Rembrandt Online: A Tale of Two Museums
With 2019 being donned ‘Rembrandtjaar’ (Rembrandt year) by the Rijksmuseum, the largest collection of the artist and the national museum of the Netherlands, it is interesting that two particularly noted shows of the online museum epoch are of an artist so widely exhibited the year prior. His work is not that which comes to mind when pressed to surmise an artist easily digitised. His dramatically lit scenes of the religious to quotidian are certainly light dependant; while museums are able to acutely control this, the brightness settings on your iPhone may not be apt for optimal Rembrandt optics.
The Ashmolean Museum on the Oxford University campus worked 10 years to produce their Young Rembrandt exhibition, only for it to be unfortunately closed after 3 weeks due to the pandemic, while the Museo Thyssen Bornemisza in Madrid focused the city’s importance in the prominence of the Dutch Master’s portraiture amidst a feverishly competitive artistic milieu. These exhibitions are treated with the utmost respect and reverence, with super-high resolution images of the works apropos for such a detail-oriented artist. These online exhibitions take dichotomous online strategies of visitor navigation, though both show an equal labour of love put into the shows.
Rembrandt is an artist entrenched in patriotism; he never left Holland and is regarded often unanimously as the greatest artist of the region’s famed ‘Golden Age’. His work is not without external influence with frequent comparison to the Baroque Artist Caravaggio, yet it is certainly idiosyncratic and he made his name by developing a style recognisable as ‘Rembrandt’. His Amsterdam years, the focal point of the Thyssen Bornemisza show, propel the artist as the unitary ‘Rembrandt’ sans the ‘van Rijn’ of earlier. The city was one of great competition for commission, with rivals like Frans Hals and Thomas de Keyser attracting many important patrons amidst the booming economy of Amsterdam, though it was there he emerged as the recognisable artist he is today. This discussion of geography and culture is perhaps salient in the future politics of museum collections. Flemish and Dutch works came into the Spanish courtly possession during imperial conquests and have remained in royal collections ever since, somewhat morally questionably. National collections are perceived alternately through the internet however as there is less patriotism in ushering visitors to your sieged relics of prior colonialism through a Google search that through marble columns.
The artist’s early works, the primary direction of the exhibition Young Rembrandt in Oxford, are of divergent mediums, subject matter, and efficacy when contrasted to his Amsterdam years. The Ashmolean curators probe the ‘born master’ myth and depict an artists struggle, maturation and success in one succinct show. The artist revised his craft diligently until he cemented himself as the painter of the era.
A direct juxtaposition of the two shows may not yield the most important comparison due to the difference in nature of each institution; they vary greatly in budget, audience and intention. The Ashmolean’s educational impetus echoes its position within an incredibly academic setting of Oxford, whilst the Thyssen has a far greater public audience reach, revenue and thus resources available. Positioned not only in the capital of Spain but also in the epicentre of museums in the country amidst the ‘big 3’ in the city (very close proximity to the Museo del Prado and Reina Sofia), the museum sees a lot of foot traffic with visitors coming to browse its extensive collection - an encyclopaedic style history of art across 9 centuries. The Ashmolean boasts an excellent collection too, an emphasis on Egyptian art and renaissance works on paper, though it’s real value is it’s research capacity with resources for specific in depth research carried out by students of Art History and Archaeology at the University. The brick and mortar institution is of little importance when experienced on the internet though. Online collections aren’t really stumbled upon on like one may a museum when visiting a city in person. It is the specific resource on offer which matters and not the experience and leisure found in passing time in a cultural setting - the physical walls of the two palatial museums are substituted with virtual compositions.
While both shows tell stories of specific parts of Rembrandt’s career, the digitisation of the museums is antithetical. The Ashmolean’s ‘Online Exhibition’ resembles a traditional press release of an exhibition, only this time with greater information and images given. The text-based guide is punctuated by 5 curated sections of the museum telling the tale of Rembrandt’s early artistic maturation through a diverse gallery of images. The Thyssen show takes on an extremely contrasting approach, offering a truly ‘virtual’ walk through of the exhibition. You, the viewer, navigate the exhibition halls as if you are there in person with a high-res 3-D 360 degree formulation of the actual in person show. The Google Streetview-esque virtualisation of museum visitation is increasingly popular in large institutions with the budget to implement such advanced strategies. The result is ambivalent for an avid museum goer like myself. Initially I appreciate the freedom this grants you. I can explore the museum at my own pace. Despite considered curatorial efforts you still may decide to attend to certain works over others and this feature grants you such liberty, albeit at the limited scope of a computer screen. The Ashmolean is far more directed and narrative, echoing its educational focus, whilst the Thyssen exhibition offers an experience far more reflective of an actual museum trip in the way that the images are consumed. This is not to say it is overall more enjoyable though, in fact far from it. The novelty of directing yourself through museum halls from a computer wears off after the first few minutes and I find myself at odds with a frankly jarring navigation system prone to lagging, technical faults and overall frustration. It is disorienting to the verge of nausea and the gimmick of having autonomy over where you direct your sight eclipses the true ‘star’ of the show, the portraits of Rembrandt and his contemporaries. While the resolution of the images is better on the Thyssen portal, after spending minutes finding the perfect alignment of the screen to the work on the wall, this is little compensation.
The Thyssen has its moments though. The works shown in the exhibition are perhaps of greater notability than of Ashmolean and the wider scope of the exhibition lends attention to a number of important artists of the era in order to position Rembrandt’s work in wider socio-cultural setting. I find this a drawback in some ways though. The exhibition is referred to almost unitarily as a monographic account of the artist Rembrandt, though after a cursory swing at the virtual tour it is actually rather difficult to find any work by the artist in many of the rooms. The Ashmolean show’s virtualisation is assuredly less ambitious, though in terms of curation it piques my interest thoroughly. Questioning genius and born talent in the most canonised of artists is progressive curation. Furthermore, the presentation of an array of mediums and subject matter allow for a more interesting experience in order to understand the artist’s overall oeuvre and not just high-profile commissions.
I am quite sure that my aversion to the presentation technique of the Thyssen show is superficial and an in person visit to the museum would prove very rewarding. Museums are tasked with the difficulty of reconsidering object never intended to be digitised. However, in these times and for the future it is necessary and weighing up various techniques is forward thinking and beneficial to the direction of online museumology.
Young Rembrandt will reopen as per the Ashmolean Museum's schedule, specific dates are still to be announced. The Online Exhibition mentioned here is available at: https://www.ashmolean.org/youngrembrandt
Rembrandt and Amsterdam Portraiture, 1590-1670 at Museo Nacional Thyssen Bornemisza runs through 20th August 2020. The online resources are available here: https://www.museothyssen.org/en/exhibitions/rembrandt-and-amsterdam-portraiture-1590-1670