Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Portrait Gallery of the Golden Age:

In the last week I've been to the Frick Collection and Met Museum in Manhattan, the Rijksmuseum, and today to the Hermitage Museum–which all, in their own way, exalt their collections of Dutch Art. Today I revisited the latter, to once again look at a carefully curated collection of about 20 immense group portraits from the Dutch Golden Age. They're so immense that they were imparted through the roof during their installation. Titled the Portrait Gallery of the Golden Age, the lights are dimmed within the main gallery space, which is double heighted, with tiny glass balustrade defined voids, which allow one to look down below, and in some instances behind, the paintings on display. The dimming of the lights lends the atmosphere a certain dramatism, which in turn makes the paintings seem much more overwhelming than they considerably are. Indeed these paintings are complex and difficult to understand; so many subjects within one work confuses and overwhelms the eye. When hung side by side, within such a two story space, these massive portraits–which portray civic guard groups, as well as society and guild member–are overwhelming. In the best possible way. The floor above, with the lovely overlooks, tells the story of the making of the modern Dutch city, and how it was then inhabited, focusing much on its bourgeoisie. These paintings have a certain specialness to them; they're sort of Dutch national treasures that have given so much to this Kingdom, including pieces of its identity. Invested with meaning these paintings are. To behold them clustered in such an absorbing space requires spending time with them–getting familiar with their many faces, and and settings, is what this exhibition is all about. There's also numerous paintings similar in composition, though from the sixteenth century, which adorn intimate galleries that lead to the main gallery space. Group portraits from that century are much less animated; meaning that those portrayed in them seem, to the viewer, much less 'alive'. Those paintings work in tandem with the narrative about the city and its inhabitants above, to add information to the period of time just before the Golden Age. It's helpful. What would really make this collection complete, would be a similar piece by Frans Hals, such as his De magere compagnie, currently in the RijksmuseumYet the exhibition does applaudably include a few portraits from this genre with traces of eighteenth century fine painting beginning to show, most are from the seventeenth, and specifically the Dutch Golden Age of painting–which is defined, art historically, as from 1590-1670. The exhibition is on display until about the end of the year, and so far I've visited it twice. Though I'll need subsequent visits to be able to form a holistic opinion about it, that the history surrounding the lives of those who inhabit these gorgeously oversized portraits has been included in the exhibition, will strengthen their meaning, for those who take the time to learn of their original context.