There’s much more to Oeke Hoogendijk’s My Rembrandt than initially meets the eye. Taking a close, curatorial look, not at the life, times and oeuvre of the great painter himself, but of contemporary relationships with his work, her latest documentary explores, to great effect, the motives for possession, obsession and ongoing fascination with the Dutch Old Master.
Naturally, a large number of Rembrandt’s paintings do figure prominently in the film, displayed lovingly on walls of homes, contemplated in galleries and put under spotlights at the offices of fine arts traders. As a viewer of the film, and by extension these same portraits, we are often shown close-ups of canvass that focus on a piercing stare captured so brilliantly in eyes seen in a single moment four centuries ago. These intense gazes beg the question, why are you still looking at me? What more can you possibly learn about my image? And therein lies the rub for many.
It is the reasoning given by each of the filmmaker’s subjects for doing so that Hoogendijk investigates with great subtlety and guile, largely by giving each individual free reign to talk at length (as is their wont) about how and why they came to be such lovers of Rembrandt’s work. We begin with the charming, rather eccentric Duke of Buccleuch whose Rembrandt, Old Woman Reading, is instantly recognisable. She is, for him, “the most powerful presence in the house” and his love with this individual work typifies a pure, emotional romanticism.
However, his isolation, and sense that his “relationship” with this portrait is all he has, rattling around a huge estate in the Scottish borders alone, tinges this thread with real sadness. In a similar vein to Buccleuch, the motivations of Dutch fine arts dealer Jan Six – whose distant namesake was painted by Rembrandt in 1654 – are filled with a boyish innocence and exuberance. Like Indiana Jones in an expensive suit, Six seeks to uncover previously unknown works by Rembrandt with his keen, knowledgeable eye, but the pressure from his own ancestry (there are a few tête-à-têtes with his father) and a need to prove himself as more than a gambling rich kid clearly weighs heavily.
Whether ruled by his head or his heart, his business plan or his passion, this layer of the documentary benefits from the greatest intrigue. It also leads to a surprisingly bitter twist in the tale and an elevation of both commercial and personal stakes for Six and long-time confidant Ernst van Wetering, a pre-eminent Rembrandt researcher and historian. National interests come into play when Baron Eric de Rothschild must sell two of his own Rembrandts to pay a relative’s tax debt, igniting a near-diplomatic incident between the Rijksmuseum and the Louvre.
And in weighing up what part these tableaux play in a country’s identity, its past, as well as current tourist industry and PR image, further arguments are made for the value, whether monetary or intangible, that are placed on these works of art. Lastly, it is under the guise of philanthropy and bringing the artworks back into the public domain that businessman Thomas Kaplan revels in the ownership of innumerable Rembrandts.
Kaplan’s “materialistic joy” at collecting as many as he can exhibits another telling facet of the why for each of these men. Yet in their arguing over legacy, historical fact and opinion, and peeling back – sometimes literally – the layers of meaning of these paintings, those who now fight for possession and dominion over them, reveal as much about themselves as the art of a man long dead and it is in those areas of moral, personal light and shade that My Rembrandt excels.
Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63