Home to a panoply of Dutch masters, from old provocateurs to new discoveries, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam spans centuries of art. In a recent art supplement for Vogue Netherlands and the Rijksmuseum, Mario selected works from the collection that had inspired him. Now, viewing Mario’s archive through the prism of the Dutch greats, the museum’s General Director, Taco Dibbits, draws out fresh insights from the canvases, lending a new perspective to both.
Photographs © Mario Testino and Rijksmuseum
TD: Gwyneth Paltrow depicted as an innocent girl, or is she innocent? We don’t know. Her lips are so clearly defined, reminding me of ‘Portrait of a Girl in Blue’ by Johannes Verspronck, one of the great portraitists of the Dutch 17th century. We don’t really know if the girl is happy or if she is sad - she just looks at us in all her innocence, but maybe she is guilty.
TD: Cecilia Chancellor is holding twigs with gloves because there might be spines. She looks at us in a seductive way from under her broad floppy hat. Caesar van Everdingen depicted his lady in ‘Girl in a Large Hat’ with her shoulder nude, seductively looking at us, touching – as if it were fondling – a small wicker basket with plums. And the plums refer also to the plumpness of her skin. She looks at us from under her broad-brimmed hat, her eyes in the shadow, again seducing the viewer with her eyes, and at the same time with the ribbon falling over her naked shoulder.
TD: The ‘Night Watch’, Rembrandt’s most ambitious painting, is all about movement. Like Mario’s photo, two figures are singled out in the foreground and the rest is in chaos. With Rembrandt, there is running around, shooting guns, playing the drum – we don’t really know what they are doing. Is Mario’s the big feast of tomatoes somewhere in Spain? We don’t know, but with Rembrandt, we also don’t really know what it is all about, unless we know Dutch history – and then we know that these men are serious men, about to gather to defend the city against the Spanish.
TD: The ‘Jewish Bride’ is all a game with hands – hands that touch, hands that play. Is it a close embrace? No. Rembrandt chooses the moment just before they are about to embrace. And with Mario, it is all a game with hands as well. Hands that strangle, hands that touch, hands that feel. A sensuous play.
TD: Rembrandt’s ‘Syndics’ depicts men who are all the same, but all different. Mario’s photograph depicts girls who are in a way all the same but all different. Their individuality is marked by their different facial expressions. Looking at us, sometimes looking out of the frame. We don’t know. It is again a moment in the middle of action. A sensuous play. With Rembrandt, the men are attending serious business of money.
TD: Play in the forbidden garden. Is it paradise? There is a man being blinded. Not in Mario’s photo literally, but he is also blinded by his lust for women. In Dirck Hals’ painting, ‘The Fête Champêtre’, it seems more contrived, but there’s also play in the garden – the garden of lust.
TD: Mario’s image depicts a woman reading from the Bible, sitting on a chair, like the ‘Portrait of Maritge Vooght’. So pious as she sits there, whereas Mario depicts her at a younger age – quite naughty. Reading, but what is she reading? It can’t be the Bible.
TD: Thérèse Schwartze depicts her friend and painter Lizzy Ansingh in ‘Portrait of Lizzy Ansingh’ with a gaze that mesmerizes. Mario charges his voluptuous model not only through the eyes, but also by her just-covered nudity.
TD: Mario’s work is deeply rooted in the Catholic tradition. It breathes the Mediterranean. And therefore it is so exciting to compare his work to Dutch paintings, which are deeply rooted in a Nordic Protestant tradition of depicting the world. But the closest we get to this juxtaposition is Mario’s photographs of boys at the beach carrying a fully dressed woman. You don’t know if she is a saint in ecstasy – sexual ecstasy – or rather a Christ figure being carried to the grave. And that reminds me of Gabriël Metsu’s ‘Mother with a Sick Child’, the closest the Protestants get to depicting the Madonna and Child. A painting with the Catholic subject of the crucifixion in the background; a painting of a mother tending to her child who is very ill. He has the same position in a curve, his body and his limps are heavy with illness, like the woman in Mario’s photograph.
TD: Breitner had one favourite model whom he could not touch because she had syphilis. So, in ‘Girl in a White Kimono’, it was all a game of the eye. But here the orient theme, the gaze; they show the young sensuality that Mario’s photograph conveys.
TD: It is a man’s world. Pieter Pietersz’ ‘Six Wardens of the Drapers’ Guild‘ depicts them in black; rows of heads and hats gaze at us as a tight-knitted group. These Spanish men had one woman intruding – so it becomes a women’s world. What used to be a tight-knitted group might soon be a jealous bunch.