Darkness Visible

By Jon Davies

nightwatching-peter-greenaway.jpgNightwatching, 2007

Peter Greenaway’s Rembrandt reverie Nightwatching steps into the light

is Peter Greenaway’s first feature film since the expansive database logic and the dizzying brilliance of his multimedia opus, The Tulse Luper Suitcases. Offering a relatively more straightforward narrative arc, Greenaway’s 2007 film bears many of the director’s hallmarks, from its verbose wit to its decadent stylistic games, its fascination with the excesses of the creative mind and the vicissitudes of representation to its glorious bawdiness.

Nightwatching is a rapaciously intelligent treatise on one of the world’s most famous paintings and the all-too-human artist behind it: The Night Watch (1642) by Rembrandt van Rijn. The film is a whirlwind of ideas about the way we look at pictures, and how the artistic process is conditioned by sex, money and politics. For Greenaway, Rembrandt’s masterwork is the sum of countless minute and covert negotiations, a decidedly unromantic mosaic of gossip. The Night Watch is ripe with narrative incident, allowing Greenaway to use fiction to expand on the stories contained within. Dense with historical references, Nightwatching is also composed as if it were a Rembrandt painting itself, transforming the painter’s signature style into cinema, with most of the action unfolding in long shot in sweeping tableaux.

Martin Freeman vividly portrays Rembrandt as a playful, priapic and neurotic man at the height of his fame and talents. He reluctantly accepts a commission by the obnoxious members of the Amsterdam Musketeer Militia to paint a group portrait, but during the painting’s genesis, he discovers all manner of damning intrigue and unsavoury details about the supposedly gallant militiamen. He decides to incorporate these symbolically into the painting as an indictment of his wicked patrons. Blissfully unaware, the men bribe and cajole him to gain more prominent places in the portrait, never suspecting that he will reveal all their transgressions in it.

nightwatching-peter-greenaway-2.jpgNightwatching, 2007

For example, Rembrandt incorporates Marieke (Nathalie Press), the victimized illegitimate daughter of one of the musketeers, into the painting as a blistering j’accuse against the men (they have turned the orphanage she inhabits into a brothel). Young Marieke embodies Rembrandt’s noble if ultimately self-destructive act of criticism. Just as the painter dramatises his subjects’ more sordid dealings, Greenaway lays bare the painter’s amorous affairs, particularly his passionate relationships with his wife Saskia (Eva Birthistle) and his loyal servant Hendrickje (Emily Holmes), while drawing connections between artistic creation and sex (comparing financial finagling to flirtation, for example).

Speaking by telephone before the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival, Greenaway proved himself to be a loquacious and droll lecturer beyond my wildest dreams. He frequently ignored my questions, choosing to breathlessly pursue his own discursive threads unfettered. What Greenaway’s in-depth and illuminating reflections on Rembrandt, The Night Watch, and European painting and history reveal is how thoroughly wrapped up Nightwatching is with the problem of representation. The film is very much about the gap between the way we regard ourselves and the way we are seen by others – and especially how we can never trust an artist to portray us in our own image. Greenaway’s term “nightwatching” becomes a metaphor for seeing beyond pretence to what things truly are, especially as all the illicit shenanigans that typically take place between sunset and sunrise – away from prying eyes, one hoped – were for the first time subject to illumination and thus to the artist’s gaze during Rembrandt’s age.

Jon Davies: Nightwatching seems like a return to linear narrative after the encyclopaedic and multimedia Tulse Luper Suitcases project, and I’m wondering how you see Nightwatching in this regard, or are these distinctions specious in your work?

