2 short reviews for now. I will post a longer one on The Ethnic Phenomenon soon, which again won’t be a review of a speculative work of fiction. However, I’m pleased to report I’ve finally started rereading Dune a few days ago – so I hope to review that in a few weeks.
If you’re not interested in the books, do check out my Werner Herzog documentary recommendations at the end, and the tragic lesson at the end of the Rembrandt review.
REMBRANDT’S PORTRAIT OF A YOUNG GENTLEMAN – Jan Six (2018)
The back cover promises this account of how Jan Six discovered a new portrait by Rembrandt to be a “thriller”: sadly this is not the case. Six’s writing is dull and bland, and there is simply no tension whatsoever present, except at the very beginning, when Six spots the painting at Christie’s – it’s ironic that exactly that turns out to be a false account, but more on that later.
If you’ve read anything about Rembrandt by Ernst Van de Wetering – the leading Rembrandt expert – there won’t be that much to learn from this book about the practice of how 17th century paintings are ascribed to a painter, or on Rembrandt’s painterly processes. If you’re new to reading Rembrandt scholarship, this is an easy and quick crash course though. So, your milage may vary.
That said, the discovery of a new Rembrandt is of interest to any serious Rembrandt enthousiast, and as a way to acquaint oneself with this new portrait the little booklet – it can be read easily in under 2 hours – serves its purpose fairly well. There’s plenty of illustrations, and Six includes a good share of paintings by other painters for comparison. The few pages on the restauration, including pictures of the different stages, are the highlight of this booklet.
I would have liked a few more close-ups – it would have suited a publication dedicated to just one painting. All and all, I think this would have benifited tremendously from more detail and depth, but in that case it would have been harder to market and its price would’ve been steeper. Instead the publisher and Six opted for the easy money.
A final remark: the cultural significance of this book most of all lies in its sociological value – it is to say, in its relevance as an example of how our society works. Today’s Jan Six wouldn’t have had the same stature were it not for inherited money and status, him being Jan Six XI, a direct descendant of Jan Six I, who was an heir to a wealthy cloth merchant, and became a magistrat of Amsterdam, and obviously very rich. Jan Six was an art collector himself, and a friend of Rembrandt – who portrayed him in 1654 in an magnificent portrait that is still owned by the Six family. Some might think it poetic that a descendant of Jan Six I discovers a new Rembrandt, but I think it tragic.
It’s all the more tragic as reports in the Dutch press uncovered that Six XI was not fully truthful in this book about how he managed to buy the painting, and that there are serious indications that he double crossed a partner to do so – to the extent that Van de Wetering has publicly called for Six to share to ownership with his partner, and a few days later even denounced his friendship with Six, calling him a liar. I’m with Van de Wetering on this one, as he has no money or reputation at stake at all in this feud between former business partners.
OF WALKING IN ICE, Munich – Paris 11/23 to 12/14, 1974 – Werner Herzog (1978)
I’m a big fan of Werner Herzog’s documentaries. This is another affair however. A pilgrimage of sorts, these writings were meant as a personal diary, not to be published. As a result it is highly idiosyncratic. It might click with some readers, but it didn’t really work for me. It’s always a tough read when an author doesn’t focus.
The main problem with his 70-page booklet is the fact that there is no story arc or character development. Instead of story, there’s sequence. Of Walking In Ice is a never ending series of impressionistic descriptions of things that caught Herzog’s eye or mind during a journey on foot of 3 weeks from Munich to Paris. There’re instances of poetry & meditation here and there, but not enough for my liking. There’s lots of wisdom in Herzog’s documentaries, but there’s hardly any wisdom to be found here. Overall it feels disjointed and random. Herzog jumps from thing to thing very fast, often using just one sentence to describe something or someone, before describing something else that’s unrelated – except maybe spatially. There’s also a few hints of the surreal and the absurd, but again, not enough to deliver a coherent reading experience to this reader.
The ending is great though, so I’m glad I read it. Maybe this is better enjoyed in the original German for its possible poetic qualities – not sure.
I urge everyone reading this to watch any Herzog documentary. Here is a list of my favorites.
Bells from the Deep (1993, on faith and superstition in Russia)
Wheel of Time (2003, on Tibetan Buddhism)
The White Diamond (2004, on the ordeal of an mentally troubled aeronautical engineer who constructs an airship to fly in tropical forest canopy, with music by cellist Ernst Reijseger)
Grizzly Man (2005, on another troubled individual living with bears)
Encounters at the End of the World (2007, on people on Antarctica)
Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (2010, on sable trappers in Siberia)
Into The Abyss (2011, on two men convicted for a triple homicide)
On Death Row (2012, a 8-episode series on capital punishment in the USA)
I guess my absolute favorite is Happy People, for its melancholic depiction of a way of life now lost to nearly all. The self-sufficient trappers’ radical loneliness in the vast winter of boreal nature is awe inspiring.