These posts are about the good things in life. Right now at the end of October that certainly includes London, which is enjoying a golden autumn. There has seldom been a better time to combine some serious art with the pleasures of a capital city that is now a highly civilised place to live and visit. It offers a particularly good crop of exhibitions to enjoy over the next few months. A series of posts on the very best of these will follow over the next week.
Rembrandt’s wonderful Late Works are on display at the National Gallery. Germany: memories of a nation and an excellent exhibition about the first 50 years of the Ming Dynasty are both running at the British Museum. Late Turner is the subject of a fine exhibition at Tate Britain. Anselm Kiefer has been running at the Royal Academy since mid-September; Giovanni Battista Moroni has also just opened there.
The first thing to say about the Rembrandt exhibition is very simple. You must go. It’s on until mid January and is likely to become very crowded during the Christmas holidays. So the sooner you see it, the better the chances of being able to get a relatively relaxed look at the contents. This applies especially to the works on paper which are shown in necessarily low light conditions for conservation reasons.
It’s unlikely we will see another show of late Rembrandt of this quality and this comprehensiveness. Restrictions on lending are almost certain to increase over time and a number of the loans here are quite exceptional. Just a few of the outstanding paintings from overseas include the Oath of the Batavii from Stockholm, the Jewish Bride (see the image below) and the Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild pre-eminent amongst many outstanding loans from the Rijksmuseum, and two treatments of the storey of Lucretia, that of 1666 from Minneapolis and that of 1664 from Washington.
The coming together of the fine self portraits, of which the Kenwood version with two circles is perhaps my own favourite, shows Rembrandt’s unflinching observation of his ageing and physical decay amidst the financial ruins of his career, whilst indicating the immense strength of character of someone who can hardly have been an easy man. Without being in any way sentimental, they make the maximum demands on our emotions through the exercise of memory and character captured in paint.
This brings us to the fascinating questions of technique and composition. In his time many critics regarded Rembrandt’s later work as unfinished and clumsy, and it certainly lacks the smooth surfaces and precise local realism of so many lesser Dutch masters. It offers something much greater, the ability not just to capture texture and the fall of light (who ever did metal, and especially gold, better?) but in the sheer physical materiality of his paint (often thickened with dirt, eggshells, earth and God knows what, but thinned almost to fluidity in the blood running from Lucretia’s fatal wound) to capture the essence of personality and to contain the intense interplay of heightened emotions.
The picture plane is usually compressed to focus on the dramatic essence of the characters and actions depicted and to make us spectators, and sometimes participants, in the dramas put before our eyes. Like Velazquez, he manipulates paint to reproduce the process of vision rather than the creation of an intellectually coherent space. The Kenwood self portrait combines the precision of two perfectly painted circles with the most ephemeral but effective treatment of his hand shown holding his brushes. His compositions are unified by light and while they may be in a certain sense unfinished, they are never incomplete.
The works on paper are remarkable for the opportunity to compare different states, often of great rarity, of some of Rembrandt’s best prints. His use of burr in drypoint, inking and the frequent changes brought about wear mean that no two impressions are quite the same and these are things that no reproduction can satisfactorily convey.
Everything in the exhibition is of the highest quality and of undoubted authenticity. Ironically this leads to its only downside. It would have been fascinating to have been able to compare one or two paintings that have traditionally been given to Rembrandt but have been relatively recently demoted (for example the Man in a Golden Helmet in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin), with the show of fully authorised images so magnificently displayed. One’s own judgements may be of limited critical value, but the process of making them is still of immense importance to furthering one’s appreciation and awareness of the artist.
In the end words are inadequate for the intensity of sensation and emotion Rembrandt’s best work produces. The solution is simple; go and see it and rejoice we are so lucky to have it here in London.
The Jewish Bride: credit Rijksmuseum public domain image.