Art and History Intertwined: On Aiko Tezuka’s Project Rembrandt x Chintz

Ching-Ling Wang, Curator, the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam, the Netherland)
September 2019

Rembrandt’s The Night Watch: A ‘Failed’ Masterpiece and a Misunderstanding

When one thinks of the Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), his monumental work The Night Watch in the collection of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam would probably spring to his or her mind. The painting is considered not only the most precious and important work in the museum collection but also the artist’s magnum opus.

Despite that, this most celebrated Rembrandt’s work was not so well received in the wake of its completion. In the early winter of 1639, the Civilian Company of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq commissioned Rembrandt to produce a group portrait of 18 people, and the painting was planned to be hung in the banquet hall of the Kloveniersdoelen (Arquebusiers Assembly Hall). When the commissioned piece was finally unveiled in 1642, much to his surprise, the artist did not meet with an overly enthusiastic reception from his clients. What they had expected was more of the accurate documentation of their dignity than a work of art with the artist’s creative interpretation. That is to say, each of them simply wanted to have his portrait painted in a respectable manner. Nonetheless, it was generally agreed that there was little dignity or accurate representation found in the painting, since most of the figures depicted in the painting were either half concealed, fading into the background, or having their faces painted in shade. To make matters worse, instead of painting the eighteen people as originally requested, Rembrandt had rendered thirty-one figures in his painting, adding extra ones purely for aesthetic and compositional purposes and intending to liven up the scene. The militiamen, the customers, were supposedly dissatisfied with the final outcome, although there is no concrete record of confirming this. It is conceivable, however, that some of the gunmen, for instance, those portrayed in shade or only partially, may have been particularly displeased with the image. It was no surprising that after completing The Night Watch Rembrandt rarely received portrait commissions for many years.

Although Rembrandt’s clients may not have been happy with the work, today the painting is considered one of the finest pieces ever created even among the so-called masterpieces in the history of European art. Rembrandt executed this picture as a theatrical history painting with much depth latent in its content. The arresting quality of the painting pulls the viewer into the dramatic scene, where the captain raises his arm, giving a command, the beat of a drum is reverberating, the rifle is loaded, and the triggered is caulked. Rembrandt built up a complex scene, giving depth to the space with light and shade and staging Baroque movements against a classical backdrop. Rembrandt was the first artist to depict figures in action in a group portrait, showing the civic guardsmen taking ownership of their duties and marching to the drumbeat. His manipulation of light was also unprecedented. Be that as it may, the title of the painting, The Night Watch, was not given by Rembrandt but rather derived from a pure misunderstanding. By the 19th century, the canvas had become so darkened and dirty that it was thought to represent a ‘night watch’, a group of militiamen on night patrol. After the canvas was cleaned up, however, it became clear that the guards were standing in a dark interior illuminated by beams of daylight.

Rembrandt with India & Japan

It is rather unusual to associate Rembrandt with India, or Japan for that matter, but the truth is that in his cabinet of curiosities, there were objects from the Orient, including goods of Indian, Chinese and Japanese origin. He was particularly fascinated by miniature paintings from the Mughal court of India. In the inventory that catalogues his belongings, an entry on July 25, 1656 reads, “a ditto [art book] full of curious miniature drawings.” This would probably have referred to these Mughal miniatures. While he hardly ever made faithful copies of other artists’ works, he did make a series of copies, twenty-five to be precise, of the Mughal miniatures that he owned.

In the Rijksmuseum collection, there are three sketches made by Rembrandt during 1656-1658, which he copied from these Mughal miniatures, and most strikingly these sketches were all drawn on Japanese paper, for example, The Mughal Emperor Jahangir (*1). Japanese paper was not unfamiliar to Dutch artists in the 17th century, and it was not only Rembrandt who used it but also other artists. For example, Hercules Segers (1589-1638) made prints with Japanese paper.

Indian Chintz with the Netherlands and Japan

Chintz refers to the cotton fabric that was woodblock printed and hand-painted with designs featuring flowers and other patterns produced in India. Imported by the Dutch East Indian Company (VOC), chintz arrived in Europe in vast quantities and was also widely distributed in Persia, Siam, Indonesia, China, and Japan. In Europe, it was not only made into clothing but also played an important role in interior decoration. The exotic motifs of imported chintz were quickly adopted (and adapted) in Europe, and in turn, commissions from Europeans influenced its production in India. In no time, the popularity of chintz spread all over Europe. Decorating interiors with chintz was popular among the wealthy, and it was also used in castles and palaces.

The process of making chintz was complicated. First, the cotton was subjected to a repeated sequence of treatments with various oils and fats. Once the cotton was ready to be dyed, each color was applied in a separate step. Some thick colors and mordants were directly printed with carved woodblocks or applied with a brush. To preserve specific areas of the design, wax was used as a dye resist.

