Rembrandt's etchings up close

Fontevraud, Maine-et-Loire. Creating an etching is a laborious process. You must first coat a copper plate with varnish, then proceed by subtracting this layer to make the design. The plate is then immersed in an acid solution, which etches the design in the copper by “biting”; it is then cleaned of its varnish, covered with a layer of ink, itself cleaned to remove the excess material. When the ink is only lodged in the interstices “bitten” by the acid, the plate is finally ready for printing. This technique of intaglio engraving has a master: “It rarely happens that one can completely identify a technique with the genius of a single artist; however, we can say that etching, in the 17th century, is Rembrandt”, declared in 1963 Karel G. Boon, director of the print room of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

This quote opens the second major summer exhibition at the very young Musée d’art moderne de Fontevraud, “Rembrandt en eau-forte”. And it sets the tone for a journey centered on the creative process, a visit to which can become as time-consuming as the seven stages in the development of an etching. “It’s not an exhibition that can be viewed quickly, warns Dominique Gagneux, director of the museum. We show how the image is constructed, we talk about “kitchen”. » The subject elaborated by non-specialists in Dutch engraving (Dominique Gagneux and Gatien Du Bois, project manager at the museum) escapes a thematic categorization of the engravings, or even simply a chronological one.

The journey is sequenced around terms which are all image composition techniques used by Rembrandt: hatching, gaps, chiaroscuro, accumulation. This bias directly influences the way in which the visitor can appreciate the engravings presented at Fontevraud, by directing his gaze on the construction of the image, the graphic techniques which allow Rembrandt to render texture and material, the framing and principles of modern composition used by the master.

See and understand

We should not look here for a historical statement, a presentation on Rembrandt in his time: the contextualization is limited to a classic chronological reminder at the start of the course, and the iconographic text explanations go to the essentials. And that’s good, because although most of the works are the subject of a cartel commentary – sometimes dispensable –, the exhibition is not an invitation to read and learn, but to see and understand. The few keywords that punctuate the route would be enough to guide the visitor.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669), Self-portrait leaning on a stone ledge1639, etching.

© Frits Lugt Collection – Custodia Foundation.

It is also the quality of the works (from the Glénat collection, the Petit Palais in Paris and the Fondation Custodia) that allows this bias. What better example than Landscape with three trees could we find in the history of art to illustrate chiaroscuro? Is there a corpus more eloquent than the tronie (“face”) by Rembrandt to evoke an artist’s research on expressiveness? Here there is no attribution dispute, no identification of models or iconographic themes. This allows us to concentrate on the essential: the radical construction of images by Rembrandt, which still inspires the vocabulary of cinema today.

The scenography enhances this both technical and contemplative subject by animating through variation a course of graphic art, all in a black and white atmosphere conducive to concentration. Dominique Gagneux reproduces here an arrangement of accordion picture rails that she had tested at the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris, and which creates small niches in front of each work, an invitation to an intimate and prolonged relationship with the engravings. The optimal comfort of visit (lights and windows) brings the visitor a little closer to the engravings, until getting lost in the hatchings that make up a coat, or encountering a wide gap of white paper in reserve around which the master composed his scene. An almost sculptural relationship to the etchings of Rembrandt, discreetly extended by a few photographs printed on copper plate by Elger Esser, a welcome contemporary counterpoint to the works of the 17th century.

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