Greenaway tackles Rembrandt's demise

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The Independent Culture

Generations have peered at Rembrandt's The Night Watch and wondered about its dark secrets. But now, more than 360 years after its creation, the British film director Peter Greenaway believes he has the answers to its riddles.

His film, Nightwatching, showcases at the Venice Film Festival on Thursday. And yesterday, Greenaway said that he had cracked one of the art world's great mysteries. Just why did Rembrandt's career collapse following the painting of arguably his greatest work?

Rumour has it that it contains clues to finding the killer in an aristocratic murder mystery that gripped Amsterdam. It is said that the benefactors who funded the painter's rise were none too impressed.

Rembrandt's life went into freefall and he was declared a bankrupt just before his death. Greenaway claims that he has the secret to this astonishing reversal of fortunes and the role the painting played in it.

Hanging in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, The Night Watch's massive canvas portrays a company of civil guards apparently preparing to take action. The faces of many of the guards are clear, while others lurk conspiratorially in the background. The work has had an eventful past, having been attacked twice and painted over with varnish. Yet it is the light that it may shed on its creator that excites many who view it.

Among them is Greenaway. In tackling a matter of such magnitude, he has ensured that Nightwatching will become the biggest art-themed mystery to hit the silver screen since The Da Vinci Code. And he is particularly well equipped to take on such a project, having trained as a painter before becoming an award-winning film director.

Now he believes his palette will provide the answer to the mysteries surrounding the painting and the wretched end to the painter's life, despite the fact that they have perplexed the art world for centuries. "The painting is a political satire, but it also conceals a great criminal mystery," said Greenaway. "There are at least 50 secret questions. I am even arrogant enough to say that we have solved all of them."

Speaking about what drew him to make his first feature film in four years, focusing on Rembrandt's life and the mysteries surrounding it, he said he had attempted to reveal the mystery behind the painter's downfall. "If Rembrandt were alive today, he would be like a cross between Mick Jagger and Bill Gates. At 23, he was well-known, extremely rich and he followed the trends of his time. His paintings were exhibited throughout Europe. But, as soon as he painted his masterpiece, The Night Watch, his career suddenly fell apart; he began to lose everything: his fortune, his reputation, his status. He went completely bankrupt."

Greenaway, who is known for his extravagant, rich style of film-making, shot some of the central scenes in the Rijksmuseum in front of the original work of art, where he cast a spotlight on all 34 figures in the immense military portrait. He said 1642, when The Night Watch was finished, marked the turning point in Rembrandt's life, transforming him from a wealthy and respected celebrity into a discredited pauper. At the insistence of his pregnant wife, Saskia, Rembrandt reluctantly agreed to paint the Amsterdam Musketeer Militia in a group portrait that later became known as The Night Watch.

In the film, Rembrandt, played by Martin Freeman, best known for the television series The Office, stumbles on a murder in the course of painting the work, and he apparently exposes the aristocratic killer by embedding clues in the painting. When the painting is revealed, certain members of high society begin a campaign to discredit him and plan his social and financial ruin.

In 1715, the painting was removed from Amsterdam's town hall and was trimmed on all four sides so that two figures on the left were removed. This is said to have been done to fit the painting between two columns in another location. A miniature copy of the painting is owned by the National Gallery in London. Greenaway's film is one among four British titles to be selected for competition at the festival.