Rembrandt in Basel: The invention of the turban

Eeurope explains the world. The old continent has always owed that. Hartmann Schedel tells in his early modern “Chronicle” of single-legged, two-legged and four-headed people. Dürer is drawing a rhinoceros, although he has never seen one. The Jesuits report from the Chinese court as if the Mainz carnival had been invented there. In Mozart’s “Entführung” the Janissaries blare “Bassa Selim live long” in the most beautiful Viennese classical music. And then Karl May pushes a silver box into the delicate hand of the noble Indian. Seen in this way, it is hardly surprising if, in various times, the regions of the world that are interpreted insist on their self-interpretation.

On the other hand, it is of course fascinating how many imaginative efforts were required in the geometrically generous remodeling of the earth in accordance with Europe‘s will and ideas. In 1626, Rembrandt, to whom we owe such incredibly deep personal records, paints a “music-making society”. The man at the viola da gamba wears a turban – a fashionable wrap-around hat that probably no one in the “Orient” had on their heads.

This is what they call the distant, mysterious, not entirely secret, but lucrative Otherworld now in the Netherlands and not only there. Business is flourishing. The century is called the “golden” with good reason. Commercial offices everywhere. It is true that there are no correspondents on site, and reporting has not yet been invented. But for that there are the artists, the painters, who are trusted to form plausible stories from the various fragments of news and to grind down the strange spaces on the exotic.

Still considered the very best Rembrandt: “Portrait of a man in oriental clothing”

The turban as a fashion item. It is a bit like today, when people say that the burqa, the violence symbol of a sinister patriarchy, is, in truth veiling has long been part of the dress code of women who are obedient to Islam. You just have to modify the unfamiliar and perhaps not entirely harmless a little, playfully take possession of it, so to speak, in order to calm your conscience and not disrupt business. How was that? It was just a hundred years ago that the Ottoman conquerors advanced as far as Vienna, and if the “Holy Roman Empire” had not reasserted itself, the man at the viola da gamba would not have been allowed to play the continuo with a turban. And it won’t be two decades before Kara Mustafa and his Turks fail again before Vienna.

But Rembrandt never saw that again. For this, a not so prominent Johannes Lingelbach paints a “sea battle between Christians and Turks”, in which it is so unbelievably tangled that nobody thinks of victory or defeat. But the best is the sky, the pillow-like gray clouds in which the viewer can hide and, as if after a nightmare, can go on sleeping peacefully.

“Rembrandt’s Orient”. It is the exhibition for the hour. Certainly the best old master show of the year. And that you can in the wonderful Basel Art Museum can visit and do not have to present a Corona police clearance certificate, that also makes them valuable.

Thomas Wijcks “Merchants with Goods in a Mediterranean Harbor”, around 1660/70

Thomas Wijcks “Merchants with Goods in a Mediterranean Port”, around 1660/70

Over a hundred paintings, drawings, and graphics, in which Rembrandt and his Dutch painting contemporaries deal with the set pieces of the economically more and more developed, culturally but still puzzling and civilizationally mostly despised world like theater props. There has never been so much silk on the perfumed bodies. The sabers are now crookedly forged, the carpets themselves are rolled out in round tents, and the market demands that the Old Testament King Saul is crowned with the unfamiliar but seasonally trendy turban covering, while David puts the severed head of Goliath at his feet from Rembrandt as well as from his pupils. Even the good Samaritan, who until now has belonged entirely to the New Testament, that is, Europe‘s exemplary Bible book, can no longer be shown on Pieter Lastman’s stage without an orientalizing do-gooding cap

Of course, it makes sense to recognize manifest expressions of an early globalization in such phenomena, which tended to never be anything other than appropriation through overpowering, and in which the finest strategies of increasing knowledge always had the task of knowing the other to defame its ignorance. These turbanists from the Golden Century are certainly not friends of “Turks”. It is more likely that the artistic curiosity of strangers primarily has the function of concealing the disturbing emotional components in fashionable elegance.

The costume, the outfit, is always a hiding place, in which one does not have to confess one’s role, even if all the signs seem unmistakable. There can be no doubt that the very worthy Jacob Schimmelpenninck van der Oije, whom Dirck van Loonen portrayed with servant, big dog and turban, belongs to the educated upper class who has traveled half the world that can be traveled. You hardly have to be told that the man in the striped dress didn’t even shy away from a donkey ride to stand at the well, where the miraculous gentleman turned the water into wine for the wedding guests at Kanaa. The superior dignity is as much written on his face as the “married couple in landscape”, which in Ferdinand Bol’s picture shows all the insignia of bourgeois propriety and after satisfying deals with business partners who are far from the bourgeoisie can now also present themselves with a turban.

Johan Teyler's “View of the Nile”, from the series “Views of the Mediterranean” 1679-1683

Johan Teyler’s “View of the Nile”, from the series “Views of the Mediterranean” 1679-1683

In Goethe’s rather shocked “West-Eastern Divan” it once said of bourgeois propriety: “It’s still day when the man stirs / The night comes where nobody can work.” Enough touched. If you model the painter on a fine day, you don’t have to think convulsively of the slave ships that carried wealth.

The merciless provenance Rembrandt unfortunately revoked the then very famous Berlin “man with a gold helmet”. It hung in the picture gallery for a century and looked under its precious metal piece like one of the Wilhelmine entourage at the imperial coronation in Versailles. Wilhelm von Bode, the museum director at the time, was quite sure that the painter only invented the helmet to “lift the expression and character of the head”.

No less uplifting in expression and character, the “bust of a man in oriental clothing”, which is still considered the very best Rembrandt and is one of the central pieces in the Basel exhibition. Now one can no longer say that as nicely as Wilhelm von Bode, but one is quite sure in view of the capital picture from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam that the painter only invented the turban and elevator in order to avoid the sovereignty of the European sovereign from anyone to make the world quarrel.


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