Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 27, 2019
Stephanie Schrader, ed. Rembrandt and the Inspiration of India Exh. cat. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2018. 160 pp.; 138 color ills. Cloth $39.95 (9781606065525)
Getty Center, Los Angeles, March 13–June 24, 2018

Imagine an art history of either South Asia or Europe where Bichitr (active circa 1615–50) and Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606–69) share the same discursive space. The cover of Rembrandt and the Inspiration of India provokes us to envision precisely that: an art history where a painting and a drawing of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan by two contemporaneous artists—one from South Asia and the other from Europe—can coevally reside alongside each other. In a way, the cover functions as an introduction to the larger art historical intervention that the exhibition catalog aims to perform: namely, investigating questions of equivalence between worlds that were, until recently, seen as resolutely incommensurable. Building on the global turn in art history—a turn that has explored themes of connectivity and worldly subjectivities, not just in Europe but in diverse parts of the early modern world—the 2018 exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum and the accompanying catalog focus on a series of drawings by Rembrandt that were based on paintings from early modern South Asia.

The drawings that were at the center of the exhibition have received significant art historical attention since the early twentieth century. From a seminal 1904 study by Friedrich Sarre to more recent analyses of a “global Rembrandt” (see Catherine B. Scallen, “The Global Rembrandt,” in Crossing Cultures: Conflict, Migration, and Convergence, Miegun-yah Press, 2009), these remarkable drawings have become a testament to the worldly aspirations of early modern Dutch artistic cultures. Where the exhibition catalog departs from earlier scholarship is in the attempt to situate Rembrandt’s drawings within a history of copying that does not privilege Europe. While other themes are also discussed in the four essays, the act of copying as a form of visual ekphrasis emerges as the central leitmotif. Copying, we learn, was a Eurasian phenomenon. As European and South Asian artworks journeyed across vast oceanic spaces from the sixteenth century onward, artists in both contexts determinedly copied the new visual regimes and themes that they encountered through transregional exchanges.

The opening essay by Stephanie Schrader, the curator of the exhibition, focuses on the global cultures of Amsterdam within which Rembrandt functioned. The artist’s collection of foreign objects, other contemporaneous collections of South Asian paintings in Europe, an increasing awareness of South Asia’s cultural polity through books focusing on the subcontinent, and the materiality of imported paper provide Schrader with an expansive context in which to comprehend Rembrandt’s interest in South Asian paintings. Moving against earlier scholarship that interpreted this engagement as only germane or internal to Europe’s art history (that is, the idea that South Asian art presented Rembrandt a convenient system for visualizing biblical narratives), the author proposes that imitation with a slight difference was the modus operandi. Rembrandt did leave his authorial trace, but the trace was at the level of an attempt to translate South Asian systems of representation into his specific lexicon. What emerges from Schrader’s essay is the portrait of an artist who copies distant aesthetic regimes as an experiment in self-fashioning. But, as the author notes, this self-fashioning does not occur within a cultural capsule called Europe. Schrader’s Rembrandt—“a student of foreign art” (21)—could only materialize because of artworks that arrived in Amsterdam through the trading networks of the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC).

Catherine Glynn’s essay further develops the question of copying by focusing on art production in Mughal South Asia. The copy of a copy of a copy: Rembrandt’s Akbar and Jahangir in Apotheosis, Glynn suggests, was based on a Mughal composition that was, in turn, based on Bichitr’s circa-1640 double portrait of the emperors Akbar and Jahangir. A discussion on the multiple versions of the painting—one of which Rembrandt might have seen in Amsterdam—offers an effective argument against easy fetishizations of originality as authorship and copying as merely subservient imitation. Furthermore, the author’s analysis of the structures of the Mughal atelier provides a counterpoint to the artistic worlds that Rembrandt occupied. Read together, the essays provide a nuanced study of the context, both in South Asia and in Europe, within which Rembrandt’s drawings and the paintings that “inspired” him would have circulated and acquired meaning.

