Photo – Pedro Greig
While most of the headlining acts of the Sydney Festival are typically theatrical works such as stage plays, modern circus, burlesque-tinged cabaret, dance and music concerts, many of the more intriguing entries each year come in the form of art installations, performance artists, and unexpected oddities.
One of the more original events this year comes in the form of an entertaining marriage of visual art and live music, tying in to the current exhibition Rembrandt and the Dutch golden age: masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum at the venerable Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Directed by John Bell with music curated by Paul Dyer, this charming event features a group of seven musicians courtesy of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, including two vocalists, and a trio of dancers, all in 17th Century Dutch period costumes. This group, looking as thought they stepped straight out of the paintings they are performing in front of, play amidst this exhibition of fabulous works by Rembrandt, Hals, Vermeer, Ruisdael and De Heem et al. These talented musicians in costume perform Dutch music from the era by artists such as Thomas Baltzar, Johannes Schenk, Jacob van Eyck and many others, playing on appropriate instruments such as the baroque violin and flute, harpsichord, chamber organ and lute.
The result has elements of the kind of “living history” attractions that were seen in open-air museums like Old Sydney Town or medievalist “Renaissance Fair” gatherings, in which performers in period costumes generally seek to stay in character for the entertainment and edification of guests, yet here with a less directly interactive and far more highbrow result. This band of would-be troubadours traverse the multiple rooms of the exhibition in roughly sequential order, encamping in around half a dozen separate spots and beckoning the free-flowing crowd to follow and form impromptu gatherings around them. In some spots there is singing, other pieces are purely instrumental, while still others serve as accompaniment to short displays of rustic faux-historical dances.
Close observance is not enforced, however, and patrons are equally free to treat the performers as simply a roving version of a live string quartet at a classy event or the band at a reception, if they wish to wander off and lavish the majority of their attention on the astounding paintings, enlivened by a rather splendid bit of live background music. Indeed, closely watching every moment of live performance is not even strictly possible, as at some points separate performances take place simultaneously in different rooms of the gallery, and in any case attempting to do so will leave patrons little time to take in all the art on display.
Indeed, the paintings themselves are a rare treat, including engrossing portraits of silversmiths, landowners and city councilors, common in the Netherlands of the period but rare for the middle classes elsewhere, due to Dutch society’s unprecedented level of commercial and cultural prosperity in this era. Easily the most famous piece in this visiting collection is the iconic self-portrait of Rembrandt as the apostle Paul, a haunting piece that stares out at the viewer, alive and vital after over three and a half centuries. Surrounded by an impressive sample of his etchings and some striking religious paintings, the dedicated Rembrandt room is unquestionably a highlight.
The exhibition is rounded out with many other subjects, domestic scenes, village life, comedic portraits and portrayals of tableaux bawdy revelry, a few landscapes, and several impressive biblical “history paintings.” This includes one on the common “Adoration of the Magi” theme by Hendrick ter Brugghen, which features probably the creepiest baby Jesus you will ever see, a sentiment apparently echoed by one of the painting’s original owners, who had it covered over.
The final room is dedicated to the popular genre of the still life, featuring many showcases of the artists’ virtuosic verisimilitude, laced with symbolic subtext on the transitory nature of life, via its stunningly realistic renderings of fruit, dead game, burned-down candles and, of course, skulls.
A very novel and entertaining experience, highly recommended for lovers of classical art and music.
Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and Art Gallery of NSW/Sydney Festival presents
Director John Bell
Music Curator Paul Dyer
Venue: Art Gallery of NSW | Art Gallery Road, The Domain NSW
Dates: 6 – 23 January 2018
Tickets: Rembrandt Live $66/$59 | Rembrandt Live + Baroque Banquet $276