Jonathan Jones – The digital Rembrandt: a new way to mock art, made by fools

So an app has come up with a ‘Rembrandt’ portrait – and it’s a travesty of surface trickery. No computer art could match the emotional heft of a human original

I’ve been away for a few days and missed the April Fool stories in Friday’s papers – until I spotted the one about a team of Dutch “data analysts, developers, engineers and art historians” creating a new painting using digital technology: a virtual Rembrandt painted by a Rembrandt app. Hilarious! But wait, this was too late to be an April Fool’s joke. This is a real thing that is actually happening.

Rembrandt’s art has meaning as a historical record of his encounters with the people, beliefs and anguishes of his time

What a horrible, tasteless, insensitive and soulless travesty of all that is creative in human nature. What a vile product of our strange time when the best brains dedicate themselves to the stupidest “challenges”, when technology is used for things it should never be used for and everybody feels obliged to applaud the heartless results because we so revere everything digital.

Hey, they’ve replaced the most poetic and searching portrait painter in history with a machine. When are we going to get Shakespeare’s plays and Bach’s St Matthew Passion rebooted by computers? I cannot wait for Love’s Labours Have Been Successfully Functionalised by William Shakesbot.

You cannot, I repeat, cannot, replicate the genius of Rembrandt van Rijn. His art is not a set of algorithms or stylistic tics that can be recreated by a human or mechanical imitator. He can only be faked – and a fake is a dead, dull thing with none of the life of the original. What these silly people have done is to invent a new way to mock art. Bravo to them! But the Dutch art historians and museums who appear to have lent their authority to such a venture are fools.

Rembrandt lived from 1606 to 1669. His art only has meaning as a historical record of his encounters with the people, beliefs and anguishes of his time. Its universality is the consequence of the depth and profundity with which it does so. Looking into the eyes of Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait at the Age of 63, I am looking at time itself: the time he has lived, and the time since he lived. A man who stared, hard, at himself in his 17th-century mirror now looks back at me, at you, his gaze so deep his mottled flesh is just the surface of what we see.

We glimpse his very soul. It’s not style and surface effects that make his paintings so great but the artist’s capacity to reveal his inner life and make us aware in turn of our own interiority – to experience an uncanny contact, soul to soul. Let’s call it the Rembrandt Shudder, that feeling I long for – and get – in front of every true Rembrandt masterpiece..

Is that a mystical claim? The implication of the digital Rembrandt is that we get too sentimental and moist-eyed about art, that great art is just a set of mannerisms that can be digitised. I disagree. If it’s mystical to see Rembrandt as a special and unique human being who created unrepeatable, inexhaustible masterpieces of perception and intuition then count me a mystic.

Can a computer replicate the humanity of Rembrandt’s portrait of his lover​?​ It would have to go to bed with her first

Even if you want to try and understand art better by remaking it with digital technology, this “new” Rembrandt is a failure. A couple of glances reveal how different the two portraits are. The new painting apes Rembrandt’s early style, which was luminous, dynamic, brilliant. Yet as he lived his life and suffered, losing his wife, his fortune, his status, Rembrandt abandoned “style” to tell raw truth. And his paintings became ever more rugged, awkward, strange and suggestive in the process.

Only by living Rembrandt’s life could anyone or anything hope to create Rembrandt’s art. How can a computer replicate the humanity of Rembrandt’s portrait of his lover Hendrickje Stoffels? It would have to go to bed with her first.

It would also have to experience plague, poverty, old age and all the other human experiences that make Rembrandt who he was, and his art what it is. To think this most human of artists can be replicated digitally is a truly bizarre notion. The really sad thing is that anyone would want to do so. Evidently, these people have never once in their lives experienced the Rembrandt Shudder.

The Guardian, Wednesday 6 April 2016 16.11 BST, Last modified on Wednesday 6 April 2016 17.20 BST