In a similar vein the next two essays, by William W. Robinson and Yael Rice, can be read together to understand the history of collecting and the function of albums in Europe and South Asia respectively. Robinson suggests that Rembrandt’s drawings operated as aide-mémoire for the artist, since paintings from South Asia were unattainable. The drawings, according to the author, allowed the artist to “gain knowledge of the world” (55). Robinson thus locates copying within another vector, one in which meticulous emulation becomes a way to acquire familiarity with a world beyond one’s immediate horizon. Rice develops this model of cross-cultural engagement by suggesting that Rembrandt’s drawings should be seen as part of a larger ongoing system of copying and collecting across early modern Eurasia. Through a synoptic history of early modern South Asian artistic cultures, the author suggests that Mughal albums circulating across Europe and Asia should be seen as the ciphers of early modern globality. For, unlike the limited circulation of Rembrandt’s drawings, albums from South Asia were actively collected, not only across the Persian-speaking world but also in Europe. This is a crucial argument and becomes all the more significant in a catalog that primarily focuses on Rembrandt’s oeuvre within a “global art economy” (3).

What emerges from these four essays is a picture of a multidimensional art world that stretched from Delhi to Amsterdam. Yet a subterranean tension runs through the catalog. The authors carefully unpack the “connected histories” (Sanjay Subrahmanyam, “Connected Histories: Notes towards a Reconfiguration of Early Modern Eurasia,” Modern Asia Studies 31, no. 31, July 1997) that allowed for the circulation of paintings from elsewhere and how, in both instances, artists attempted to make foreign styles and themes their own. As a corrective to older Eurocentric art histories, the essays propose that the practice of translating unfamiliar artistic systems was a form of commensurability. Both Bichitr and Rembrandt, we must then concede, were equally global. But what about incommensurability? Even as Schrader notes that Rembrandt and South Asian artists “were irreconcilable in all their differences” (3), the catalog would have benefited from a deeper engagement with the question of incommensurability.

The global world of Rembrandt was moored to a specific post-sixteenth-century bourgeois consciousness that commenced with colonial expansionism under the aegis of the VOC. Thus, even as one admires the attempt to read South Asia’s encounter with European art as more than a symptom of unrelenting Westernization, global Amsterdam, we must also concede, was not the same as global Shahjahanabad, the capital of the Mughal empire in the seventeenth century. The Mughals never had an expansionist ambition of seaborne colonialism, unlike European trading companies, even though they enthusiastically collected objects from Europe and other parts of the world. Rather than a seaborne empire, historians propose that the Mughals were a “sea-conscious” empire (Manya Rathore, “‘Floating Political Rhetoric’ in the Indian Ocean: Situating the Portuguese in the Mughal Foreign Politics,” in The Indian Ocean in the Making of Early Modern India, Routledge, 2017). Thus, global Shahjahanabad was epistemically different from global Amsterdam. Put differently, while global Amsterdam was a product of a global extractive economy that flourished because the VOC had colonized territories in Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Americas, this was not the case for the Mughals, with their elaborate mechanisms for revenue redistribution and thriving regional markets. Indeed, only a few decades before Rembrandt started translating Mughal paintings into his own idiom, the VOC had declared genocidal war in Southeast Asia. Officers of the VOC, for instance, occupied the Banda Islands in the 1620s, massacring large sections of the population and enslaving the survivors to work in nutmeg plantations. It was this blood spice that created the “global city of Amsterdam” (5) and Rembrandt, its global citizen. Therefore, in order to be applicable in diverse parts of the world, the term “global” needs to be fractured, presenting, of course, a conceptual contradiction in itself.

While the catalog does intermittently refer to the Dutch history of colonial exploitation as enabling the cosmopolitanism of Rembrandt, a more systematic attention to the extractive regimes of colonial violence that directly acted as a stimulus in engendering new art practices in Amsterdam would have allowed for a more nuanced art history of the global early modern. Rather than seeing the global as innocuously empowering coevality or connectivity across the world (as the cover of the catalog seems to imply), it is all the more necessary today to think of the complicity among early modern capital formation, colonialism, and art making as fundamentally a hegemonic operation of power that has indelibly shaped the world that we have inherited. But, rewriting the globality of early modern Europe as a form of savagery is not the burden of one exhibition catalog; it is the responsibility of all who work in this new field of study called “global early modern” art.

Sugata Ray
Associate Professor, Department of History of Art, University of California, Berkeley