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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

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.