Events in light: the Rijksmuseum and cinema’s main tributary art

The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. flierfy

Each of the arts confers upon the cinema something of its own metier. Dance, its movement. Poetry, its structure. Theatre, its situations. Music, its rhythm. Sculpture, its salience.

But painting is the most important of the cinema’s tributary arts. The victory of the Italian Renaissance painters over perspective informs every shot ever filmed. Commentators have noted the influence of Caravaggio on the chiaroscuro of film noir. Godard, in his Histoire(s) du cinéma, argues for the roles of Goya and of Manet in the shaping of a cinematic canon.

But no-one tells us as much about the truth claims of cinema as the Dutch, Flemish, and Delft artists of the 17th century. The re-opening of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, after a massive refurbishment, is thus a cause for celebration for lovers of the Seventh Art the world over.

The conditions for the Dutch miracle in visual art are three-fold. The Reformation reset the relationship between God and subject on an individual footing. The radicalisation of the Republic, especially between 1650 and 1670 in the first Stadtholderless Period, saw the rise of the most egalitarian citizenry in world history to that point. And, not least, the absolute flatness of the Low Countries’ landscape necessitated a new visual sensibility.

The warming influence of the Italian Renaissance on Dutch painters had some pernicious effects: a predilection for rugged escarpments, fanciful grottoes, and rearing mountain ranges, which have the ring of sheer fantasy in the Low Countries.

The progressive shedding of those geographical fancies, and the reduction of the scenic background to a featureless flat line (in the work of von Ruisdael above all), had an astonishing sequel.

For what happens when the background collapses is that the figures in the foreground attain to a radical specificity. They emerge into their own autonomous light, self-contained and complete.

The figure’s integral sufficiency is the great visual conquest of the Netherlands. Be it a pear cut starkly in half, a brimming goblet, a maid bent sweeping the tiles, or a nest of wrinkles around an old man’s eye, the great Dutch artists saw and depicted them all as utterly singular, and endowed with truth.

The Protestant condition of a singular relationship with God helped focus this immanent radiance of each object, as did the egalitarianism of the Republic. Somehow the redistributed social and religious relations in Holland in the 17th century meant that the very light fell on all things with a new significance.

Spinoza, the great philosopher of this moment in history, wrote that “each individual thing has the sovereign right to do everything that it can do”, because in a democratic setting “all things remain equal as they had been previously, in the state of nature”.

Spinoza was a lens grinder, but it was the artists of his day who saw this new world for what it was: a momentous series of sacred apparitions in the weave of the mundane. For them the world invariably announced its truth as some immitigable event in light, as likely to shine out from a sick child’s eye as a mother swan’s fierce defence of her nest.

Artistic truth no longer belonged to scripture, to the classics, or to the nobility. It belonged, astonishingly, to everyday life, to the Dutch light’s promiscuous tendency to invest all things with an equal luminosity.

And this is cinema’s most important lesson from the art of painting—that light knows no hierarchies, no fixed grades of person, thing or region; that it falls on the world with an indiscriminate love for all it touches.

Just as the great Dutch artists strove in their work to bear witness to that radiant election of quotidian matter by finding some passable transcription of it in paint, some record that “this was so; it appeared to me thus”, so too cinema provides us with a piercing testament of light’s having been there.

Cinema is an art of events in light. It simply asks that we stand faithful in the wake of its imperative: fiat lux.

If it ever needs reminding of this elemental fact, as it sadly does today, it should turn back to those fearless masters who first made the same declaration on behalf of their art.

To Frans Hals, who made his roisterers move palpably on the canvas, and whose “Portrait of a Couple” stands as the most striking depiction of gender equality in the tradition.

Frans Hals, Wedding portrait of Isaac Abrahamsz. Massa (1586–1643) and Beatrix van der Laan (1592–1639). Wikimedia Commons

To Jan Steen, whose visions of children and labourers pulse with spiritual incandescence.

To Pieter Saenredam, who sat transfixed by the sheer volumes of light that glowed from the interiors of Protestant churches, deprived of ornament and figure, but suffused with grace abounding.

And above all to those immortal geniuses, Johannes Vermeer and Rembrandt van Rijn.

Vermeer is the inventor of “life caught unawares”, the supreme documentary visionary of the miracles in tone and shade that erupt from within the routines of everyday life.

His slender canon superintends the great masters of intimacy in the cinema: Ozu, Bergman, Dreyer.

Rembrandt is the inaugurator of a palpable human individuality; on a par only with Shakespeare and Beethoven in their respective media. He put the human being, as it really is, on the plane of the visible. He declared: this is a man, this is a woman.

He did so via the application of paint that looks exactly like applied paint. His thick, improvised impasto technique, leading to effects of pure abstraction within the representational field, leaves you in an extraordinary suspension between the thing represented and the stuff representing it.

Rembrandt understood that the truth of painting is precisely this Janus-faced character: we look at the paint, and we look at what it is showing us, simultaneously.

What is most moving is the evidence left behind by the artist’s supreme efforts to capture the event in light, as another event in light, for us. The paint tells us what the artist did to make that event visible.

The most moving picture in the Rijksmuseum, perhaps in all Western painting, is known as The Jewish Bride.

Rembrandt’s “The Jewish Bride”. Wikimedia Commons

In it, a man leans into a woman with one hand around her shoulder, another on her breast. Her left hand gently touches his; her right rests on her stomach. He gazes lovingly at her; she looks with supreme contentedness off left.

All across the composition, the impasto passages accrete scintilla of light: along his right arm; on the rings on her fingers; as highlights on the tips of their noses.

I don’t know any other picture that so perfectly presents love as a sudden confirmation of absolute equality, in a surge of light out of a surrounding gloom. The picture says: this is love, his for her, hers for Being, and Rembrandt’s for the image itself, the event in light.

If cinema does not know its equal, then that is because the image is in some sense the guiding promise of all cinema: that it, too, will realise itself in a comparable work of sincere and egalitarian love for the people who make such miracles possible. Us, here, now.