After 1641, Japan’s national isolation policy (sokoku鎖国) allowed only the Dutch and Chinese to trade in Nagasaki until 1854. Through the Dutch VOC, Indian chintz was brought into Japan, where it was cherished as an exotic textile. In Japan, it was called sarasa (更紗) and widely used among devotees of the tea ceremony to wrap artifacts used during tea ceremonies and called meibutsugire (名物裂). It was also used to mount scroll paintings and was even made into kimonos during the Edo period (1603-1868). The Indian chintz also inspired the Japanese textile production. Not only was chintz made into the Japanese style, but also it stimulated the local traditional textile industry, including the famous yūzen-dyeing. Meanwhile, chintz also influenced the textile production in Europe, and the copperplate machine printed fabric had become iconic products in the 19th century. Interestingly, after the isolation policy, Japan welcomed the country’s modernization, and the rapid transformation and mass production changed the way people lived, and the impact has lasted even until today.

Aiko Tezuka’s Rembrandt x Chintz

Aiko Tezuka’s art project Rembrandt x Chintz is intended to pay homage to the Dutch master Rembrandt. 2019 marks the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death. Finding a thread in the history of the commerce-driven interchange between the Netherlands and Japan, Aiko Tezuka designed a special tapestry appropriating the historical chintz and Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, the iconic painting of the Dutch Golden Age.

This ongoing project has so far yielded two works. One is a tapestry, Flowery Obscurity, designed by Aiko Tezuka (fig. 1). On the tapestry, the colorful Indian chintz fabrics (mostly chosen from the collection of the Rijksmuseum) fill the dark areas of The Night Watch (*2). In other words, the tapestry can also be seen as a collage of Rembrandt’s masterpiece and the historical chintz, and together, they merged into a new artwork.

One tends to divide painting and textile into high-art and craft, hence the perceived values are different. In the original commission of The Night Watch, each of the 18 members of the company paid ƒ100 to have their portraits painted, however, at that time, the cost of a tapestry would have been much higher. Aiko Tezuka’s work tackles the issue of differentiating between fine art and craft. She once stated, “I would assume that paintings and textiles were actually treated equally in people’s daily life in the 17th century and influencing each other.” In fact, in the 17th century, important artists occasionally worked on tapestry designs, and the most notable one was Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640).

In this work, the brightly colored Indian chintz became the light in the painting, which symbolized the profitable overseas trade of the Dutch VOC. The illusionistic curtain was a novel motif for painters during the Dutch Golden Age. Rembrandt’s Holy Family with a Curtain in Kassel, signed and dated 1646, is the earliest dated Dutch painting to bear this motif (*3). At first glance, the chintz that fills the dark areas looks almost like the curtain on a stage that was set up by Rembrandt. But the chintz here is not the real chintz. It is woven on a tapestry, like the curtain in Rembrandt’s painting, which is not a real curtain but painted on canvas. Here, Aiko Tezuka plays this art historical motif in her work.

In another work of hers, Aiko Tezuka untied the warp threads of a woven tapestry and re-wove them. The process of weaving and re-weaving can be considered akin to the process of constructing and re-constructing history, while the process of untying the threads can be seen as a process of de-constructing history.

I see Aiko Tezuka’s art project Rembrandt x Chintz as her artistic dialectic between Rembrandt’s work, the overseas trade of VOC in the Dutch Golden Age, the relationship between the Netherlands and Japan, and the Indian chintz. Aiko Tezuka stated, “Accepting the rupture of the cultural lineage, I decided to embrace the cultural hybridization between the West and the East in order to create something new upon that which is neither original nor firmly fixed.” In her works, art and history are intertwined. One could perhaps see history as the warp and art as the weft, and by Aiko Tezuka’s hand, they are woven together.
Fig. 1 Flowery Obscurity (The Night Watch – 01), 2019, Jacquard weaving designed by the artist with colored warp threads (materials of the threads are acrylic, cotton and wool), fabric height 130 cm, fabric width 175 cm, development and production by TextielMuseum | TextielLab – Tilburg, the Netherlands, product developer is Judith Peskens (TextielMuseum | TextielLab), collaboration with Ching-Ling Wang (curator of Chinese art, Rijksmuseum – Amsterdam, the Netherlands)
*1 The Mughal Emperor Jahangir, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1656, ink on Japanese paper, 18.3 x 12 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (accessed on July 11, 2019)

*2 See also Sachiko Shoji’s “Becoming a Thread and a Needle” – Aiko Tezuka’s thought and method

*3 Holy Family with a Curtain, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1646, oil on wood, 46.5 x 69 cm, Schloss Wilhelmshöhe, Kassel (accessed on July 11, 2019)