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Man in the mirror: Rembrandt: the Late Works at the National Gallery

In later life the painter turned away from the light and towards himself.

Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph by Rembrandt (1656). Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Germany

 

Rembrandt: the Late Works
National Gallery, London WC2

Rembrandt’s reputation as the ur-painter of the human condition and “one of the great prophets of civilisation”, as Kenneth Clark put it, is so unassailable that it is hard to believe that it wasn’t always so. In his paintings, and especially his self-portraits, one can read both universal human experience and his personal tragedy, or so the story goes. In the lines of that doughy face, with its bulbous nose and small eyes, lies the evidence of bankruptcy and the deaths of his wife and three of their children. Rembrandt is art’s Everyman, buffeted and bowed by a malign fate.

Rembrandt, however, worked at a time when art, in its grandest incarnations, was undergoing a moment of change that bordered on crisis. The High Renaissance – Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo et al – had given way to mannerism (art about art, is how the 17th-century theorist Giovanni Pietro Bellori defined it) on the one hand and naturalism, the slavish attention to nature (as it was pejoratively seen), on the other. To his contemporary critics, and there were many, Rembrandt (1606-69) fell uncomfortably between the two. As a naturalist he was clearly au fait with, say, classical nudes but treated them unconventionally, indeed unartistically: he eschewed nobility and although he could draw superbly he did not define his compositions and figures with line or a graceful palette. Yet he was too gifted to be classified as a mere recorder of appearances. One of his earliest biographers, Filippo Baldinucci, was so infuriated by this conundrum that he was reduced to ascribing Rembrandt’s “bad art” to the natural product of the painter’s ugly body.

To such critics, Rembrandt’s faults were nowhere more obvious than in his late works, in which he slipped ever further from showing humanity in anything approaching an ideal state, but rather one of melancholy bordering on full-blown sadness. His biscuity paint and subdued colours were equally to be deplored. It is this period, 1652 to his death, that is the subject of the National Gallery’s current exhibition.

The show contains roughly 90 works – paintings, drawings and etchings – and is organised thematically rather than chronologically. There are sections devoted to self-scrutiny, light, experimental technique, emulation, everyday life, artistic convention, intimacy, contemplation, inner conflict, and reconciliation. The aim of these divisions is to demonstrate Rembrandt’s continuing creativity and innovation, and to distance his art from the nebulous phraseology that has attached to him: “humanity”, “moving” and “profound”. The show is meant to illustrate why, in fact, his 17th-century critics were wrong.

The third state of The Three Crosses (1653). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

What it also proves is that his late pictures (though some really are the products of a middle-aged man) did not break with his earlier art but developed it through small shifts and subtleties. Some of the most telling of these were in his prints: The Three Crosses, for instance, which depicts Christ and the two thieves crucified, surrounded by a crowd of soldiers and onlookers. Examples of three of the plate’s five states are on show and in them he treats the light that illuminates the dying figures almost as an unruly interloper disturbing the velvety black that enfolds the scene. As he worked on the copper plate in drypoint (scratching rather than etching with acid) he added and removed figures until all but Christ are on the verge of being swallowed by darkness. It is as if, between each state, he is turning out another light on the composition.

This flight from light is apparent in the paintings, too. Juno (1662-65) takes form only through her flesh tones and the scattered highlights on her crown, pearls and ermine. Her body is seemingly composed of the same stuff as the brown-black background. Here, the queen of the gods is simply a divine version of a burgher’s wife such as Margaretha de Geer (1661) or, indeed, of Rembrandt himself. All the faces in the exhibition, regardless of subject, have brown eyes and an expression of resigned equanimity.

Detail from Self-portrait at the Age of 63 (1669). National Gallery, London

In this respect, most of his figure paintings are also tronies – the Dutch term for pictures that represent a character, type or historical personage. Their coherence is such that despite the differences between the sitters it is hard not to see them as a group self-portrait, as though Rembrandt had spent so long looking at himself in a mirror that it was always himself he saw – as an apostle, the dying Jacob, or as a well-heeled member of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild.

It is hard not to see him, too, in the most affecting paintings in the exhibition: The Jewish Bride (circa 1665) and Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph (1656). The first is a picture of tender marital felicity, the second of family harmony. Rembrandt’s experiences of both were fleeting. That’s the thing about him, and where perhaps Baldinucci had a point: it is impossible to start thinking about the paintings without ending up thinking about the man. 

Runs until 18 January 2015

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Nigel Farage: The Arsonist

Photo: Getty
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Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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