Visual Art Review:
Rembrandt The Late Works (The National Gallery, London)
Rembrandt: The Late Works, Jonathan Bikker et al (Yale University Press)
Rembrandt’s Universe, Gary Schwartz (Thames & Hudson)
Rembrandt is one of those names, like Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King, that have ascended to a higher almost ethereal sphere and the person behind the name can only be lauded and lavished with imprecise praise. Shrink-wrapped and simplified for posterity, they are Famous and Exemplary and we are not invited to look too closely at their situations and achievements. Everyone knows Martin Luther King had a dream and that he was a good guy but that’s about it. And we know Rembrandt was a really great painter but not so sure what his greatness consisted in. The exhibition at London’s National Gallery (until 18 January), and two books on the artist, go some way towards taking the man off his pedestal and helping us see what is astonishing about his work.
Good painters are uncanny at playing with the movement of light and colours and Rembrandt is no exception in this regard but not all good painters can depict facial expressions with honesty, compassion and sublime skill. Rembrandt is the unrivalled master when it comes to faces. His abiding concern with capturing moods and emotional states as registered by posture and parts of the body, especially faces and hands, helps explain why he painted his own body some eighty times. Vanity, as you see when stepping into the first room of the National Gallery’s stunning exhibition, doesn’t come into it. The room has four self-portraits in oil and one etching, completed between 1659 and 1669, and they will bowl you over.
A day later I found myself in snooty Knightsbridge and a street mostly dedicated to high-end hairdressers and beauty parlours, one of which offered a ‘bespoke permanent make up service’. Rembrandt is the natural antidote to any such endeavour. He paints himself as he is: limp skin, slack jowls, wiry grey hair, drooping eyelids and a W.C. Fields-like nose. The self-portraits were painted during the years in which his common-law wife, Hendrickje, and his son Titus died, a period of grief compounded by his finances nose-diving into bankruptcy. When he died himself, aged 63, he was buried in an anonymous rented grave.In his paintings of other people, real and fictional, Rembrandt displays the same ruthless commitment to the rule of the unheroic and the banishment of blithe. The Mauritshuis in The Hague, which contributes one of the late self-portraits to this exhibition, also loans Portrait of an Elderly Man (1667), a portrayal of a man’s face and body in so informal and congenial a pose as to make the viewer feel he has stumbled into a room and found this old friend sitting on a chair. We can see the wrinkles and broken capillaries in the face but, lest we get carried away by some notion of Rembrandt as a practitioner of realism, we also see the bold brushstrokes and scratch marks in the figure’s hair and doublet – scored by the end of the paintbrush or palette knife – and the thick layers of paint applied, as an early biographer observed, as if with a bricklayer’s trowel
Everyone will find their own favourites in this unique exhibition, the likes of which will probably not be seen again in our lifetimes, but I guarantee you will pause at paintings like A Woman Bathing in a Stream. Any depiction by a man of a partly undressed woman cannot avoid the issue of the male gaze yet the private and tender moment that Rembrandt shows us makes the issue seem redundant – or rather shifts it to outside the canvas. The painting dates to 1654, the year when a pregnant Hendrickje had been banned from taking Communion by the Reformed Church for ‘practising whoredom with the painter Rembrandt’. The gold and crimson brocade robe that lies on the bank suggests an Old Testament figure, possibly Susanna who was spied upon by lecherous Elders (a scene Rembrandt had previously depicted), and this lends a sharply ambiguous layer of meaning to the painting: a woman’s sequestered moment of stepping into a stream, no one’s business but her own, is erotic only for those who would voyeuristically and hypocritically desire her.Bathsheba with King David’s Letter, on loan from the Louvre, is equally stunning in a similar manner. King David, infatuated with the wife of one of his soldiers, summons her to his palace. To refuse his request would compromise her duty to a powerful king; to accede means adultery. Rembrandt conveys her introspective feelings of regret and submission as her feet are bathed by an elderly maid: two powerless women in a man’s world. As before, this is a private moment and Bathsheba’s palpable sensuality is only experienced by those who surrender to the role of voyeur.
The trouble with the book Rembrandt: The Late Works that accompanies the exhibition is that if you start reading it after seeing the paintings you’ll be desperate to return to the National Gallery and look at them in more detail (and cough up again the not-cheap admission charge). The book is an important publication, giving substance to the idea of a ‘late Rembrandt’ by way of more than a dozen essays, headed up by a team of scholars from the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (where the exhibition will run from mid-February to mid-May). Rembrandt’s later work is addressed from varying perspectives and this makes the book, richly illustrated, a lively and instructive read. The enigma of these late paintings is a material and aesthetic one, arising from astonishment at the way in which smeary dollops of paint applied with thick brushstrokes, layered as if indiscriminately, somehow becomes something like the Jewish Bride, a painting which made van Gogh confess to a friend he would give ten years of his life to be able to sit in front of it for a fortnight. A couple embrace, the man holding his right hand over the woman’s bosom while she reciprocates by tenderly caressing it with her left hand. Any such positivist description misses the affective power of seeing Rembrandt’s painting of a personal intimacy. The value of the exhibition’s book is that individual paintings, like Jewish Bride, are discussed in detail from different points of view. Marjorie Wiseman, one of the National Gallery’s curators, contributes an informative chapter on ‘The Late Self-Portraits’ while others look at the late paintings and etchings under headings like ‘Intimacy’, ‘Inner Conflict’, ‘The Paintings’ and ‘Light’.
Rembrandt’s Universe: His Art, His Life, His World is a hefty tome with some 600 illustrations in colour and for an overall summation of the artist’s life and work it is probably the best book on the subject currently available. It is structured not chronologically but thematically, with headings like Craft, Patrons, Landscape, Humankind, and the Craft chapter is probably the most interesting because it provides insight into the materials available to a 17th-century artist and the methods that Rembrandt chose to use. The drawback to the thematic approach is the reader’s difficulty in tracing a particular period of the artist’s life and the index to his works is unhelpful given its un-alphabetical ordering.
The author is hugely knowledgeable about his subject and there is much here to learn about Rembrandt even though the writing style is prone to dullness at times. We are informed that art can ‘arouse the senses, touch the feelings and stir passions’ but ‘in exercising these formidable powers, the artist should respect certain limits of good taste and moral propriety’; the blandness of the first statements only leads to a fairly questionable remark about taste that could be found annoying. I found myself less engaged by the text than by the illustrations and the hard information provided about a remarkable artist. If only Mike Leigh would make a film about Rembrandt like his Mr Turner