Rineke Dijkstra reworks a 17th-century masterpiece

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Rembrandt’s masterpiece The Night Watch is viewed afresh through the eyes of its audience for a revealing film installation

Rineke Dijkstra’s Night Watching (2019) is a three-channel video that reveals 14 groups responding to Rembrandt’s 17th-century masterpiece The Night Watch (1642) at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. The painting in question never appears, instead, the work focuses upon individual reflections on the painting, and the subtle nuances and dynamics of collective conversations — from a group of young women, employed at Dijkstra’s local supermarket, to a number of bespectacled accountants, and two generations of an affluent family, who, according to Dijkstra, occasionally dine beneath the work.

“I like her jewels and that she has on that Yves Saint Laurent belt,” muses Dijkstra as we watch the video in a darkened room at Marian Goodman Gallery, London, where the work is currently on show in a virtual viewing room, which presents an online version of the artist’s first solo exhibition in the UK since 2010; the physical show was forced to close by Covid-19. Dijkstra comments on the groups, and the individuals within them, as they appear before us on the large screens, picking out details in their appearances and the subtleties of their interactions; emphasising the importance of the exchanges being authentic: “I could not collect a random bunch of people, it had to be existing groups. There had to be a dynamic; they had to know one another.”

Although Rembrandt’s painting provides a common theme, a study of the interactions within each group and comparisons between them is the focus of the work, which Dijkstra created when the director of the Rijksmuseum invited her to make an artwork responding to The Night Watch ahead of its restoration and the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death.

The process was not straightforward. The artist wanted to capture her subjects, who she cast from visitors to the Rijksmuseum, in front of a white background, directing our attention to their interactions, and avoiding any unnecessary distractions. Dijkstra and her team developed a means of building up a temporary backdrop in front of the painting, which they constructed on six separate nights after the museum had closed. “If you build a set, it becomes artificial, and people start to act in the presence of the camera – with every group, I needed time to get them in the mood, so that they were more relaxed,” she explains.

The camera work, under Dijkstra’s direction, captures that spontaneity, moving to the rhythm of the interactions of those depicted, which was challenging given their unpredictability. Similarities did, however, emerge among the discussions, and Dijkstra employed these to give the film structure. The earlier groups ruminate on the content of the painting, while those who come after engage in interpretation; at the end, the conversations become increasingly meta, “with individuals talking about the act of looking itself”.

The work reveals the artist’s ability to crystallise her subjects’ characters, and their relationships to one another, through deceptively simple frames. Whether employing film or photography, Dijkstra communicates the essence of the individuals she turns her lens to, gently revealing their stories through the subtle details and interactions.

Night Watching, along with the rest of Dijkstra’s exhibition, can be experienced in Marian Goodman Gallery’s virtual viewing room.

Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she was Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.