Pairing Rembrandt’s beggars with contemporary photos of urban poor provides a rich experience
A series of small prints present a powerful message in “Sordid and Sacred: The Beggars in Rembrandt’s Etchings” on display in Reynolds Gallery this fall. The exhibition features 36 pieces from the John Villarino Collection. It’s the first show that Director Judy L. Larson, R. Anthony Askew professor of art, has organized for Reynolds Gallery.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669) created the works between 1629 and 1654. A common subject for the Dutch master, beggars often informed his images of saints and other subjects, including himself. One well-known etching in the series is his self-portrait, “Beggar Seated on a Bank” from 1630 (see photo at left).
Work by South African photographer Zwelethu Mthethwa complements the theme of Rembrandt’s pieces. Mthethwa’s Contemporary Gladiators series depicts the lives of the urban poor in Mozambique, providing a contemporary perspective.
Pairing the small etchings with eight oversized photographs seemed problematic at first. “We were concerned the color photographs would overwhelm the etchings, but they talk to each other beautifully,” says Sarah Squire, art department and gallery assistant. “As one guest observed, the small size of the etchings forces you to get up close and intimate, really engaging with the people depicted. In the same way, the large size of the photographs puts you right into the space with the African worker. Both sets of images encourage the viewer to see the subjects as individuals, as interesting, intelligent and storied people who command the common dignity of human beings.
“One large photograph of a coal miner is almost a perfect reflection of the self-portrait of Rembrandt as a beggar that hangs across from it. In the photograph (at right), a tired-looking man is seated on a stump, resting his wrists on his knees, surrounded by long yellow grass with a vibrant blue sky above. In the Rembrandt image, he is dressed in loose rags and sandals and seated on an undefined bank of earth, looking out at the viewer with his mouth open as if speaking or yelling. The two men’s slouched position is so similar, it is one of many reminders that people today have so much in common with people of the past.”