Mark Glazebrook

Mismatch of two masters

Mark Glazebrook asks why Rembrandt and Caravaggio have to share a show

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.

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