Michael Hayward's Blog

VIFF 2020: "My Rembrandt"

Michael Hayward

My Rembrandt is a fascinating documentary from the Netherlands, directed by Oeke Hoogendijk, which takes us inside the rarified world of those few men (and they are always men) who have the desire—and the means—to indulge in an ultra-expensive hobby: collecting "old master" paintings, specifically: paintings by Rembrandt van Rijn.

First onscreen in My Rembrandt is a Scottish Duke, the Duke of Buccleuch, Scotland's largest private landowner, with a holding of 217,000 acres of Scottish land. We find him sitting in his study gazing up at his Rembrandt, "Old Woman Reading" (1655). The painting is just one canvas in the vast collection acquired over generations by his ancestors (he is the 10th Duke of Buccleuch). From him we hear how the Duke's family came to amass its fortune: "We were border reivers. We began as people who stole cattle from the English. That's how we accumulated lands and territories. And then when the era of peace came, we transformed ourselves into being good, solid citizens." This seems a useful tip if you'd like one of your descendants to one day own a Rembrandt: embrace a life of crime and near-crime, since it seems the quickest way to achieve power and influence, in the certain knowledge that your descendants will eventually be able to whitewash such sins away. And thus the Astors, the Bronfmans, and the Trumps.

The 10th Duke of Buccleuch explains that he would like to shift his Rembrandt from its too-high perch, so that "she" is more accessible to his gaze. "We want her where she can read her book while we are reading ours." Later the Duke is shown overseeing the work in progress: the shifting of furniture, the removal of carpeting and other wall decorations, in order to prepare a new home for his Rembrandt. In the background of the scene, the gloved and anonymous workmen pause in their labours. For a moment the camera treats them all equally, the workers granted the same number of pixels as the capitalists, but in the end it is capital, and the capitalists, who speak, while the workers stand silently. We cannot help but wonder at their thoughts on art and the ownership of Rembrandts.

Later in My Rembrandt we are introduced to Thomas Kaplan, an American billionaire who, after selling his companies, had enough capital on hand to indulge in what can only be described as an extreme shopping binge: "[My wife] Daphna and I were purchasing on average a painting a week. For 5 years." He leans towards the camera and shares this deep thought: “There’s nothing more lethal than passion and capital.” Later, at the opening of an exhibition of the Kaplan collection of Dutch old masters at the Louvre, Monsieur Kaplan mingles delightedly his equals, his place among them assured by his vast fortune. "Mon general!" he exclaims, exchanging bisous. And "Guillaume!" as another titled friend arrives. And a photograph is taken to commemorate the occasion, of the Kaplans standing with their influential friends, posing proudly in front of the Kaplan paintings.

My Rembrandt tells of other Rembrandts, and other owners: a pair of full length portraits painted by Rembrandt, of a rich man from the 17th century and his wife, the paintings owned for generations by a branch of the Rothschild family in France, who found themselves needing to sell these two treasures in order to pay "gift taxes." The asking price? A mere 160 million euros. The eventual new owners? The Louvre, and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Perhaps most fascinating is the story of Jan Six XI, descendent of a family of Dutch nobles, one of whose ancestors was actually painted by Rembrandt. The younger Six has spotted what he believes to be an unattributed canvas by Rembrandt, and purchases it at auction for a relative song. The film documents his efforts to prove that it is, in fact, a genuine Rembrandt.

It is somewhat surprising to discover just how unguarded the ultra-rich can be when a documentary film-maker comes calling; a testimony to the power of flattery, perhaps. They offer a variety of motives for their obsession: a deep appreciation for beauty and craftsmanship of the highest order; a desire to make available to the public (through loans to art museums), works of art that have long been in private hands. They, the Rembrandt-owners, are quick to wrap themselves in the mantles of philanthropy and public service.

But through the course of the film we begin to read between the lines, to see beyond the self-serving PR, and come to understand that there is so much more at play. Art, particularly "old masters", particularly Rembrandts, are perhaps the safest investment in troubled times, as well as being (if one's money is "new") the surest way to demonstrate one's appreciation for high culture, and to be granted entry to influential circles.

My Rembrandt is a quietly subversive film, and well worth viewing. It is available for streaming through the VIFF Connect app until October 7th. A trailer for the film can be viewed here. Visit the VIFF website for more information on VIFF 2020.



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