untangling the awkward relationship between art and money

Murder, Prostitution and Corruption in 17th Century Amsterdam? Peter Greenaway Casts a Jaundiced Eye on Rembrandt’s ‘Night Watch’





A valiant group of civil militia, heading out into the streets to enforce law and order in seventeenth century Amsterdam? Or a clique of corrupt street thugs terrorising the populace? In a documentary to be screened at the San Francisco Film Festival, Rembrandt’s J’Accuse, legendary filmmaker Peter Greenaway proposes the latter (Greenaway is pictured on the set of J’Accuse in the image below). 

Rembrandt’s famed painting The Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch, now commonly known by its popular name, The Night Watch, is the star attraction at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. It is generally believed to depict a group of arquebusiers led by their Captain through the streets of Amsterdam. It was commissioned as a group portrait, glorifying the company and its leaders.

Greenaway interprets the painting somewhat differently, though. He believes that Rembrandt embedded coded messages in the painting that would have been legible to seventeenth-century viewers. The message? That all was not as it seemed with this group of hirsute, spiffily dressed, and carefully coiffed gentlemen. The golden-haired child at the centre-left of the painting according to Greenaway’s version was a prostitute from an brothel where members of the militia could be serviced by underage orphans. And the figure of Frans Banning Cocq, dressed in black and with a blood-red sash, becomes Satan, leading his company into hell.

The head of the Rembrandt Research Project, Ernst van de Wetering, has expressed concern that Greenaway’s interpretation will be “so misleading to the general ill-informed public”. Now he knows how Da Vinci might have felt about Dan Brown’s venture into the realm of visual analysis.

For some reason that completely escapes me, The Night Watch has attracted its fair share of deranged attention over the years. It is a stunningly complex and visually enthralling painting, but I’ve never understood how or why it has become the object of destructive attacks at the hands of the mentally deranged. It’s been seriously damaged twice – the first time by an unemployed school teacher, who slashed it with a knife numerous times in 1975. Another man sprayed acid onto the painting in 1990. They mustn’t have liked the way the little child (or orphan prostitute, if you prefer Greenaway’s interpretation) was looking at them.

Each to their own, I suppose. It’s yet another example of how an artwork’s meaning can be completely altered by the historical, mythological and theoretical framework that builds up around it after it’s made.

The things that happen to an artwork as it moves through history, and the myriad interpretations made by countless people each of whom brings to the painting a unique perspective borne of personal experience can alter a painting’s meaning, and can even affect its physical form. By this I mean that the painting you see before you is not frozen in time – it undergoes a metamorphosis of sorts just by moving through history. This change can be physical and metaphysical. For example, restoration undertaken in 1975-6 revealed that contrary to prevailing wisdom, The Night Watch was set in daylight – the nocturnal atmosphere observed prior to that date, which led people to erroneously dub the painting ‘The Night Watch’, was imparted by an accumulation of grot, grime and smoke. The painting was also cropped on all four sides in 1715 or so when it was moved from the Kloveniersdoelen in Amsterdam to the Stadhuis, in the process losing two figures on the left margin. We can get an idea of what the painting looked like prior to its trimming from a copy painted by Gerrit Lunden in the mid-1600s.

Which all goes to prove that more often than not, an artwork can be much more than meets the eye. Although I’m not very convinced by the devil in black boots and knee-high hooker theory. I’ll get back to you once I’ve seen the film.

Images: Rembrandt’s ‘Night Watch’ – Delhi University; Greenaway on the set of ‘J’Accuse’ – Art News

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