Patrol On Alert

Present-day artists typically entertain an anxious, critical approach towards the world. And in times of crisis they frequently revert to classical art in their quest for a foothold and a dialogue with great Old Masters. Classical art might occasionally appear to be a thing of the past, while today’s artistic process is regarded as a mockery of the former serious attitude. But is the method of profound dialogue with the past really outdated? Whenever a format - if the term is applicable to arts history – breaks down, artists clearly tend to seek new forms and a new direction of development. Such are the authors of a bronze remake of Rembrandt’s picture: they boldly, yet carefully transposed the masterpiece painting into sculpture.

Sculpture, the oldest and rather conservative art, has now lost its impact, although its role in the urban world is very important. It often tends to turn into something unorthodox, mimicking and seemingly melting into a different art. Undoubtedly, the striving to break out of the conventional circle, to enter another dimension is inherent in contemporary art. Nevertheless, Mikhail Dronov and Alexander Taratynov, representatives of the realistic branch of modern plastic art, do respect the boundaries laid down by the visceral nature of their chosen art.

The two truly creative sculptors wished to bring the famous painting by Rembrandt into contemporary context, for they believe that the picture’s artistic potential allows the use of various languages, including the cinematic one, as was demonstrated by Peter Greenway. But, given the scale of Rembrandt’s genius, how many would dare shoulder this responsibility?

So, A. Taratynov and Mikhail Dronov, both members of the Russian Acdemy of Arts and top-ranking professionals with vast artistic experience, invented a surprisingly effective way of bringing Rembrandt’s characters to life. At the celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Great Dutchman held in Holland they displayed their bronze “Nightwatch 3D”, that had taken them 5 years to execute. This interactive project started back in 2001, long before the anniversary, and has since acquired a few new characters, today numbering 22 figures. The bold interpretation of the picture was on display in Maastricht and the Hague, where it was officially unveiled by Queen Beatrix.

The installation is to be set up in Amsterdam, near the museum of the great Dutchman. Perhaps, it was the appearance of the multi-figure sculpture in Rembrandt Square that triggered the Square’s restoration, for which the people of Amsterdam had been campaigning for 30 years. Each of the figures having a permanent pedestal, the picture characters are ready to gain a new, unusual status: formerly actors of a travelling “sculpture theatre”, they are turning into components of a monument which is to surround the age-old statue of Rembrandt. City authorities even dared to change the position of the statue in space by turning it around, so that the bronze warriors were lit to advantage. The chorus actors, though bronze ones, step onto the stage, – actually, onto the city square, where they are to sing a hymn not only on the evening of the performance, but day after day. There is no denying that this role is far from easy and requires extraordinary skill.

Holland greeted the monument by Taratynov and Dronov enthusiastically when it arrived even before the Rembrandt Year. Their unorthodox artistic idea allowed them to give the well-known masterpiece a new life, for the sculpture appears entitled to a world of its own. Obedient to the authors’ will, Rembrandt’s characters not only abandoned the canvas plane to step out into three-dimensional space, they also got their second wind. We won’t go into the educating role of the plastic dramatization of the picture, which causes even those who see the Master as a mere vintage addition to glamour culture or a symbol of the ‘tulip country’, to change their view. In fact, our optical perception does change after we have really walked about inside the picture, thanks to this 3D version of the “Nightwatch”. The square has become a venue for Rembrandt’s characters, all slightly taller than an average human. One can wander among the jaunty riflemen, occasionally shaking hands with them (the warriors’ hands and their halberds are already shining brightly, as if polished!). Indeed, where else would you find not a mere copy or parody of a picture, but its 3D reconstruction? Even the sketchily painted figures were recreated down to the smallest detail. The sculptors took the trouble to study historical works, so as to reproduce faithfully the clothing and weaponry of the time. But on taking a good look at the picture they realized that the painter had depicted the foreground figures incredibly thoroughly, literally forcing them to follow him in every minutest detail. For facial likenesses, however, they relied both on Rembrandt’s masterpiece and on handpicked real life models, with the view to preserving stylistic unity… This required total immersion in, and identification with, Rembrandt’s work. At the same time the sculptors allowed themselves the liberty of fantasizing a little: the Dutch still life is not to be found on the original canvas.

In constructing the huge sculpture, the largest in Holland today, Taratynov and Dronov were mindful of plastic rules and spatial proportions as well as of the proper degree of conventionality. The methods and materials - clay, bronze, and manual casting – have been traditional for ages. The grandeur of this neo-baroque piece, so full of movement, details and typical theatricality, conveys with striking accuracy the strong humanistic element characteristic of the Master. The large number of figures and the immense size of the monument – tons of metal and many cubic meters of space – do not cancel its human scale. The viewers will certainly appreciate an opportunity to feel like local militiamen, even though they will subconsciously perceive the illusory effect of the composition. The bronze “Nightwatch”, just like its pictorial forefather, powerfully draws us into its expanse with the mighty movement of diagonals, changing the onlookers into participants in the event. By appropriating the old story and intensifying tactile sensations, the sculptors transform it before our eyes into a new art reality. This results in a breakthrough into a different expanse, a kind of virtual fissure in history. The opportunity to go round and look at the “underside” of the familiar picture, surprisingly clothed in bronze, is almost like a chance to see the hidden side of the Moon.

The art of Old Masters, on which the whole project is based, is seen here as ever-living substance, inspiring contemporary authors to produce uninhibited poetic statements of their own. The position taken by M.Dronov and A. Taratynov is far from timid, it is aggressive. Yet, their assault on Rembrandt, clearly indicative of post-modernist aesthetic, is devoid of derision and mockery, which is no surprise considering the authors’ obvious respect for the classic art and their consummate professionalism. The expressive plastic freedom of the “Nightwatch” has one important aspect: the physical touch of the creator’s hand, imprinted in the sculpture for ever. There is nothing reactionary behind its realistic forms. On the contrary, they are meant to pull down the walls of academic art. Their healthy conservatism promoted the determined search for a radically new format and a change of modus operandi.

Basically, the remake of the picture, its re-creation in sculpted form is actually nothing other than a palimpsest, i.e. a text written over another text, a quasi-sacred one in this case. The idea is far from new: classics also used to converse with each other in a similar fashion, often debunking long-established traditions. This takes us back to the old debate that went on throughout the 20th century: what is a great piece of art? A sacred object only to be reverentially worshipped, or a guide to action? If it becomes a source of popular quotes, it will rejoin the continuum of art history.

The sculptors have done a great job. The giant bronze installation is a pure experiment based on personal enthusiasm bordering on passion. Through it Dronov and Taratynov make their creative work part of the new cultural paradigm, which discards the dominance of the “flat picture”, so typical of the art in the past. The fate of today’s art is to be spatial and polysemous, as well as interactive: this is the only way to breathe new life into an old piece. A. Taratynov and M. Dronov do follow Rembrandt, though not in form, but in essence. Having himself no liking for dogmatism, the Master was also inclined to actualizing artistic work, and so has remained an emblematic figure in art history.



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