Peter Greenaway: Well I think some of the characteristics may be a little unorthodox, we’ve got characters speaking to camera in this film which is, on the whole, not so familiar. There’s a tableau vivant feel about it, there’s this scene and there’s that scene and somehow the audience has to fill the gaps in-between, so that moves it away from straight Jacobean drama where there’s meant to be links between everything. And there’s a certain sort of theatrical artificiality about it; for people interested in reality cinema, that doesn’t quite fit their bill. But you are right, I wanted to make a dissertation, I wanted also to make an extremely beautiful film, which was using the lighting vocabulary of Rembrandt himself. I suppose he’s always known to be a high practitioner of high-Baroque artificial light. So there’s lots and lots of references to many, many paintings, and not only to the golden age of Dutch painting.

nightwatching-peter-greenaway-3.jpgNightwatching, 2007

Two things I think are relevant historically: first, the discovery of the mirror – mirrors are now being made and manufactured so the bourgeoisie can get their hands on them – and second, there’s a huge great leap in artificial light technology. Candles are suddenly becoming cheaper, even the petit bourgeois and even the more well-off proletariat are getting to be able to afford candles. Before that, most people went to bed when the sun went down and woke up when the sun went up so the daylight phenomenon is extending, and of course any painter worth his salt is looking at what all this artificial light is doing so it’s a new world and we’ve tried to reproduce a lot of that.

And there’s a huge amount of history for those people who want to know and listen to it. Masses and masses of reference to all his contemporaries, to all the mysteries of his life, etc. etc. and we’ve all bound it up, of course, in a scheme which tries to answer the fifty-one questions that the painting poses and also to make an explanation of why this Bill Gates figure, fantastically successful at the beginning of his life, in fifteen years is a pariah and a pauper. It’s a CSI, it’s a crime scene investigation, it’s almost like here at the Rijksmuseum – and I’m just around the back of the Rijksmuseum this very moment as I speak to you – there’s a police cordon around the painting and a murder has been committed.

JD: So I take it this is the result of a lifelong research project?

PG: I went to art school, the Royal College of Art, in the 1960s, a long, long time ago, and I’m quite convinced that probably in European terms since the Renaissance, Rembrandt is the most successful painter ever. A lot of other painters I admire most, and a lot of other painters perhaps more meteoric in their excitements, but I think in the year 2007 Rembrandt really is posited very well. He is democratic, he is republican, he is anti-heroic, he is non-Catholic. He is very interested in the man in the street, the girl next door, the child whose just shat his breeches, the old man dying of leprosy. He’s very post-Freudian, he’s interested in psychological insight. Of course, he’s figurative, which is an enormous advantage for the man in the street because at least you can see what he’s doing. Even when he paints angels, he paints them with dirty ears and muddy feet, so there’s a great sense of familiarity. He is very sort of anti-heroic, so he’s not like his almost-contemporary down the road here, Rubens, who’s always showing off what a good guy he is. And he paints the woman next door, and so he’s almost a proto-feminist too, he never creates females for an intrusive male gaze. I think often a lot of his paintings are very erotic, but there is a sort of basic respect for women which a lot of his contemporaries never had – always giggling and laughing at women. He is implicitly humanitarian, so I think he represents everything that we think the best of ourselves now. Let’s recapitulate: republican, democratic, humanitarian, post-Freudian, non-misogynist, non-misanthropic, so I think a positive guy.

nightwatching-peter-greenaway-4.jpgNightwatching, 2007

JD: So how did you end up working with Martin Freeman, who brings him to life so well?

PG: Well I think there have been two fairly famous go’s at Rembrandt before: Alexander Korda made a film in the 1930s with Charles Laughton which was an extraordinarily silly travesty, a ridiculous film. We know so much more about Rembrandt now in 2007 than we ever did in 1930, we hardly ever knew who his female consorts were and we didn’t even know who he fucked but now we know every brothel he went to and every street he walked in. I suppose he’s really one of us now, whereas then he was a figure of some mystery and secular genuflection. He was the great painter but now basically we know he is the Dutchman who lives down the road, so that’s a big, big change.

There’s a whole other new thing which I suppose we haven’t talked about, that the high Baroque with Velazquez and Caravaggio and Rembrandt really represents proto-cinema. It’s almost as though they’re inventing for themselves chiaroscuro and problems of light four-hundred years before the Lumière brothers in 1895.

