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Mr. van Rijn? Why, meet Mr. Lurie.

The film ‘My Rembrandt’ and the HBO documentary series ‘Painting with John’ explore the cultivation and creation of fine art.

John Lurie in "Painting With John."
John Lurie in "Painting With John."HBO

Some people create art, others buy it. Some do both, of course, but the difference between a consumer and a producer of this commodity can be seen by comparing the documentary “My Rembrandt” and the HBO documentary series “Painting with John.

For years, the Duke of Buccleuch, one of the subjects in Oeke Hoogendijk’s “My Rembrandt,” has gazed lovingly at Rembrandt’s painting “Old Woman Reading” (1655), which hangs in the cavernous dining room of his Scottish castle. The director general of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum has his eye on the masterpiece. Though he recognizes that the wealthy aristocrat has no reason to sell, perhaps he could talk him into borrowing it?


Meanwhile in France, Eric de Rothschild fears he might have to sell the two towering Rembrandts that grace his bedroom to help a relative with financial problems. The price he is asking is so enormous that two museums, in different countries, must combine resources to purchase it, an arrangement that sparks an international crisis.

Jan Six with his newly discovered Rembrandt, "Portrait of a Young Gentleman." From "My Rembrandt."
Jan Six with his newly discovered Rembrandt, "Portrait of a Young Gentleman." From "My Rembrandt."Strand Releasing

Back in the Netherlands, the art dealer Jan Six thinks he has come across a new undiscovered painting by the master, which he has bought on the cheap and hopes to sell for a fortune. Not that he needs a fortune — he already has one, being the 11th Jan Six. Rembrandt painted a portrait of the first one, a prosperous Dutch patron and friend of the artist, in the 1650s (it’s in the family collection). Instead, Six wants to show up his old man, the 10th Jan Six, who doesn’t give him any respect.

“My Rembrandt” is a wry and visually lush look at those who not only can appreciate fine art but have the capital to possess it. Their reasons for buying and selling and owning are rooted in a shrewd business sense and a deep love for art, but also seem to involve elements of fetishism and unresolved Freudian complexes. Also, power, the ability to claim a work of genius as one’s own and withhold it or share it as one sees fit.


“My Rembrandt” can be streamed via the Coolidge Corner Virtual Screening Room, beginning Jan. 22. Go to coolidge.org/films/my-rembrandt.

John Lurie in HBO's "Painting with John."
John Lurie in HBO's "Painting with John."Courtesy of HBO

Not to be too harsh on the subjects of “My Rembrandt,” but they probably would never be friends with John Lurie. An actor, in Jim Jarmusch’s “Stranger than Paradise” (1984) and “Down by Law” (1986), among others); musician, as founder of the Lounge Lizards; and painter. Lurie demonstrates his art, spins yarns, and espouses his philosophy in the deadpan, profound, and hilarious six-part HBO series “Painting with John” (he also wrote, directed, and composed the music).

In the first episode, “Bob Ross Was Wrong,” Lurie starts by refuting the contention by the late TV painting instructor that everyone can paint. “Everyone can’t paint,” he says while painting. Then he proceeds to tell a story about his brother, who pretended to be Rin Tin Tin as a kid. Or about the time Lurie did cocaine in a closet with the singer Rick James and disco impresario Steve Rubell. Or about how he was attacked by the eel photographed for the cover of the 1988 Lounge Lizards album, “Voice of Chunk.” And so on for six episodes, sometimes including shots of the tropical beauty of the unnamed Caribbean island where he lives, or of Lurie rolling tires down a hill or using a tree limb to imitate an elephant, or cameos by neighbors, his household help, and a tiny, terrified bird Lurie is trying to help escape from his house.


John Lurie, "Elephant," from "Painting With John."
John Lurie, "Elephant," from "Painting With John."HBO

Then there are the watercolors, which Lurie paints in close-up on screen and which have titles like “They were weird. But they saw something even weirder” and “Elephant.” The work is sui generis, a kind of a sinister, gleeful merging of Gauguin, Klee, Klimt, and Odilon Redon, with elements of Chinese landscape paintings, Japanese ukiyo-e, runes, hieroglyphics, Looney Tunes, and a dream that you wake up from feeling that you had entered a portal into another world. As he warns at the start, Lurie won’t teach you how to paint, but after listening to his shaggy-dog stories and watching him create his numinous pictures he might make you want to try.

The six-episode season of “Painting with John” debuts Jan. 22 at 11 p.m. on HBO and is available for streaming on HBO Max.

Go to hbo.com/painting-with-john.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.