John Malkovich Unveils the Mysteries of Dutch Master Hercules Segers

Segers' The Mossy Tree.

Segers’ The Mossy Tree. Courtesy the Rijksmuseum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Hercules Segers, the Dutch master whose name you probably don’t know, was an inspiration for Rembrandt. He also has an admirer in John Malkovich.

To the extent that he’s known, Segers (1589/90-1633/40) is best known for prints that he struck in colored paper and then painted. He is getting his first exhibition in the United States, “The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The show that includes 102 prints and eight paintings follows two exhibitions in Amsterdam last year, at the Rijksmuseum and at the Rembrandt House, which reintroduced Segers to his countrymen.

Before you enter the galleries at the Met where works by Segers are on view, you see a film, narrated by Malkovich, that assembles landscapes by Segers on the screen by adding elements that weren’t in the scene that Segers was observing. Mountains enter the canvas like décor that you add to a stage. If you’re looking for mountains in the Netherlands, that’s the only way you’ll get them, and that’s what Segers did, since he never traveled beyond Brussels.

No one has accused him of being too much of a realist. Still, Segers’s pictures of trees and vegetation don’t lack for detail. It’s just that the details are often ominous. And mystery isn’t just a line from the marketing department. They are also as haunting as anything by his peers. Paintings by Segers, which are less haunting, tend more toward the colors of actual terrain, plus those craggy imagined mountains.

Often dark and labored, the prints are not your typical expansive Dutch landscapes, although Segers (who married an older rich woman) worked as a dealer selling landscapes by such other artists as Jacob van Ruisdael.

When you look at those prints, there’s something particularly haunting about the effect, if that’s the right word, that Segers got from printing on blue paper, which tends to produce dark skies and an even darker earth. Max Ernst would try for a similar effect in paintings that he made 300 years later. In the exhibition, versions of the same scenes are shown in ink on white paper and in painted versions on the same surface. The blue suggests something magical or otherworldly, which may explain why that technique has been used everywhere from surrealism to science fiction. The Met show lines individual scenes in a row them to trace how Segers experimented with color. Think of a visual remix, circa 1630.

There are darker colors than blue, of course, and when Segers printed on black, even the view of a local church from his window looked threatening. Ruins painted in gray on prints on dark paper have a foreboding whimsy.

When Segers drew in gray, or when he painted on his prints in that color, as he did when he printed on dark paper, the image can look like an x-ray, or like a negative from the early days of photography, when leaves and flowers were the subjects of choice. For Segers, the subject was often a dense forest.

In The Mossy Tree (1625-30), branches draped with limp moss have a fragility that surprises you with the life that seems contained in that limpness. The serenity of that print, with its meandering of forms,  calls to mind Chinese or Japanese painting, or the best of decorative abstraction. It’s easy to see why Segers was admired by his artist peers.  He showed them something different.

Segers' Houses Near Steep Cliffs.

Segers’ Houses Near Steep Cliffs. Courtesy of Museum Boijmans van Beuningen and the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Rembrandt, a bit younger, was one of those admirers, and eventually owned eight of Segers’s paintings. The work of the two men was sometimes confused, but the overlap in style and subject matter went beyond the fact that they lived at the same time and both made prints.

On the wall, three pictures reveal one aspect of their bond. First we have a print that draws on the legend of Tobias from the Bible, in which Tobias and an angel are walking across a landscape, with the young Tobias dragging a large fish. Rembrandt bought the printing plate from which the print was struck.  While he clearly admired the Segers landscape, Rembrandt had another story in mind. On view at the Met is an impression from the plate, where Rembrandt scratched out the scene depicting Tobias. Next to that is the scene that Rembrandt put in its place, the Flight into Egypt of the Holy Family.  It’s one thing for Banksy to do this, but Rembrandt?

If printmaking enabled artists to create multiple copies of the same work, Segers defied that technology when he painted a print. Eager as he was to exploit technology, he didn’t seem satisfied merely with what technology could do for him. Each painted print became a unique work.

It’s not clear whether Segers could paint human figures at anything but from a distance. It doesn’t seem to have been his preference. There are no portraits by him on view. Tiny figures walking through a vast valley in six versions of Distant View of a Road with Mossy Branches (1622-25) remind you once again of Chinese landscape painting, as well as of scenes by Pieter Breughel the Elder.

And if you needed to be reminded of how color affects mood, we have two versions of The Lamentation of Christ. In the version that Segers painted, the scene is grim, but radiant. In the monochrome, in ink on a cream-tinted ground, the image is agonizing.

The undated Skull on a Ledge, painted in the color of burnished wood, with a luster that isn’t anywhere else in the Segers works at the Met, is possibly by Segers, curators say. It’s quite a vision, rendered as a volume that makes it feel like sculpture, so much like sculpture that you can imagine John Malcovich, darkly lit, holding it in his hand. The attribution of the skull to Segers seems more a tradition than a scientific judgment; the picture is more of a curiosity than a central image in the show. There’s plenty of mystery all around it. Enter any landscape to find it.

Back to John Malkovich for a moment. The word from the Met’s curator is that the actor and clothing designer is a Rembrandt fan, and that the Rembrandt connection got him to record the narration for the short film on Segers. Put Malkovich in the same sentence with the word mysterious and you’ll usually get something. We’ll wait and see if the actor brings a new public to the work of Hercules Segers. Malkovich did get something in return. He was permitted to spend the night in the gallery where the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam exhibits Rembrandt’s The Night Watch.

“The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers” is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 21, 2017.

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