Commissioned to create a work in response to Rembrandt van Rijn’s most famous painting, The Night Watch, at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, German contemporary artist Anselm Kiefer invited controversy by instead making an installation of three glass-and-steel vitrines, filled with objects that reference the Netherlands’ other influential artist, Vincent van Gogh. Kiefer’s monumental triptych, La Berceuse (for Van Gogh), addresses the work of Van Gogh through his portrait of Augustine Roulin, the wife of the postmaster of Arles, and paintings of sunflowers from the same period, while reflecting Rembrandt’s heroic portrayal of 17th-century Dutch militiamen, which hangs opposite, in its glass.
Van Gogh’s 1889 canvas La Berceuse (Woman Rocking a Cradle), which is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, shows his friend the postman’s wife seated in a chair and holding a rope to rock a cradle while singing a lullaby (Van Gogh reportedly obsessed over this painting while in the hospital and was told that he sang a lullaby while delirious). Through his letters, we know that Van Gogh envisioned La Berceuse displayed with paintings of sunflowers flanking its side. Kiefer interprets that vision with his castings of inverted sunflowers suspended from the tops of the two outer cases with a broken down Mediterranean folding-chair hanging in the middle case. The base of each vitrine contains a painted clay ground that resembles dried, cracked earth. Walking around the cases, the visitor catches glimpses of The Night Watch through the sunflowers, the crooked chair, and the panes of glass, which poetically repeat the painting on multiple surfaces.
Van Gogh, who greatly admired Rembrandt, once declared that he wished he could have sat for two weeks in front of a Rembrandt painting at the Rijksmuseum “with barely a crust of dry bread to eat”; now, Kiefer metaphorically fulfills that dream with his cradle-like chair surrounded by sunflowers, where Vincent’s spirit might just be rocking.
Kiefer & Rembrandt is on view at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam through July 4.