Buckland Abbey, a National Trust house in the county of Devon has a self-portrait of Rembrandt van Rijn, the one with the feathered bonnet dated 1635. The last time I was there, it hung in the dining room of the dissolved and refurbished Cistercian abbey, which also served as Sir Francis Drake’s residence. It is quite a recent addition to the collection of the National Trust (it came as part of death duties in 2010), and it is also a rather newly acquired contribution to the oeuvre of the master. Its authenticity was questioned in 1968 during the heydays of the Rembrandt Research Project, which had thrown doubt on several attributions. It was reconfirmed to be that of the master only in 2014 by an international team of experts (conveniently raising its value from a hundred thousand sterling to circa thirty million). It has been regularly touring in the UK and on the continent since then – it became a popular and attractive painting, once again.
I do not know whether Rembrandt belongs to Buckland Abbey. Not that he would care. It is certainly odd to find him in a dining room, even if it can be linked to the renowned privateer, national hero and, possibly slave-trader. But equally, this room does not belong to the building, the old walls of the Cistercian church resurface everywhere in the complex and do not allow for any attempt of a fixed and pure architectural identity. It is a palimpsest; and in that respect it has perhaps every right to reinvent itself as a new home for the painter, whose countless self-portraits categorize him as the first and foremost artist trying to capture his own elusive self.
Rembrandt comes closest to a living person in the story of art. He again and again painted himself, and his portraits document a life of love, success, pain, loss and hardship. The portraits are part of him, and his frozen self, which we would like to believe, survive in every one of them. The painting at Buckland Abbey is an early version (he was 29 years old): the jacket and the bonnet point towards social ascent, yet the shaded eyes express the same benign uncertainty that would characterize him all along. Caring about a Rembrandt portrait, for the artworld, is in fact caring for a person, not for an object.
I wonder what dislocation and homelessness mean in the context of this portrait. Today it is generally accepted that displacement is not an accidental feature of artworks, but it is their raison d’être. Works that are created for a specific function (religious or political) and for a defined community of beholders are qualified as products of visual culture; and depending on the vehemence of the commentators, their purpose is communicative, utilitarian, ideological if not propagandistic. They are not free, they serve. They belong, and they pay a price for that.
On the other hand, Rembrandt’s portraits do not belong to a specific space and time. They are early forerunners of disinterested (or dysfunctional) images that would become the main form of artworks after 1800. Artworks are not supposed to belong. The radical changes in visual consumption around 1800 in Europe meant the transformation of purposeful and subservient images into free and independent vessels of beauty, adored in the new – liberal – temples of art: in the museum. For the works of the old masters, this meant a series of temporal and spatial dislocations. They had to reinvent themselves for new audiences and overcome the loss of their original owners (and authors), who had died centuries beforehand. More often than not it also meant displacement, the familiar context of the altar or the palace was traded for the flattering settings of the gallery. As if Rembrandt had anticipated all of this, his portraits seamlessly enter in to contact with hordes of visitors around the globe. A dining room in Devon is not even a challenge.
The museum as a temple of beauty, shelter of objects or new home of images successfully integrated this temporal and spatial distance into its own mechanics, and has become the place which continues to transfigure objects into artworks. Since 1800, this logic of displacement offers an opportunity for artists to create art. Artists who, sometimes reluctantly but almost unanimously, have accepted the situation. In essence, they – we – subscribe to the inevitability of generating and receiving objects that are not supposed to belong, we walk together along a fine line between some limited political-communitarian engagement and disinterested insignificance. Like Rembrandt.
So, Rembrandt (whoever he is) and his portrait do not belong to Buckland Abbey (whatever it is). Yet, they found a new home there. I would not want to disregard the mitigating circumstances in this story, since Rembrandt’s self-portrait has everything that predestines it to be treated with respect and care in a western globalized context: strong reputation, complex identity, communicative ability and transient beauty. It does not take too much space and you do not need to feed (or even water) him. Lights and temperature can be adjusted. This is certainly a good thing, albeit probably not enough.
Péter Bokody is Lecturer in Art History at the University of Plymouth, UK. His main research focus is the emergence of painting as a self-reflexive and political medium in Italy before the Reformation.