honour of the artist’s famous pets. Simultaneously, vodka, samovars, blinis, borscht and waitresses in colourful Russian costumes were laid on in the museum’s restaurant to enhance an exhibition of the Tsar’s treasures.
In view of such imaginative presentations it was no surprise to discover that the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is keeping a high profile despite being largely closed for a massive internal makeover. To mark the 400th anniversary of Rembrandt’s birth it has concocted a daring notion: to use the nearby Van Gogh Museum as a venue in which to arrange the world’s first major gallery confrontation between Rembrandt and Caravaggio.
‘Rembrandt and Caravaggio’ certainly sounds like a stimulating idea for a slide lecture or even a book. Could it possibly be made to work as an exhibition? Caravaggio is clearly one of the most exciting and influential innovators in the field of realist painting, a current box-office favourite who has steadily grown in importance since being rediscovered some 50 years ago. For much longer, Rembrandt has been considered one of the very greatest painters of all time. Could we be in for a revelatory experience or would the event prove to be a ghastly mismatch?
In his book Rembrandt and the Italian Renaissance, Kenneth Clark was at pains to contrast Rembrandt’s style with Caravaggio’s. In particular, he contrasted Caravaggio’s ‘Amor’ — a lewd and almost photographic paedophile’s dream — with Rembrandt’s ‘Ganymede’ — a plump little boy peeing with fear in mid-air as he is clutched by an eagle. ‘I am not sure which of the two images is more repulsive,’ writes Clark: yet these are the uncharacteristically vulgar pictures chosen for the front and back of the Rembrandt–Caravaggio catalogue. It’s not a good omen.
I can just imagine a way in which the idea of comparing Rembrandt and Caravaggio could have been turned into a meaningful exhibition — of which more later. It pains me to report that what is on show now is emphatically not it. What went wrong, tragically wrong, was the decision to concentrate on a series of a dozen or so ‘couples’, as a list of works puts it. Each Caravaggio is plonked on the wall next to a Rembrandt for comparison. It is a show of in-your-face, wall-by-wall juxtapositions. Alas, you cannot compare the incomparable without disastrous consequences. The show sadly plods from one mismatch to another. What in heaven’s name is the point of putting Rembrandt’s ‘A Schoolboy at His Desk (“Titus as a scholar”)’ next to Caravaggio’s ‘Boy Bitten by a Lizard’ or ‘Bathsheba Bathing’ next to ‘St Jerome Writing’?
The only absolutely valid comparison is between Caravaggio’s ‘The Sacrifice of Abraham’, 1603, from Florence and a Rembrandt of the same title from St Petersburg, made 32 years later. Only about three of these ‘couples’, starting with Rembrandt’s marvellous, violent and bloody ‘The Blinding of Samson’ next to Caravaggio’s violent and even more bloody ‘Judith and Holofernes’, even begin to work visually. Once the fatal decision had been taken to build the catalogue around the notion of ‘couples’, I suppose the show’s curator felt he had no option but to follow suit. Hanging pictures is an art. These pictures were more or less pre-hung. Rembrandt and Caravaggio will be turning in their graves.
But, you may ask, what could go seriously wrong with such a wonderful chance to see two clutches of hard-to-borrow masterpieces, dispatched from the great galleries and private collections of the Western world? After all, the confronting of Picasso with Matisse worked superbly well at Tate Modern recently. Why not follow it up with two great religious artists of the 16th and 17th century? Surely, it’s a matching of two realist painters who shock and delight by realism — a winning twinning of tenebrists, both baroque and both masters of chiaroscuro?
The first answer is that Picasso and Matisse were contemporaries and actual rivals who both worked in Paris and the south of France. Rembrandt and Caravaggio were scarcely contemporaries and were separated by the Alps and much else. Rembrandt almost certainly never set eyes on a painting by Caravaggio. He was born in 1606, four years before Caravaggio died. Rembrandt never even went to Italy. He was directly influenced by Titian and many other Italian artists whose works he saw in local collections and as they passed through Amsterdam’s world-famous auction houses. Such influence as Rembrandt may have absorbed from Caravaggio would have been indirect, via copiers and followers such as Ter Bruggen, Van Honthorst and Van Baburen. Had the exhibition explored such missing links, there might have been a story to tell but the Utrecht Caravaggisti are given merely token representation here. Incidentally, I question the catalogue’s trumpeting of ‘the two great geniuses of baroque painting’. What about Rubens?
The rivalry being provoked now in Amsterdam by Rembrandt–Caravaggio is an art-historical contrivance. It is a battle of giants and the battleground is not of the giants’ choosing. The comparison shows how very unlike, indeed how incomparably different, the two painters will always be. Late-16th-century Italy and mid-17th-century Holland are very different places. Caravaggio was a Catholic of the Counter-Reformation. Rembrandt was a Dutch Protestant. Their mentalities were utterly dissimilar. Rembrandt’s realism is warm and human. Caravaggio’s realism is stark and brilliantly clever. Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro is about being shut up in a dark room with black walls and a light at the top. Rembrandt’s is wonderfully brown and subtle. ‘I love this artist, his colours are so mellow,’ an Indian woman once said to me in the Frick Collection, New York, on seeing Rembrandt for the first time.
Caravaggio’s sense of space is shallow and illogical. His Judith in ‘Judith and Holofernes’ seems to jump out into the viewer’s space, leapfrogging the old crone in the foreground. Caravaggio looks at objects in turn and collages them (distortions and all) into flattish compositions. With Rembrandt a very much deeper and more satisfying space evolves as you look.
There is a way of appreciating the masterpieces in this exhibition without being insufferably irritated by the ‘couples’. Before lunch, look at all the Caravaggios. During lunch in the Van Gogh Museum restaurant, perhaps, read the Bible or the catalogue, concentrating on the three informative essays but avoiding the platitudinous attempts elsewhere at comparisons. After lunch, look at all the Rembrandts. The last is the magisterial ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’. It is hung in one of the better confrontations because it is next to Caravaggio’s ‘Supper at Emmaus’. Somewhat stale buns for Londoners, of course, who can see both pictures in the National Gallery — but a feast compared to a supper is better than Bathsheba naked spuriously compared to St Jerome clothed.
Rembrandt–Caravaggio continues at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, until 18 June.