Friday, August 24, 2007

Rembrandt and Baskin: Art in Times of Turmoil

The title on this post isn't the title of the Portland Art Museum's current marquee offerings, "Rembrandt and the Golden Age of Dutch Art" and "Graphic Force, Humanist vision — Leonard Baskin works on paper," but perhaps it should be.

Leonard Baskin’s work from the last half of the 20th Century is in the museum’s basement print gallery. Rembrandt’s and that of many of his Dutch contemporaries is upstairs and sprawls onto two floors. Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn and the Dutch school get top and separate billing, and rightly so.

But viewed and considered together, the two exhibits are much greater than the sum of their parts.

I’m hardly qualified to “compare and contrast” the two (both seen in self-portraits here. Baskin shows himself has a priest, which he most definitely was not), but it did strike me that both artists were utterly immersed in their tumultuous times even as they challenged them in their own distinct ways.

Baskin lived from 1922 to 2000; Rembrandt from 1606 to 1669.

Both worked in several visual media, and overlapped in more than one. A comparison of their prints is particularly rewarding. The use of shading, and hatching and the portrayal of human expression call for comparison.

Both focused on communicating with and provoking viewers. They were passionate about their messages, but never self-indulgent.

Theirs was never art for art’s sake.

I am taken with the times of each.

I came of age during the ‘60s when Baskin produced much of his most provocative work. I remember Baskin from those days and how his unsettling prints resonated with the battles many of us fought — against war, injustice and racism.

Rembrandt’s times are important to me because they gave birth to the Religious Society of Friends, the Quakers. The works of Rembrandt and the Flemish artists around him provide windows into the world that Quakers were so at odds with. Yet the same world welded the Quakers to their testimonies of peace, simplicity, equality, community and integrity. The 17th Century was a world of war, depravity and social inequality. But it was also a world grown literate and questioning. Humanism and empiricism were on the rise. The early Friends and the great Dutch masters swam in the same waters.

So if you visit the museum, make the time to take in both exhibits and to consider them as one. There are no docents to connect the dots between them. You will be on your own, but be open to what they share. Let them speak to you separately — one floor at a time — and together, perhaps on a bench in the park outside, or over a cup of tea, or in the pages of a journal, or in a conversation with a friend.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent analysis, I love the comparison! As a docent at the museum I hope you won't mind if a few of your perspectives leave my mouth in order to inform those who haven't read your blog.

8:39 AM  
Blogger Rick Seifert said...

I take your comment as high praise indeed. Of course I won't mind, but I'd love to have you expand on the comparison and share it with us.

One thought: Our own times, right now, are no less tumultuous. Who among today's artists are addressing our times as Baskin and Rembrandt did in theirs?

9:16 AM  

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