Traditionally, a rebus is a puzzle. It is a combination of pictures and letters to represent words or phrases. In the art world, a rebus style exhibit is a collection of seemingly unrelated pieces of art that are arranged in such a way as to make the viewer form new connections and find new meanings in the works. The pieces selected for this gallery span from the Northern European Baroque era to the German Expressionism era and touch on other times and places in between: Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Post-Impressionism, and Orphism. Each piece has a connection to the piece next to it, and each connection is unique. They are meant to be viewed in sequential order, from left to right. Some of the connections between the works have to do with the background of the artist or the story behind the particular painting. Other connections have to do with the visual and aesthetic aspects of the paintings. The viewer is encouraged to view two neighboring images and see what connections he or she can find based on prior knowledge and critical thinking before reading the provided descriptions below.
The first painting is by Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn and is known by several titles. The most common titles are The Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and Night Watch. The painting is a civic-guard group portrait, which was common in the Dutch Baroque period. It is thought to have been commissioned by the officers Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruyenburch. The second painting is Beata Beatrix by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of the leading members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. This painting is of literary figure Beatrice from Dante’s Vita Nuova. It portrays her in a trance-like state after being mystically transported to heaven. On a surface level, subjects of these two paintings appear to have little in common other than being portraits. However, it is the subjects that connect these two pieces. Both Rembrandt and Rossetti were both very much in love and inspired by their respective wives. This is evident in these two paintings. Rembrandt not only inserts his wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh, into the military portrait, but highlights her presence in the painting with his use of light. She seems to be emanating an ethereal light. Similarly, Rossetti used his wife, Elizabeth Siddal, as a model for Beatrice. There is an ethereal quality about her as well, which is created in part by the halo of light shining through her hair. Through these similarities in the portrayals of their wives one can assess that both artists found muses in their wives.
The third painting in the gallery, to the right of Beata Beatrix, is Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night. Van Gogh was a Post-Impressionist artist. He painted this piece a year before his death while he was residing in an asylum. As was typical for van Gogh, he did not paint what he actually saw, but rather he chose to use the painting to express how he felt about what he saw. This painting specifically connects to Beata Beatrix because both pieces have a specific connection to death and are an expression of the artist’s feelings. As previously mentioned, Rossetti used his wife as a model in Beata Beatrix. This was due in part to the fact that his wife died from an opium overdose shortly before he began this painting. In addition to being a literary painting, this piece serves as a memorial for her. For van Gogh, Starry Night was an expression of his state of mind. Shortly before creating this painting he wrote to his brother, “Just as we take a train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star.” It is through this statement, as well as an understanding of the context of van Gogh’s life in which the painting was created, that one can see how this painting connects with van Gogh’s perception of death.
From Starry Night the gallery moves to František Kupka’s The Cathedral. It is at this point in the gallery that the connections between the paintings shift from the personal backgrounds of the artists to the aesthetics of their work. Kupka was a pioneer of the early stages of the abstract movement and Orphism. He was very interested in color theory, and many of his pieces, including The Cathedral, are centered on this interest. This piece is, as one might deduce from a brief look, a focus on the interaction between blues and reds. It is this use of and focus on color, specifically on blue and the impact of blue on a viewer that connects it with Starry Night. Van Gogh uses blue expressively. The entire painting is saturated in deep, rich blues. In combination with the violent brushstrokes, the blue communicates van Gogh’s inner turmoil. Similarly, rich blues dominate Kupka’s painting. While not necessarily trying to express his inner thoughts through The Cathedral, Kupka used blue in a combination with red to experiment with the optical and emotional affect it has on the viewer.
The final painting that the viewer comes to in this gallery is Wassily Kandinky’s Points. Kandinsky was a part of the second major German Expressionist group, The Blue Riders. Significantly influenced by the Enlightenment, Kandinsky was one of the first artists to experiment with complete abstraction. Points is an extension of this. Kandinsky analyzed art using geometric terms, specifically “points” and “line”. A point, according to Kandinsky, is a small bit of paint put on a canvas by an artist and can form any shape, and a line is the result of force applied in a given direction. It is this focus on geometry, line, and shape that connects Kandinsky’s Points to Kupka’s The Cathedral. Both paintings have a very distinct geometric influence and aesthetic which is evident in the use of basic geometric shapes, specifically triangles. The viewer may find it interesting to know that despite the common use of geometric lines and shapes, the artists had very different viewpoints on the specifics, and those are demonstrated in these two pieces. For example, to Kandinsky a vertical line referenced height and provided no stability, whereas a diagonal line felt warmer and more stable to him. For Kupka, however, vertical lines provided a sense of stability and diagonal lines expressed tension. Despite their differences in opinion concerning internal impact of vertical and diagonal lines, Kandinsky and Kupka were both very powerfully influenced by geometry.
(If this were an actual physical exhibit that a person could visit I would want to the visitors to have an interactive experience, and would offer a chance for them to respond at the end. The following is how I would want them to conclude their visit.) After viewing all of the pieces in this gallery, take a few minutes to post your reactions. What connections did you find between the pieces that were not mentioned in the descriptions? Did you find anything surprising? What pieces were not in this gallery that you think would make interesting connections to the pieces here?