I was in Amsterdam for a while and, while there, I visited the rijksmuseum. What I saw there left a powerful impression upon me. In the Rijksmuseum one can see, in all their glory, some of the more famous works by Rembrandt and his disciples. In a sense, it’s a pity that this was the first art I enjoyed during my tour of Europe. It spoiled me and caused me to view the work of other Renaissance artists as inferior. Indeed, even the work of Michael Angelo seemed cartoonish in comparison. I feel privileged to have stood in front of such masterpieces as Nightwatch and The Staalmeesters. Their immense size, coupled with their incredible quality, left me in awe and I felt as if I was actually there, in the same room as the subjects.
In my view there are two categories of painters: Rembrandt and everybody else – and yes, I realize this is a totally subjective statement. Others will surely disagree. The greatness of Rembrandt is widely held to be in his mastery of shadows and light. For me, this means his mastery of transitions. While other artists rendered their subjects as distinct from their backgrounds, Rembrandt incorporated them into a smooth transition from the background. His use of shadows had the effect of attenuating the borders and bringing his work closer to the three dimensions we perceive as reality.
Another artist who specialized in transitions was M.C. Escher. But his was a different approach. His transitions take the form of creatures morphing into each other. Where does the fish end and the bird begin? The boundary between night and day? It is hard to tell. Even up and down lose their meaning. He had mastered the art of depicting separate realms of reality on the same canvass. But even as he confounded the borders of up and down and muddled the distinctions between various creatures, his work also emphasizes their contrast. I have been an admirer of Escher since I was a little boy and my parents had a book of his work on the living room table.
Both Rembrandt and Escher were Dutch. I am not so sure this is coincidence. The Netherlands is a land of transition. It is a land where the boundary between land and sea is always in flux. Canals crisscross the country and much of the land is reclaimed from the sea. Every so often, the sea claims it back. Both Rembrandt and Escher were products of the land that spawned them.