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Moridja Kitenge Banza, From 1848 to the Present, 2006–20.

National Gallery of Canada

Anyone who thought the National Gallery of Canada would return from the COVID closures with a conventional and comforting display of historic European masterworks was dead wrong. At the heart of the gallery’s new Rembrandt exhibition, half a dozen 17th-century portraits of fine ladies in black dresses with white collars confront a collection of everyday stainless-steel teaspoons recently assembled by the Canadian-Congolese artist Moridja Kitenge Banza.

What’s going on with the portraits and the teaspoons? Well, it’s complicated – and that is rather the point.

On the surface, Rembrandt in Amsterdam: Creativity and Competition is a traditional museum show. It’s a study by Queens University art historian Stephanie Dickey of Rembrandt’s middle years – how he built his career in tandem with the city’s economic expansion in the early 1600s. This is not a Rembrandt blockbuster: The most famous paintings aren’t leaving the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam or London’s National Gallery, although both have lent other works. Rather, it is a carefully considered assembling of far-flung loans from Europe, the United States and Canada, with the help of Frankfurt’s Stadel Museum, which co-organized the show. It then uses these portraits, biblical scenes and landscapes by the artist and his contemporaries to track the social, economic and cultural context of his art.

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The show tells the story of how Rembrandt, already working as a history painter in his hometown of Leiden, moved to the metropolis in 1632 and established himself as a sought-after portrait painter to a burgeoning bourgeoisie, as well as a prolific printmaker. He also trained a posse of students, some of whom would eventually emerge as his rivals when artistic fashion shifted toward lighter, slicker styles.

Rembrandt's The Blinding of Samson, 1636.

Städel Museum, Frankfurt

Certainly, there are conventional pleasures on offer here. There is a fabulous array of portraits, from the artist’s gentle rendering of his wife Saskia to the bold pose of Portrait of a Standing Man (Andries de Graeff), or the 1642 self-portrait as a solid citizen in a hat and decorative chains. When it comes to narrative paintings, Rembrandt’s ability to instill high drama in biblical subjects is fully revealed in Frankfurt’s gruesome Blinding of Samson where the Philistines poke out the Israelite hero’s eyes while a gleeful Delilah looks on.

Meanwhile, the exhibition also provides a rich context for the National Gallery’s own impressive collection of Rembrandt’s prints, alongside good didactic material explaining various printmaking processes. And the show offers ample opportunities to compare Rembrandt to his many talented contemporaries, such as Jacob Backer, Ferdinand Bol and Govert Flinck, particularly in the area of portraiture as Amsterdam’s limners made their careers amongst the new plutocrats of the Netherlands’ so-called Golden Age.

Moridja Kitenge Banza, From 1848 to the Present / Cross-section of a Slave Ship, 2006–18.

National Gallery of Canada

That is a term the gallery now eschews, which is where the teaspoons come in. The point is that it wasn’t golden for everybody – not for the poor or the sick and certainly not for the colonized or enslaved. Dutch wealth was built on global trade, sometimes fair and sometimes not. To create From 1848 to the Present, Banza developed his own fictional currency to barter for the teaspoons and arranges them in rows, as a product of those exchanges. Each teaspoon is a little head on a little body: Trade included slavery, as Banza makes more explicit in a second ink-and-graphite work in which the silhouettes of the spoons are lined up like bodies on a slave ship.

The spoons are also, as the gallery’s text panel points out, tiny mirrors reflecting viewers back at themselves just as Rembrandt reflected affluent citizens – and himself – so many times. But can the portraits of ladies stand up to all this contemporary intervention?

Yes, indeed. In fact, a standard art historical hierarchy is busy asserting itself in the room as curator Dickey lines up three portraits of women holding fans. Flinck’s is notable for its honest portrayal of a homely countenance, while Bartholomeus van der Helst excels in the depiction of his sitter’s glossy black dress – but these two hold their fans limply. The figure in Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Young Woman with a Fan brings hers up to her waist as she rises from her chair as though greeting the viewer. It’s easily the most engaging of the trio: Clearly, it was not simply fashion or commercial smarts that first elevated the Rembrandt brand.

Rembrandt's Portrait of a Young Woman with a Fan, 1633.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

What the National Gallery is doing here is tricky, but perhaps necessary, if viewers recall the Gauguin Portraits show of 2019, which struggled to address the French artist’s exploitation of Tahitian culture and women. The experience of the colonized or enslaved is not fundamental to this new exhibition – if you wanted to do that show, you would surely need to obtain the loan of the artist’s sympathetic portrait, Two African Men, from the Mauritshuis in The Hague. (It is illustrated in the exhibit catalogue and seems to depict exotic travellers, not enslaved people.) Instead, the National Gallery is merely layering contemporary concerns over top of Rembrandt’s artistic achievements. Unusually, at the start of the show, Dickey is identified as the author of most didactic panels while three others have contributed signed texts: art historian Joana Joachim on issues of race and gender, and artist Rick Hill and curator Gerald McMaster on Indigenous themes.

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Joachim, for example, provides information about the Dutch Reform Church’s ambivalent attitude to slavery in the room filled with Christian scenes while McMaster points out that the red drapery in several portraits was dyed using cochineal, an insect collected and traded internationally by Indigenous people in Mexico.

Exposing the implications of Dutch trade does represent a welcome broadening of context, but the link to local Indigenous issues may seem tenuous. However, the show’s crucial revelation is that, in Rembrandt’s day, the Dutch had already established friendly relations with the Haudenosaunee confederacy. The exhibition begins with a reproduction of a wampum belt whose parallel blue lines symbolize a pact of non-interference between the two cultures. If Rembrandt in Amsterdam means a discussion of the sources of Dutch wealth, Rembrandt in Ottawa means an acknowledgment that in his day, Europeans had already reached what is now North America.

Sometimes these reminders and interventions work as well as the teaspoons. And sometimes not. A room featuring a few of Rembrandt’s exclusively Dutch landscapes is unbalanced by discussion of the “New World” landscape traditions that romanticized grandeur without acknowledging the existing inhabitants. Kent Monkman’s 2007 work The Triumph of Mischief is a sly comment on that tradition that overpowers the much smaller Dutch paintings in the room.

Ruth Cuthand, Smallpox, 2011.

National Gallery of Canada

On the other hand, the connections made as the exhibition closes resonate deeply. Rembrandt’s life was marred by the premature deaths of his nearest relations, including three of his four children, their mother Saskia (probably of tuberculosis, at the age of 29) and Hendrickje Stoffels, the servant who became the artist’s partner in later life (who likely died from the plague). In the final room, portraits of Stoffels and of Rembrandt’s daughter-in-law (mother of his only grandchild), as well as those of unidentified biblical figures for which Saskia may have modelled, all hint at the same dreadful fragility. Nearby, contemporary Cree artist Ruth Cuthand contributes Smallpox and Pneumonia, two of her beaded representations of the European diseases that killed Indigenous people.

In a text, McMaster makes the connection with the lessons of COVID but reminds us what life was like before modern medicine: It is estimated that 90 per cent of the Indigenous population may have been killed by these diseases. So human mortality swirls about the gallery as a provocative exercise in enlarging art history comes to a close.

Rembrandt in Amsterdam continues at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa to Sept. 6.

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