Rembrandt’s J’Accuse

MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL ARTS FESTIVAL: In his latest film, director Peter Greenaway explores the mysteries of Rembrandt’s remarkable painting, ‘The Night Watch’.
Rembrandt’s J’Accuse
According to British filmmaker Peter Greenaway, the 1642 painting The Night Watch by Dutch artist Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn is “an indictment … an accusation” – and contains a series of clues pointing to a murderous conspiracy, if only one knows where to look. Greenaway’s claim that we don’t know how to look – that in the modern era we have become visually illiterate – is a key element of Rembrandt’s J’Accuse, a doco-drama which uses re-enactments and digital technology to explore the painting’s creation and composition; and to advance Greenaway’s twined arguments of murder and visual illiteracy. Made as a companion piece to his 2007 film Nightwatching, a biopic about Rembrandt’s creation of The Night Watch, and re-using many of the former film’s dramatized scenes, J’Accuse is structured as a visual and auditory essay in which Greenaway advances his argument through a series of presentations exploring 31 of the 50 mysteries he believes the canvas contains. According to Greenaway, after being commissioned to paint The Night Watch, a prestigious group portrait of a division of Amsterdam’s civic guards (thus the painting’s alternate title, the ‘Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch’), Rembrandt discovered that members of the regiment had murdered one of their peers and covered up the crime. Incensed at the musketeers’ culpability, Rembrandt subverted the traditional formal group portrait he was commissioned to paint into a damning accusation, concealing a series of clues within the painting pointing to the guilt of the men it portrays. Ironically, the movie Greenaway has made to advance his argument about society’s visual literacy, and our reliance on the written word, is itself an overly wordy film. Greenaway himself appears in many of the film’s scenes, popping up to explain this point or that fact, and his verbose voice-over dominates the soundtrack; and his fractured vision and reliance on overlapping frames and multiple perspectives is initially engaging but becomes overused. More damningly, many of the claims he makes about the painting go unsupported. No external references or commentators are presented to bolster or document Greenaway’s sweeping claims; and like crime writer Patricia Cornwell in her book Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper – Case Closed, in his eagerness to mount a ‘definitive’ argument about The Night Watch, Greenaway ignores several facts which don’t fit his claims. After The Night Watch was publically displayed, according to Greenaway, the influential men whose reputations Rembrandt had tarnished set out to destroy the painter in order to ensure their own careers did not suffer. But Rembrandt’s career did not suffer as a result of painting The Night Watch. In 1642, the artist received approximately 1,600 guilders for The Night Watch. Four years later the Prince of Orange gave him 2,400 guilders for two smaller works, so clearly Rembrandt was still successful 48 months after his alleged accusation on canvas went on show. It’s true that Rembrandt’s career began to decline in later years, and by 1656 he was almost bankrupt, but the consensus among art historians such as Harvard’s Professor Seymour Slive is that it was the changing tastes of the Dutch public, coupled with the painter’s long-established extravagance, which resulted in his declining fortunes. Nor was the painting itself poorly received after its unveiling. The Night Watch was originally hung in the Kloveniersdoelen, the headquarters of Amsterdam’s civic guards, thereafter being moved to a prominent location in the Amsterdam Town Hall – hardly the place you’d hide a damning accusation. Furthermore, Captain Banning Cocq – one of Greenaway’s alleged conspirators – had a personal copy of The Night Watch made for his own collection, which is scarcely the action of a man exposed as a murderer by the very same painting. As leading Australian art critic Robert Nelson recently wrote in The Age: ‘Visual literacy consists not in inventing things that aren't there, but connecting the things that are. While reproaching the visually illiterate who only see what they want to see, Greenaway plunges into the very fallacy that he scorns.’ A dense, fascinating but deeply flawed film, Rembrandt’s J’Accuse is more intellectual curiosity than an important work; but if it encourages a deeper engagement with visual literacy, and a prolonged analysis of the works of the old masters, it is nonetheless to be welcomed as an interesting addition to the canon of the Western cinema tradition which Greenaway himself scorns as “impoverished”. Rembrandt’s J’Accuse Directed by Peter Greenaway Produced by Bruno Felix and Femke Wolting Cinematography by Reinier van Brummelen Stars Martin Freeman, Eva Birthistle, Jonathan Holmes, Michael Teigen and Peter Greenaway Melbourne International Arts Festival October 9 – 24, 2009
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Richard Watts

Tuesday 20 October, 2009

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R FM, a program he has hosted since 2004.

Richard currently serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management, and is also a former Chair of Melbourne Fringe. The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, he has also served as President of the Green Room Awards Association and as a member of the Green Room's Independent Theatre panel. 

Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend in 2017. Most recently he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize for 2019.

Twitter: @richardthewatts