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Interweaving Art and History: Aiko Tezuka's Conversation with Rembrandt

Ching-Ling Wang

  1. Rembrandt's The Night Watch: a 'failed' masterpiece and a misunderstanding

 

When one thinks of the Dutch master painter Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), the monumental work The Night Watch (Fig. 1) in the Rijksmuseeum in Amsterdam may come to mind. Today, this painting is not only considered to be the most treasured piece in the museum's collection, but also the representative work of the artist.

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Nevertheless, this Rembrandt's most famous work was not as well liked by his client after its completion. In the early winter of 1639, Rembrandt was commissioned to paint a group of 18 civilian soldiers from one of the three headquarters of Amsterdam's civic guard, known now as The Night Watch. When the commission was finally unveiled in 1642, however, the commissioner was not satisfied with Rembrandt's work. What they expected was more of an accurate depiction of their appearance than a work of creative interpretation of the artist. In other words, each of them simply wanted their portraits to be painted in a dignified manner. However, most of the figures depicted in this painting are either half-hidden, faded into the background, or have their faces obscured by shadows. To make matters worse, instead of painting only 18 people as originally requested, Rembrandt added additional figures for aesthetic and compositional purposes to bring the scene to life, so that he ended up with a total of 31 people in the painting. After the completion of The Night Watch, it is not surprising that Rembrandt rarely received commissions for portraits.

Although Rembrandt's patrons may not have been happy with the work at the time, today it is considered one of the finest paintings ever painted, even when viewed in the context of the many masterpieces of European art history. Rembrandt treats this painting as a dramatic history painting, which is fascinating because it draws the viewer into its dramatic scenes. Rembrandt constructs a complex scene in which light and shadow give depth to the space and direct a Baroque historical drama in front of a classical setting. Rembrandt was the first artist to depict dynamic figures in such group portraits, and his manipulation of light is unprecedented. However, the painting's title, The Night Watch, was not given by the artist himself, but was simply a misunderstanding. By the 19th century, the painting's surface had become so dark that it was thought to represent a nocturnal scene, a group of guardsmen on patrol at night.

2. Rembrandt, India, and Japan

 

It is rather unusual to associate Rembrandt with India or Japan, but the fact remains that there are objects from the East in his personal collection, including objects from India, China, and Japan. He was particularly fascinated by the miniature paintings from the Mughal court in India. Although he almost never copied faithfully from other artists, he did draw from some of the Mughal miniature paintings that he owned. In the collection of the Rijksmuseeum, three sketches made by Rembrandt in 1656-1658 were copied from the Mughal miniature paintings and, more strikingly, these sketches were drawn on Japanese paper. Japanese paper was not new to Dutch artists in the 17th century, and it was used not only by Rembrandt, but also by other artists, such as Hercules Segers (1589-1638), who also made prints on Japanese paper.

3. Chintz, Neitherlands, and Japa​n 

 

Chintz refers to woodblock-printed and hand-painted cotton fabrics produced in India in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with floral and other patterns printed on them. The process of making Chintz is complicated. First, the cotton is treated with a repeated series of various oils and fats. Once the cotton is ready for dyeing, each color is applied in a separate step. Some of the heavier colors and mordants are printed directly on the engraved woodblock or applied with a brush. In order to protect specific areas of the design, wax is used as a dye resist. Printed cotton was first imported by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and arrived in large quantities in Europe, while widely distributed in Persia, Siam, Indonesia, China and Japan. In Europe, it was not only made into clothing, but also played an important role in interior decoration. The exotic patterns of imported Chintz soon became popular and fashion in Europe.

After 1641 and until 1854, Japan's Sakoku policy allowed only the Dutch and the Chinese to trade in Nagasaki. Indian Chintz was brought to Japan through the Dutch East India Company and was regarded as an exotic textile. In Japan, it was called sarasa and was widely used to wrap tea props in tea ceremonies, called meibutsugire (celebrated fabrics). In the Edo period (1603-1868), it was also used to frame scroll paintings and even made into kimonos. Chintz also inspired Japanese textile production: it was not only made in a Japanese style, but also stimulated the traditional Japanese textile industry, including the famous yuzenzomeChintz further influenced European textile production, with copper-printed fabrics becoming a 19th century signature product.

4. Flowery Obscurity by Aiko Tezuka

 

For the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt's death in 2019, Japanese contemporary artist Aiko Tezuka (b. 1976) has designed a special tapestry that draws on historic Chintz and Rembrandt's "The Night Watch", an iconic painting from the Dutch Golden Age, and in which she explores the history of exchange between the Netherlands and Japan and pays tribute to the Dutch master painter Rembrandt. In Flowery Obscurity, a tapestry designed by Aiko Tezuka, colorful Chintz fabrics (almost exclusively from the Rijksmuseum's collection) fill the dark areas of The Night Watch (Fig. 2). In other words, this tapestry can be seen as a collage and appropriation of Rembrandt's great masterpiece and various printed cottons, which are interwoven to become a new work of art.

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Fig. 2. Flowery Obscurity, Aiko Teezuka, 2019. Tapestry woven with colored warp threads, 130 x 170 cm.

People tend to distinguish between paintings and textiles as fine art and craft, so the perceived value of the two is different. Yet in the original commission for The Night Watch, each of the group's 18 members paid only ƒ100 to have their portraits painted, when the cost of making a tapestry was much higher. Aiko Tezuka's work explores the distinction between art and craft. In fact, in the 17th century, important artists occasionally engaged in tapestry design, notably Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). In this work, brightly colored Indian printed cottons become the light of the painting, symbolizing the lucrative overseas trade of the Dutch VOC, and they also serve as the drapery for the stage constructed in Rembrandt's painting. The curtain is a new motif depicted by the Dutch Golden Age painters. Rembrandt's Holy Family, painted in 1646 in the Kassel Collection, is the earliest Dutch painting with this theme. At first glance, the printed cotton fabrics on the woven tapestry, filled with dark areas, look almost like the curtains set on the stage as depicted by Rembrandt in his paintings. But the Chintz here is not really Chintz. It is woven on a tapestry, just like the curtains in Rembrandt's paintings, which are not real curtains but painted on canvas.

I view Aiko Tezuka's Flowery Obscurity is an artistic debate and dialogue between her work on Rembrandt's paintings, the overseas trade of the East India Company during the Dutch Golden Age, and the history of exchanges between the Netherlands, Japan, and India. “I decided to embrace the fusion of Eastern and Western cultures in order to create something new out of something that is neither original nor fixed," she says. In her works, art is the warp and history is the weft, and the two are intertwined.