JD: I was going to ask if there are painters in your mind who are much more cinematic than others.

PG: If you take Rembrandt’s almost-contemporary Vermeer, there’s something far more photographic about Vermeer. In fact, Vermeer’s reputation went into eclipse for about two-hundred years until photography was invented. And we know that Vermeer used a camera obscura, a very primitive lens system, so in a curious way he was a photographer way back in the 1670s. So maybe he’s more cinematic. I suppose maybe in a curious way, with a certain Hollywood crudity, Caravaggio, with his sensationalism and his high-pitch blacks and his brilliant whites is probably even more cinematic. But I think Rembrandt in total is the total painter has got more going for him because Caravaggio’s vocabulary was really quite limited, it was basically bright light against dark silhouettes, so he’s sort of a silhouette painter. And Vermeer only painted twenty-six paintings and they’re mostly about women reading, writing or thinking about writing letters, so in a strange way, Vermeer is almost a writer manqué as much as a painter.

nightwatching-peter-greenaway-5.jpgNightwatching, 2007

JD: You make a lot of connections in the film between sex, romance and the artistic process, could you talk a bit about that? Also, could you comment on your practice of unearthing the carnal details of life that are left out of official histories?

PG: Remember most paintings were never seen by most people until museums were invented in the middle of the nineteenth century. Though The Night Watch was painted in 1642, it went on public exhibition almost as soon as the varnish was dry and the list of all the people who have seen it is very impressive: not only Van Gogh, Stendhal, but also Mussolini, Hitler, Napoleon and Metternich. A lot of these people were probably incoherent, didn’t really know much about painting and saw it as a tourist attraction, but huge numbers of very percipient people – Schopenhauer, Kant and a whole series of philosophers and certainly people like Proust – have seen and written about it, so it’s a much-written about, a much-known painting, which means that a huge accumulation of opinion has grown up – there are libraries and libraries and libraries of books about it – and I try to quote and reference a lot [of that]. I’m very, very curious to find out what all the art historians are going to say when they actually see it. They’re probably going to knock me on the head, but that’s par for the course.

As regards to your other question, Rembrandt was an intensely domestic man and his private life and his public life were incredibly interwoven. There was a phenomenon called a tronie, not exactly a portrait but it’s a use of stereotypes, so portraits of old men, portraits of virgins, portraits of whatever, sold extremely well at the beginning of the seventeenth century. And he uses all the people in his life: certainly his children, certainly his wives, certainly his mistresses, certainly his concubines, all the time all the time all the time all the time, and he’s massively making sketches all the time too – highly, highly prolific. And he’s got his fingers in the print market which is just burgeoning all over Northern Europe, they are just being able to understand how to make very, very sophisticated prints. The technologies for printmaking is a bit like the explosion of the contemporary internet phenomenon, and I don’t exaggerate, there were huge print markets in Antwerp and Paris and Amsterdam. So he’s part of an international club and art market too that spreads his images very quickly, certainly all over Europe. By the time he was twenty-three, Charles I of England had Rembrandt portraits in his bedroom, he was a big, big international figure in the days when communications were by no means as sophisticated as they are now. So Damien Hirst, eat your heart out.

JD: Do you feel that Rembrandt’s great critical act in the film is akin to your own as a filmmaker?

PG: I like to be able to play about with a certain amount of evidential information and an intelligent appreciation of the situation, I’d like to believe. I suppose I’m a filmmaker that wants to make huge connections between, what, eight thousand years of the painted image and 112 years of cinema.

This interview was originally conducted for the Toronto International Film Festival’s Festival Daily newspaper in late August 2007.

Nightwatching, recently seen in the UK at the 2008 Cambridge Film Festival, will, one hopes, be more widely available here shortly.

Jon Davies is a film, video and media arts programmer, curator and critic based in Toronto. He is currently the Assistant Curator of Public Programs at The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, and has published widely on cinema and contemporary art in Canada and internationally.