• Looking at Art

    Kiefer on Night Watch

    The German artist does Rembrandt, by way of van Gogh.

    Anselm Kiefer's installation La Berceuse (for Van Gogh), 2010, was in a room devoted to Rembrandt's The Night Watch, 1642.

    MYRA MAY

    German artist Anselm Kiefer was given carte blanche by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to create an installation around the museum’s best-known painting, Rembrandt’s masterpiece The Night Watch (1642). As with much of Kiefer’s work, the outcome was highly provocative. While installed in the same gallery as Rembrandt’s colossal group portrait, Kiefer’s work, entitled La Berceuse (for van Gogh), 2010, addressed Rembrandt by way of Vincent van Gogh. It consisted of three towering glass vitrines—each measuring around 5 feet wide and 13 feet high. Two were filled with cracked earth and sunflowers, the other contained a dilapidated old garden chair. According to Ludo van Halem, curator of contemporary art at the Rijksmuseum, “This was an international happening in Holland. Everyone expected something else, and they were very surprised.”

    The inspiration to salute van Gogh in a room devoted to a Rembrandt painting arrived as a happy accident for Kiefer. “The piece came about when I was preparing my show for New York”—at Gagosian Gallery last December—”and these three vitrines were left in my studio. One night, I was very tired, and my brain had already gone to sleep a little. I had this idea they would be perfect for Amsterdam. Sometimes the best ideas come when you’re very tired,” he says. “Rembrandt is a great painter. I particularly like the self-portraits he did when he was old, the ones with the deep eyes. The Night Watch is very different. It’s about a moment of waiting, of starting something—it’s a departure situation. That’s what interests me.”

    Kiefer’s installation spoke specifically to van Gogh’s seated portrait of Augustine Roulin, also called La Berceuse (Lullaby, 1889), which van Gogh had wished to hang as a triptych with sunflower canvases on either side. His letters suggest he especially intended the painting for sailors, hoping the maternal picture of Roulin would evoke the sense of being rocked in a boat or a cradle and inspire memories of lullabies. Kiefer explains that “van Gogh wanted the painting to be in a harbor, for sailors, to create a kind of utopia. For me, it’s like Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9 in D Minor, the one about universal brotherhood. Van Gogh had that idea too, although it never happened.”

    If the luminosity of the glass vitrines and the color of the dried sunflowers created a dialogue with The Night Watch, for Kiefer, it was not designed as a literal homage to Rembrandt: “It works visually, and if something works visually, you can find the intellectual arguments to defend it.”

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