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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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Standing up to China’s censors: an attempt to delete history backfires

For years now, the official Chinese position has been that no one was killed in Tiananmen Square.

At the time, the massacre in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing on the night of 3 June 1989 was the worst thing I’d ever seen. In front of the Beijing Hotel, where my camera team and I took refuge after we’d escaped from the square itself, I counted 40 people killed or wounded by soldiers of the Chinese army. A photographer who was standing on the next balcony to ours was shot dead when the gunner of a passing tank casually sprayed the hotel with machine-gun bullets.

During the previous three weeks I had spent almost every day in the square, making friends with dozens of students who were demonstrating there. How many of them were killed that night I have never been able to find out. It’s not the kind of thing you can easily forgive or forget. 

For years now the official Chinese position has been that no one was killed in Tiananmen Square that night. This may or may not be literally true, though I saw for myself the bullet-scars on the stone steps of the monument in the middle of the square before they were repaired, so it probably isn’t. But this is just playing with words; the real killing fields were the avenues leading away from Tiananmen Square, such as Chang’an Avenue, which runs past the Beijing Hotel. The implication of the official line is that the massacre was simply invented by the western media. Fake news. Sad.

Tiananmen paralysed China for an entire month, and damaged its relations with the outside world for years. Even today, more than a quarter-century later, it retains its intense toxicity. A Chinese newspaper journalist I know got into trouble for referring to it as a “tragedy”; if you have to refer to it, you must call it simply “the Tiananmen events” – but it’s better not to mention it at all.

It was bad enough in what now seems with hindsight like the liberal, benevolent reign of Hu Jintao. Since 2012, when Xi Jinping came to power and introduced an increasingly ferocious crackdown on dissent, every official throughout the vast Chinese system is aware of the urgent need to keep away from sensitive subjects: not just Tiananmen, but the Cultural Revolution, Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Which is how, earlier this month, a Chinese import agency came into conflict with the oldest publishing house anywhere, over the world’s best and most respected journal of Chinese studies. The China Quarterly, double-blind and peer-reviewed, is owned by the School of Oriental and African Studies, but Cambridge University Press publishes it. The Quarterly’s website of course carries many articles on just these subjects. The import agency suddenly ordered CUP to take down all 315 of them, some dating back to the 1960s, from its website within China; if it didn’t happen, the Chinese said, they would be forced to close the entire website down.

CUP fell over itself to obey, in order, it said, “to ensure that other academic and educational materials we publish remain available to researchers and educators in this market”. Which, as a defence of freedom of speech, isn’t quite up there with John Milton, himself a Cambridge alumnus, in Areopagitica:  “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

The China Quarterly’s admirable editor, Tim Pringle, in the quiet but steely way that befits a scholar under pressure, allowed it to be known what CUP had done, and dozens of outraged scholars and others yelled about it as loudly as Twitter and Facebook would allow. The China Quarterly’s first editor, Roderick MacFarquhar, nowadays a sprightly octogenarian who teaches at Harvard, weighed in angrily on behalf of the organ whose high reputation he had helped to create, and some rough words were used about academic publishers who did the work of an autocracy’s censors for them.

To do it credit, CUP listened and realised what irreparable damage they were doing to the China Quarterly; and it announced on Monday that it was reinstating all the articles.

Pringle couldn’t resist a bit of high-minded reproof:  “Access to published materials of the highest quality is a core component of scholarly research,” he wrote. “It is not the role of respected global publishing houses such as CUP to hinder such access.” And he added:  “Our publication criteria will not change: scientific rigour and the contribution to knowledge about China.” Milton would have been proud of him.

Does any of this really matter? Well, it’s a useful object-lesson in how to approach China. Personally, I don’t think Xi Jinping and his friends, as they splash around in the lakes and swimming pools of Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party retreat beside the Forbidden City, will have known or heard anything about it. In spite of its refusal to admit the dreadfulness of the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square massacre, China isn’t really just an Orwellian society where officials labour away destroying or rewriting the files of the past. No doubt the party would like to, but it simply isn’t a shot on the board in the modern world.

You just have to turn to Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. After CUP decided to reverse its self-censoring operation, hundreds of brave souls in China took to the internet to greet the news with pleasure and relief. Some had the courage to put their names to their comments: “It is a triumph of morality,” wrote Zhang Lifan, a Beijing historian. Another historian, Sun Peidong, praised the international chorus of disapproval that had brought about CUP’s change of heart. Someone else, unnamed, wrote “Cambridge University has backbone.”

Even in the days of clampdown and repression, you can just about get away with saying this kind of thing; though within hours some government job’s-worth had deleted the entire discussion from Weibo. But right across China decent, honourable people who believe in telling the truth now know CUP and Cambridge University haven’t, after all, sold the pass.

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia