ARTIST ROOMS: Self Evidence Photographs by Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe

6 APRIL – 20 OCTOBER | SCOTTISH NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY

FRANCESCA WOODMAN (1959-1981) Francesca Woodman, Untitled, 1975-80 Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper, 15.60 x 15.60 cm (paper 25.20 x 20.30 cm) (framed: 45.80 x 40.20 x 2.00 cm) ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008 © Courtesy of George and Betty Woodman

‘If I stand in front of something, instead of arranging it, I arrange myself.’ Diane Arbus

In the 21st century, the Selfie has become an extended form of advertising and validation, increasingly in step with corporate interest. People are the app for 24hr addictive consumption of who they aspire to be, driven by market demand, or perhaps more accurately, corporate engineered desire for the next upgrade. Rapid fire clicking and scrolling is the order of today, in how photography and images of self are consumed, liked and followed. The idea of ‘self-evidence’ in this Artist Rooms exhibition is extremely compelling and timely, examining ‘three of the twentieth century’s most influential photographers’ and reactions to their work from a younger ‘Snapchat’ generation. It’s a moment to take stock of the extraordinary work of Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe, what photography is in human terms and what it really means to take a shot.

2. FRANCESCA WOODMAN (1959-1981) Space 2, Providence, Rhode Island, 1975-1978 Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper, 13.90 x 13.90 cm (paper 25.20 x 20.20 cm) (framed: 45.80 x 40.20 x 2.00 cm) ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008 © Courtesy of George and Betty Woodman

The work of Francesca Woodman (1958-1981) provides a quietly subversive sucker punch opening to the show. This series of beautifully layered photographs are on an intimate scale, naturally inviting closer inspection and defying narcissistic, grandiose expectations of self-portraiture.  From the telling age of thirteen, to her untimely death by suicide aged 22, Woodman explored an ever-shifting state of being and becoming. Using long exposures and slow shutter speeds, she retains a fluid sense of movement and obscures identity, effectively blurring the fixed time and truth certainty of her chosen medium. Woodman’s work is often described as “experimental”, however there is more deliberation and thematic consistency in her work than this label suggests. The way her photographs are staged are technically adept and complex, rather than angling towards brilliance by randomly shooting at it. As a student taking part in the Snapchat element of the exhibition very accurately observed, ‘Woodman has power over her own image.’ It’s an enviable position, given the state of unrelenting judgement and self-censorship metered out via the internet / smartphone in your pocket.

Woodman illuminates in Black and White what it is to be female, the dilemma and desire of being seen, which is still so socially/ culturally loaded, with the resistance of being an enigmatic, ghostly presence. That tension at the heart of photography, between fixing the moment, (becoming immortal, documenting or memorialising the subject) and acknowledging human mortality, is particularly poignant in Woodman’s work. I’ve always felt that she was “fixing the shadows” in her own heart/ mind, dancing death and the maiden style towards photographic illumination, as a statement of self-worth. With over 10,000 negatives and 800 prints, Woodman’s output was prolific, though only a small fraction of her work has ever been seen publicly, demanding further study and exposure.  She’s a fascinating feminist, vulnerable before the camera certainly, but entirely on her own terms. Woodman resists reductive definition in fleeting glimpses, becoming one with a medium that reaches for permanence whilst standing on a cliff edge of mortality with every momentary shot. She effectively haunts her own images, using her body as a prop and vintage clothing to ambiguously alter time. Tonal shifts in her work have a psychological edge of loss, a sense of disintegration and elusiveness in striving to know who you are that is universally human.

In Space 2 Providence, Rhode Island 1976, Woodman evades identification as an individual, grappling with herself inside the frame, turning her head during a long exposure so that what remains is movement where we expect her face to be. This idea is attached to a body in relative focus, gesturing forward, hands open and semi-outstretched towards the viewer. Her work reveals how self is realised, grasping for something (and someone) just out of reach. In Woodman’s hands, photography is an act of control for the female protagonist/ artist, usually in decaying, abandoned building surroundings. An image that exemplifies this dynamic comes from the Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island 1976 series, where Woodman is seen semi crouched on the floor in a polka dot dress. One hand is raised to her mouth as if something has just happened in a gasp, the other held to her chest. A residual patch of patterned wallpaper against bare, plaster wall is echoed in her clothing, semi unzipped at the side, revealing a pale gape of flesh. Debris on the floor adds to the sense of unease, glancing sideways, somewhere between dark glam fashion shoot, personal recognition and implied violation. There’s knowing in the setup of the shot, and in Woodman’s eyes, that pose questions for the viewer about what they are seeing or witnessing. It’s a halt to the screen swipe that hits you between the eyes.

There’s nothing accidental about how Woodman simultaneously hides and reveals herself. This residual presence means that the viewer can never own or possess the subject completely. It’s a quality that feels like a psychological imperative of self-preservation and discovery in her work. Vintage dress and decrepit setting toys with youth and beauty. The gaze is self-determined and positioned ambiguously within the set. The photograph is a dialogue, not an answer, about who the subject truly is. Images taken as personal communications with her boyfriend are more fixed in terms of the designated viewer, but still float as enigmatically as Woodman’s handwriting before our eyes. She’s playing with what it means to take an image, with photography as mechanism, mirror and conscious choice.

1. FRANCESCA WOODMAN (1959-1981) From Angel Series, Roma, September 1977, 1977 Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper, 9.30 x 9.30 cm (paper 9.80 x 9.80 cm) (framed: 45.80 x 40.20 x 2.00 cm) ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008 © Courtesy of George and Betty Woodman

We have only begun to examine the work of Surrealist photographers such as Lee Miller, Claude Cahun, Dora Maar and Florence Henri in recent years. Woodman is an interesting inheritor of the inward facing camera in that respect. In From Angel Series, Rome 1977, we see the female protagonist, a shadow presence enveloped in large sheets of white paper, through a doorframe that reads like a proscenium arch. Another smaller door prop with a hand reaching round like a handle is as curious as Alice in Wonderland, drawing the eye further into the photograph. The overall framing is slightly skewed, like the geometric tilt of the figure, feeling to the edge of her paper costume with a bent elbow. The naked body/ self is screened by abstract form and tonality. What casts the eye across the foreground layer and deeper, through the doorway into the space beyond, is a tonal shift from left to right, from beached light to progressive darkness. This isn’t just physical or aesthetic but psychological. That emotional gravitas dances uneasily with the comic, play element of staging to create heightened, internal realism, or Surrealism. The shift in tone also evokes the passage of time inside the composition and in that moment of seeing.  It is imaginatively fluid, rather than presenting an absolute image of self. This is one of the smallest images in the show, so you are compelled to approach it closely, like seeing through the crack of a door left ajar. In historical terms the door left ajar that Woodman is stepping through is Surrealist and conceptual.

As I’ve suggested in previous posts on Lee Miller and coverage of the Surreal Encounters: Collecting the Marvellous exhibition (SNGMA, June 2016) [i], Surrealism as a concept, rather than a movement, gave women unprecedented latitude for exploring Self. Woodman’s use of the female body embraces the essential negotiation between seeing and being seen, exemplified in the work of Miller. Contrary to popular belief, Surrealism isn’t about the dreamy fantasy, but confrontation. ‘The free form craft of association, placing contradictory ideas beside each other in denial of the absolute,  asserts the political right to freedom of expression.’[ii] In the 1970’s, an era of activism, Woodman conceptually grasps the mettle and beauty of Surrealism in its purest form, which ‘brings us into confrontation with ourselves on an intensely psychological level; individually and collectively.’[iii] To photograph the self, disappearing and emerging in the same frame, celebrates that free, associative tension and also expresses an existential crisis of being.  There’s a feeling of profound liberty and isolation in Woodman’s photography, the idea that ‘You cannot see me from where I look at myself’, as she expressed it. We are confronted time and again with her essential mystery and our own as human beings.

In the popular imagination, photography is the ultimate proof of existence- that we have lived, yet it documents a singular moment of life and the loss of that moment, for the individual, generation and era. Woodman’s Untitled, Concord, New Hampshire,1977, taken after the death of her grandmother, brings us to a moment of profound silence and lengthening shadow. It’s a spectral image of the living and past generations, in the framed family photographs illuminated on the table and in the seated female presence, defined almost entirely by shadow. Light is cast on the side of the face, hands and into the corner of the room. Influenced by the sequential, emotive work of Duane Michals (b 1932), Woodman creates a self-portrait grounded in observance of loss. Although it is a deeply personal response to her grandmother passing, what we are confronted with is our own mortality. At its birth photography was described as a process of ‘fixing the shadows’, a metaphor in tune with Woodman’s singular command of the medium.

DIANE ARBUS (1923-1971) The King and Queen of a Senior Citizens’ Dance, N.Y.C. 1970, 1970. Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper. 37.20 x 36.90 cm (framed: 50.80 x 40.60 cm). ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008

The work of Diane Arbus (1923-1971) is defined by her approach to portraiture, the essential relationship between artist /photographer and subject. Her congruence in making images and identification with her subjects remains compassionate and contradictory. Arbus presents alternative ways of life to the white picket fenced American dream and her eye to eye stance behind the camera continues to introduce audiences to taboo subjects. Debates still rage about whether her depiction of marginalised individuals constitutes empowerment or exploitation. The argument in this show unfolds empathically as ‘a de facto self-portrait,’ in the form of her Box of Ten Photographs (1969-1971). These images convey how Arbus saw herself and how she wished to be remembered as an artist. The self-evidence in this self-edit is significantly greater than the individual, revealing aspects of American society and humanity that still resonate very powerfully today. However you regard her images, here the box is semi opaque and articulates her signature loud and clear.

These 10 original prints are her intended legacy and proof of life. They expand her enduring statement:  ‘My photos are proof that something was there, which no longer is. You can turn away but when you come back, they’ll still be there looking at you.’

What seems to strike people, looking at the photographs she is famous (or infamous) for, those of disadvantaged people, perceived social outcasts or “freaks”[iv], is a combination of shame and pity, not coming from the subject, but as an aspect of self-projection on the part of the viewer. Photography as a medium is meant to reassure us, Arbus explodes that abject sentimentality completely. ‘I would never choose a subject for what it means to me. I choose a subject and then what I feel about it, what it means, begins to unfold.’ There is a sense of detachment in her initial approach, but also a powerful sense of connection and agency that endures in her work.

Images from Two American Families, published in the Sunday Times Magazine, Nov 1968, are a great example. It’s a revealing, uncomfortable juxtaposition that establishes where real tenderness lies. In A Young Brooklyn Family Going for a Sunday Outing, NYC, 1966 we see the family unit dressed proudly for a day off, though it is far from being carefree. The baby in a white playsuit and bonnet, gravitates towards the photographer with a hand semi outstretched. Her mother is naturally glamourous, offset by a weary, faraway expression that extends beyond the frame to what might have been. Her dark bouffont hair, Liz Taylor style eyeliner and flash of leopard print coat lining are contrasted with the baby held in front of her and the idea of motherhood experienced aged 16. The young father’s soft, serious gaze meets Arbus’s/ the viewer’s, holding the hand of their older child. There’s a feeling of youth confronting aged responsibility in the care of a child with learning difficulties. There’s also an edge of fractured separation, in individual familial gazes that do not meet each other. The descent of stairs creates an emotional trajectory, caught in the trap of the camera. We feel the unease of being brought so close in contemplation of someone else’s family unit, because it naturally causes us to reflect upon our own. This isn’t a private family snapshot, but documentary with ethical implications. That precarious line between viewer as witness and complicity of the gaze, in appreciation or ridicule, is part of Arbus’s potency as an artist. The human subject is unapologetically left open to scrutiny. Thankfully Arbus honours the complexity of that exchange.

The companion photograph, A Family on Their Lawn One Sunday in Westchester, NYC, 1966 widens the social commentary in comparison. It’s a we want what they have capitalist dream turned on its head, an indictment of American values where humour and tragedy collide. The expanded view is of aspirational property and status. The Mother, father and child are depicted at leisure on a lawn so large it feels more like a swimming pool they could collectively drown in. The mother resembles a Barbie doll, lying on a banana lounge in a swimsuit. It’s impossible to tell if her eyes are closed, or watchful beneath the fake lashes. Lying on a parallel sun lounge Dad looks like he’s having a breakdown, hand raised to his brow, like the cost of this upper middle-class suburban dream is all too much. The child in the background is bent over a paddling pool, which in relation to his parents, feels like a well he’s destined to fall and disappear into entirely. As Arbus stated; ‘They are a fascinating family. I think all families are creepy in a way.’ Western consumer/ popular culture engineers the desire for this lifestyle. Looking at Arbus’s take on identity, family and success, my first thought is seriously?! If there’s an aspect of absurdity and potential ridicule here, then its wrapped around a lie, rather than the human subjects. Arbus received two John Simon Guggenhiem Fellowship grants, to examine ‘American rites, manners and customs’ which I’d say was a perennial investment.

Arbus brings us face to face with the licence a camera gives you, prompting questions about how it is used, directed towards the self and/or others. Sometimes the closeup takes us to places that mainstream culture, or the powers that be, don’t think it should go.  A Young Man in Curlers at home on W20th St, NYC, 1966, was a daring imagewhen it was taken and in many countries around the world still is. Arbus’s photograph of a Boy in a Straw Hat Waiting to March in a Pro-War Parade, 1967 with his “God Bless America” badge, could be straight out of Trump’s America if it weren’t for the period clothing. The irony being, that this face of youth, aged by forefathers’ ideals, is wearing a hat from an earlier period, popular in the 1920’s and 30’s- otherwise known as the Great Depression. Nostalgia and nationalism go hand in hand before the camera in a wholesome march towards aggressive dominance. The war in question is Vietnam, one of many invasions on foreign soil in the interest of putting “America first.” That plain belief is presented as an honest portrait, however as part of Arbus’s self-portrait it is deeply subversive. The problem with being hardwired for subversion is that you don’t achieve that level of awareness without digging the earth out from under yourself, acknowledging that you don’t belong to the status quo, even if “success” depends upon it. A photograph as Arbus described it is “like a stain.”

DIANE ARBUS (1923-1971) Xmas Tree in a Living Room, in Levittown 1963, 1963. Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper. 36.80 x 37.60 cm (framed: 50.80 x 40.60 cm). ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008

I enjoyed the opportunity to revisit Arbus’s work as a self-portrait. The complete immersion of Retired Man and his wife at home one morning, NJ, 1963 (gelatine silver print) which is such a homage to normality, despite the nudity of both subjects and photographer and Xmas Tree in a Living Room, in Levittown 1963, reveal underappreciated facets of her personality. Xmas Tree never ceases to be both horrific and hilarious. It is devoid of any obvious human subjects, apart from the viewer, who is positioned in the foreground armchair, virtual reality style, with the viewer/participant’s hands resting on the edge of both arms. The discomfort is ours, seeing the celebratory, festive gaudiness of the tree, shoved into one corner of a disconcertingly clean and orderly suburban living room, which feels more like an internal void. Arbus is an artist who confronts us with belonging (or not) and this collection of self-evidence cements her legacy as a socially conscious artist, rather than a sensationalist, ghoulish collector of souls.

ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE (1946-1989) Self Portrait, 1983 Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper, 37.40 x 37.50 cm (framed: 50.80 x 40.60 cm) ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

Driven by ego and craft, the work of Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) presents a face to the world through role play and extreme duality. Mapplethorpe’s controversial S&M lifestyle and his death from Aids tends to draw focus away from his undeniable skill and sensitivity as an artist. Whatever attendant beliefs the viewer might bring to consideration of his work, the value of experience and the life of the photographer were of paramount importance the artist. This self-belief permeates all his work. The viewer may see it as destructive, immoral or offensive if they choose, however an image such as Self Portrait 1978 confounds notions of obscenity or moral judgement, because it asserts the individual’s right to be so powerfully. In this case, and in the context of the exhibition, the act is entirely self-directed. The photograph is an extreme confrontation and explicit provocation, in profane defiance of his Catholic roots, yet employing all the theatricality of a devotee. There’s no doubt that the play enacted between good and evil is dangerous, but for Mapplethorpe that’s the attraction- in art and in life. There’s no escaping that fact in his oeuvre. It’s woven into everything, from the delicate interplay of masculine and feminine in Self Portrait 1983 (printed 2009) to Self Portrait 1978 where the bullwhip reads like a devil’s tail. He’s a master of role play, perhaps best summed up by Self Portrait with Knife 1983, where we see him posturing with polarities- one hand raised, palm flattened in gesture of defence, while the other is extended to attack. The choreography could belong to no one else.

ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE (1946-1989) Self Portrait, 1980 (printed 2009) Photograph on paper, 35.20 x 35.00 cm; framed: 68.40 x 66.20 x 3.10 cm ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation 2014

There is a right to self-expression which Mapplethorpe asserts throughout his career, in all his varied personas and this is perhaps where progress has been made in the 30 years since his death. In the late 1980s, his retrospective The Perfect Moment was cancelled in one venue, while another found itself at the centre of an obscenity trial. This is the first time Mapplethorpe’s work has been displayed in the dedicated photography gallery at SNPG that bears his name, originally established with assistance by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. This is cause for celebration, as is the recent news of a patient in the UK who due to advances in Aids treatment is now free from infection. I imagine that had Mapplethorpe lived, he’d be enjoying the spoils of a culture that elevates the artist as celebrity, building his legacy and continuing to unashamedly explore every facet of himself.

Although we see his declining health in the later self-portraits, above all else it’s the sheer force of his personality/ego that remains to the last. In Self Portrait 1988 we see that self-possession in action, despite his dishevelled hair and pallor. The hand on his knee appears to grasp mortality, the other clenched purposefully by his cheek. Sitting cross legged on a black leather armchair in a silk robe and embossed slippers, he resembles an aging tycoon. A Hugh Hefner type, slightly tainted by scandal, the kind of entrepreneur so revered in American popular culture as a model of success. The ripple in his brow and questioning mouth, partially open as if about to speak, issues an underlying challenge to, and affirmation of, white middle-aged male dominance.  It’s a fascinating image of wealth, respectability and mortal decay.

ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE (1946-1989) Self Portrait, 1988 Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper, 57.70 x 48.10 cm ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

In a later Self Portrait 1988, he delivers one of his most iconic images, the head of the artist receding into a dark ground, while his hand rests steadfast on a walking cane, carved with a skull. It’s a universal memento mori, an individual confronting death and Mapplethorpe making a statement of power in composition and tonality, even as he fades. He’s become the force that’s stalking him, that stalks us all, and he does so with immense dignity. Seeing this image always makes me think of Shakespearean tragedies like King Lear, Hamlet or Macbeth. The immensity of darkness engulfing the protagonist is absolute, yet Mapplethorpe still rules the frame. Immortalised in a signature moment of brilliance, something he never doubted possessing, he sits hand in hand with God and the Devil, between the darkness and illumination of his craft.

The final ‘Snapchat’ section of the exhibition, where school students, photography and art students have responded to the exhibition with images, text and filmed interviews was incredibly moving and insightful. What struck me most was the element of shock and surprise in relation to photography as a discipline, rather than tool and the degree of artistic agency identified in the work of Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe. The concept of ‘making the image instead of taking it’ felt like a generational penny dropping. I also felt an acute sense of loss, in terms of how human creativity and expression is being indiscriminatingly shaped by technology. I was left wondering if a Woodman, Arbus or Mapplethorpe would even be possible today, whether their bold self-determination would be too easily quashed beneath an avalanche of self-censorship.

As the students described; ‘technology has made us less free.’ ‘Everyone is able to see us’ and it has become more difficult to approach life online and day to day on your own terms.’ Examining the work of Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe, there’s a more audacious sense of identity in play and techniques that demand greater deliberation, in their handling of materials and negotiation with the subject. Taking the kind of portraits and self-portraits seen in this exhibition requires expanded self-awareness beyond the trigger- happy selfie.  In the case of Arbus, you have to admit something other than your carefully censored self into the equation/ workflow. Self-portraiture comes with humility and admission of the ‘other’, rather than simple self-gratification or promotion of the individual. Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe, don’t just vainly declare ‘I am’ in their photography, but significantly alter our perception. They stand uniquely for themselves and for humanity in the process, in all its darkness and light. The beauty in this exhibition is self-reflexivity, realised unapologetically and with compassion through craft. Advancing technology has made photography available to more people than ever before, however it’s not the tool that creates art and critical self-reflection, but the human being standing behind the camera. I say standing, because that stance or attitude of self-awareness is so critical in framing the subject in the mind’s eye, before the image is taken. In a world awash with rapid clicks, evidence of that vital human faculty appears to be rapidly diminishing.

It’s a great pleasure to see this work brought together and to consider the responses of students to such unexpectedly radical images. This is a deeply affecting show, for the ways that Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe confront their own truths about being human and for the questions the exhibition raises about ‘self-evidence’ in the 21st Century. This is photography as a matter of survival and in the words of one student, art that ‘makes you keep looking.’

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/exhibition/artist-rooms-self-evidence-photographs-woodman-arbus-and-mapplethorpe


[i] Georgina Coburn Blogpost Surreal Encounters Collecting the Marvellous, June 2016 http://georginacoburnarts.co.uk/surreal-encounters-collecting-marvellous/ Georgina Coburn Collective Action, article for the Times Literary Supplement July 2016 https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/private/collective-action/ Georgina Coburn Blogpost Lee Miller and Picasso June 2015 http://georginacoburnarts.co.uk/lee-miller-and-picasso/ Georgina Coburn Blogpost Lee Miller A Womans War IWM, London Jan 2016 http://georginacoburnarts.co.uk/lee-miller-a-womans-war/
[ii] Georgina Coburn Blogpost Surreal Encounters Collecting the Marvellous June 2016 http://georginacoburnarts.co.uk/surreal-encounters-collecting-marvellous/
iii] Georgina Coburn Blogpost Surreal Ensounters Collecting the Marvellous June 2016http://georginacoburnarts.co.uk/surreal-encounters-collecting-marvellous/
iv] I use the word ‘freaks’ here in the context of Arbus’s statement which indicates an attitude of respect on the part of the artist; “There’s a quality of legend about freaks.Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle. Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.”

Klimt / Schiele

Drawings from the Albertina Museum, Vienna
Royal Academy of Arts, London
4 November 2018 – 3 February 2019

Egon Schiele, Seated Female Nude, Elbows Resting on Right Knee, 1914
Graphite, gouache on Japan paper, 48 x 32 cm
The Albertina Museum, Vienna
Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London and the Albertina Museum, Vienna

Der Zeit ihre Kunst. Der Kunst ihre Freiheit. / To the age its art, to art its freedom. (i)

The day before the Klimt / Schiele preview, I saw a London Underground billboard advertising the exhibition. Three naked figures with a banner collectively preserving modesty declared this work too shocking for public display, even in 2018. Potential offence and outrage are ever present in contemporary life, lived mostly online, with critical discussion and reflection harder to find. Coming face to face with humanity, warts and all, is a given with this exhibition and it would be a shame to expect anything less. Unmasking the nature of provocation and social propriety is unavoidable when following the drawn line of both artists. Although the official PR images don’t come close to representing it, the viewer is consistently arrested, having to psychologically, morally and ethically grapple with where they stand, often in relation to taboo subjects.

As the first exhibition in the UK to focus on the drawing practice of both artists, Klimt / Schiele presents a rare opportunity to see over 100 delicate works on paper from the Albertina Museum, Vienna. Among these are some of the finest examples of life drawing I’ve ever had the privilege to see, sublime, assured and intensely beautiful. Equally I loved this exhibition for the disquieting, uncomfortable questions it raised and for the timeless radicalism of both artists which positively sings, howls and scratches its way off the walls. The drawings are on an intimate scale and arranged thematically to highlight each artist’s creative process, explore relationships between them and engage with the confrontational nature of their work in juxtaposition. Together with this insightful visual survey, the centenary of the deaths of Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) and Egon Schiele (1890-1918) provide a timely focus for questions about art and censorship in our own time.

Gustav Klimt, Standing Pair of Lovers, 1907-08
Graphite, red pencil, gold paint on Japan paper, 29.6 x 28.2 cm
The Albertina Museum, Vienna. The Batliner Collection
Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London and the Albertina Museum, Vienna

Having been reproduced in golden decorative splendour on posters, t-shirts and greetings cards the world over, Klimt’s radicalism, his essential rejection of the academic art establishment, has almost been gift shopped out of public consciousness. However, this decorative, chocolate box status is effectively stripped away by the pioneering vision of his line, which resonated with Schiele the moment he saw the older artist’s work. Outside the German speaking world, the cultural gravity of the gesamtkunstwerk as a lived idea is often lost or misunderstood. This, together with the 21st century assumption of unrelenting human progress makes it is easy to perceive Klimt as an artist of gilded aesthetics, rather than an innovator or iconoclast. The much-celebrated ‘Golden Age’ of his work, including highly romanticised images like The Kiss, paint an insubstantial picture of the artist. Society portraits that enshrine the sitter in fashionably liberated attire, steeped in colour, symbolic pattern and ancient mythology have become merely decorative to contemporary eyes. What’s gratifying about this exhibition is returning to the bones of Klimt’s art, to drawings which are the basis of his understanding and first response to the world around him. The human figure is central to that vision, and how he renders it paves the way for large scale paintings and the work of artists like Schiele.

Klimt’s state commission of three 4.5 x 3m faculty paintings Medicine, Philosophy and Jurisprudence for the University of Vienna caused a public scandal. The preparatory drawings for Medicine, including Klimt’s Sketch for Medicine, squared for transfer (c. 1900, black chalk and pencil on paper) and Three Studies for the Oil Sketch of Medicine (Black chalk on packing paper, 1897-98) reveal his immediate concern with the drawn line as a potent flow of energy. Sculpted with line and animated shading, three female studies drawn from below, floating above the viewer with their arms outstretched, are an invitation to the entire dance of life. They are a dynamic invocation of where we are led in Klimt’s paintings, an engagement with humanity that encompasses the human cycle of procreation, birth and inevitable decay. It is a departure from the idealised perfection and austerity of 19th Century academic Neo-Classical painting. Looking at these studies there is a complete sense of abandonment and a vital, emergent rhythm that steps across all boundaries of time. In Klimt’s Sketch for Medicine, the human body is seen unflatteringly variable in form, aging and vulnerable. This expression of humanity has undeniable impetus in an era of Darwin, Freud and in the context of turn of the century Vienna, once described as ‘the research lab at the end of the world.’ Age old certainties and regimes were crumbling, giving way to modernity and the horrors of mechanised warfare. In Medicine Klimt presents the viewer with over 40 entwined figures bound by instinct to eternal cycles of growth and decay, rather than the elevation and respectability of a noble profession. At the apex of the column, the skeleton/ Death will eventually claim us all, despite the goddess of cleanliness, hygiene and healing, Hygieia at the base of the image, like a caryatid holding up the vertical procession of figures above her. Advances in science and social conventions may define our lives and try to keep us ‘safe’, however from cradle to grave natural drives, creative and destructive, are constantly shaping our trajectory. There’s a feeling of free fall in Klimt’s three female studies for Medicine that to me, sum up the context of Klimt’s time and our own. The earth beneath our feet is no longer stable.

Egon Schiele, Cellist, 1910
Black chalk, watercolour on packing paper, 44.7 x 31.2 cm
The Albertina Museum, Vienna
Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London and the Albertina Museum, Vienna

There are many astonishing works in the Klimt/ Schiele exhibition that confront the viewer on multiple levels. The sheer skill of draughtsmanship and investment in the human mark is impressive throughout. These aren’t just bodies but souls on display, a quality which will probably cause some discomfort to 21st Century eyes accustomed to the clinical separation of the two. It is stunning in every sense of that word, to be confronted with work that floors you with its unapologetic rawness. As a life drawing student, recognition between sitter and artist is paramount and I was ever conscious, especially in Schiele’s work, of the complex nature of one human being beholding and documenting the living presence of another. Schiele’s Black-Haired Nude Girl (1910, Pencil and watercolour with protein-based binder and white gouache heightening on packing paper) elicited particularly strong responses. I watched people giving this piece a wide berth, mentally and physically distancing themselves from the image of a young girl meeting the gaze of the artist/ viewer. Even the catalogue reproduction triggered shocked, sharp intakes of breath. The girl’s trade is very clearly defined in black stockings, with her lips, nipples and labia accented in red. As an image of child prostitution, it is (and should be) a disturbing sight. On the streets of Vienna circa 1910, where the age of consent was 14, it would not have been uncommon for underage girls to be working due to grinding poverty, partially sanctioned by what we would now consider to be an immoral law. Over 100 years later, in an age defined by mass displacement and global human trafficking, gross economic inequality still rules. Although the depiction of the subject may be hard to look at and/or deeply upsetting, the Schiele’s image deserves closer scrutiny. Not simply because it still has the power to shock, but because the gaze of the human subject demands it.

What struck me most about this drawing wasn’t the red-light triangle labelling of the body, but the embodiment of ‘Death and the Maiden’ in this adolescent female figure. Her body is thin, angular and death grey-pale with blackened fingertips, hands drawn up beside her face, eyes which regard and consider the artist/viewer across the ages. It is a powerful portrait of an unknown girl right on the edge of burgeoning sexuality, arguably the most excruciatingly difficult of all stages of life. I had to confront and question my initial disgust, because whatever circumstances led her into this pose, there is dignity in her gaze, captured by the artist. On a human level, the projection of judgement is problematic and in any case that is not what Schiele’s treatment of the figure conveys. I don’t see this image as one of seduction or desire. Both ideas as projections of a male gaze are negated by the presence of the girl herself; naked, vulnerable and eternally questioning. She stands like a column, anchoring herself in a world of brutality, poverty and decay, with a halo of thin white gouache around her. It’s an image that is impossible to make peace with or to feel comfortable in front of, but that, I would argue, is precisely the point. I am certain that many people would regard this image as obscene and simply turn away in order to distance themselves from it. However, whether it is pornographic i.e. explicitly created for sexual arousal/ gratification by the artist is debateable. Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of this drawing is that Schiele doesn’t just paint the body and face of this girl, he captures something else, her uniquely perceptive expression. I agree that the idea of maturity in this image is highly contentious, complex and bound to historical perception of Schiele as a male artist. However, that this girl’s gaze is still present, questioning the viewer with mistrust, is significant and I am glad that anyone visiting the exhibition will see and bear witness to the fact that she existed. One doesn’t detect the same empathy in front of a Balthus painting or one of Hans Bellmer’s dolls, where there is absolutely no self-possession afforded to female subjects, wholly objectified by the artist. Schiele’s work may be ambiguous, but many of his images of women and girls grasp the human beings before him in ways that other male artists, historic or contemporary, could not. Schiele’s drawings Embrace (1915, Black crayon on Japan paper) and Group of Three Girls (1911, pencil, watercolour and gouache with white gouache heightening on packing paper) are good examples.

Egon Schiele
Group of Three Girls, 1911
Graphite, watercolour, white and coloured gouaches on brown packing paper, 44.7 x 30.8 cm
The Albertina Museum, Vienna
Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London and the Albertina Museum, Vienna

It’s fascinating to see Schiele’s naked self-portraits subject to the same line of enquiry as his sitters, with terse dry brush marks and tensely drawn ribs, squatting, arms outstretched and excruciatingly truncated. Collectively they are interrogative rather than celebratory, not just kicking over the white marble pedestal but smashing it. Self-proclaimed artistic genius gives way to everyman/woman, subject to the same raw anxieties about one’s place in the world. The positioning of the figure in Schiele’s compositions has always fascinated me. The lone human being is consistently pitted against the negative space engulfing them, not just as a pictorial element but as an existential crisis. I get the same feeling from Klimt’s Lady with Cape and Hat (1897-98, Black and red chalk on paper) an innocuously titled drawing that engulfs the lone protagonist in finely spun darkness.

Gustav Klimt, Standing Female Nude (Study for The Three Gorgons; Beethoven Frieze), 1901
Black chalk on brown packing paper, 44.5 x 31.9 cm
The Albertina Museum, Vienna
Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London and the Albertina Museum, Vienna

The figure of the femme fatale, embodied by the sinuous curves of Kilmt’s Beethoven Frieze Gorgon studies (1901, Black chalk on packing paper) is given more considered depth in Schiele’s work. Female Nude (1910, Pencil, black crayon, watercolour and gouache with white gouache heightening on packing paper) is a fine example. The female figure, crowned with deep crimson hair and narrowed eyes meets the gaze of the artist/ client/viewer, back arched, belly, breasts, vulva and the top of her blood-black stockings all unashamedly visible. There’s a feeling of the male artist being sized up by the model’s fixed gaze, rather than being submissive to any kind of ‘master’. It is an intensely powerful portrait, more a measure of a person than a life study. She’s not just draped and arranged, but pointedly takes charge of the composition. Even the focus on the torso doesn’t diminish her mindfully present, penetrating gaze. The same Female Nude, Seen from Behind (1910, Black crayon and watercolour with white gouache heightening on packing paper) is elongated and angular, we can feel the spine and hip bones protruding, surrounded by an aura of living energy. The heightening use of white gouache charges the human figure with a kind of electricity against the plain beige ground of packing paper. This everyday rough texture permeates the entire drawing. Schiele’s models were family, friends, prostitutes and street children, there is nothing glamourous or idealised about them. As an artist he appears to meet his sitters halfway as equals, regardless of age, gender or sexual orientation.

Sexuality in the work of Schiele is very permissive and surprisingly liberated in its antiquity. Unlike Rodin’s erotic drawings, simply powered by male voyeurism, Schiele’s drawings present a more expansive, self-determined view of female sexuality and present a variety of human embraces, between men, between women and between sexes. Curatorially the exhibition takes the idea of Klimt’s Embracing Couple (Study for ‘This kiss for the Entire World’, ‘Beethoven Frieze’) (1901, Blackchalk on packing paper) and expands it in a sequence of drawings in the final room. The erotic focus becomes more fluid than masculine dominance and is critically punctuated by an adjacent drawing, Man and Woman (1917, Pencil and black crayon on Japan paper). This is a work and a kind of fractured, disintegrating mark I hadn’t seen in Schiele’s work before. It struck me as an admission of inequality, starkly violent and ever present in the world. At the base of the drawing a woman lies with her back to us, clothing drawn up while the male figure kneels over her, his face and hands a series of broken, incomplete marks. The drawn detail centres on his hairy, bestial hips, legs and feet and her static head and hair, topped and tailed together, almost as a bookended comment on the male/ female relationship. She is remarkably still, drawn complete by comparison, while he goes about his business, blindly fuelled by instinct. His raised arms ambiguously flail-is he about to embrace her or exert further control by pinning her neck and head? Whilst physical male dominance is present, so is confusion on the part of the male protagonist, communicated by faceless, broken lines. It’s an extremely interesting image of power and pity, because strangely that’s how I felt towards the male figure, despite the position of the woman beneath him. ‘What is the artist’s/ viewer’s position in all of this?’ is the uncomfortable question that must be faced when confronted by this drawing, doubly so in a room of ‘Erotic’ themed work. Provocation, propriety and politics are at the heart of this valuable and very timely encounter.

There were many other aspects of both artist’s practices to be considered and I took three turns around the exhibition, revisiting connections and themes, as well as just pausing to drink in the confident line of human form held in negative space. I found insistence on life in the architectural façade of Schiele’s Old Gabled Houses in Krumau (1917, black crayon on Japan paper) and in the human presence in absence of Organic Movement of Chair and Pitcher, 21 April 1912 (Pencil and watercolour on primed Japan paper), created during the artist’s incarceration. Klimt / Schiele is an exhibition which makes the viewer grapple with where they stand in an age of uncertainty, reminding us that the relative freedoms of our age are exactly that.

In 2017, the inscription above the Vienna Succession building threshold, ‘To every time its art. To art its freedom’, was adopted by the Austrian far right nationalist government as part of their cultural policy, an ideological alignment rejected by the Association of Visual Artists Vienna Succession. Seeing the Klimt / Schiele exhibition reminded me of a statement ‘of relevance and quality’ issued by the association on 20 December 2017 in response to the government’s misappropriation of the Successionist motto:
‘Freedom of the arts is necessarily premised on internationality, pluralism, and dialogue. The notion that art’s purpose is to buttress a national collective identity presses it into a service that runs counter to its thematic diversity. We are persuaded that it is only in the horizon of this freedom that art can attain relevance and quality.

The freedom our motto demands extends far beyond the individual creative articulation: the exchange of ideas in a larger, pluralistic, international context is what endows the individual voices with cultural significance. That is why culture cannot be reduced to art objects or musical compositions. Nor can it be assessed on the quantitative scales of visitor figures, market values, or the circulation of works. An open society is the air that art needs to breathe. When a government does not champion a free society, its promise to respect the freedom of the arts is no more than a rhetorical exercise.’ (ii)

At the heart of the Klimt/ Schiele exhibition is the embrace of artistic freedom, ‘pluralism and dialogue’ which begins with both artist’s drawings, extends through the thematic hang of the show and in the collaboration between the Royal Academy and the Albertina Museum in a pre-Brexit landscape. When I look at free movement of the human body in Klimt and Schiele’s remarkable drawings, I’m inspired by what lives in those lines, the questions they raise and the fact that I can look at them in a relatively ‘free society’, despite any discomfort they may cause me. Although aged 100 years, this is the art of our time and it needs to be examined

https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/klimt-schiele 

[1] Inscription above the door of the Vienna Succession exhibition hall, Friedrichstraße 12, 1010 Vienna, Austria.

[2]Art News ‘ Austria’s Far Right Adopts the Motto of Vienna’s Artistic Avante-Garde- and They’re Not All Pleased’ by Hili Perlson, December 22, 2017.  https://news.artnet.com/art-world/vienna-museum-takes-a-stand-as-austrias-new-right-wing-government-quotes-its-motto-1187462

Rembrandt- Britain’s Discovery of the Master

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69)
A Woman in Bed, about 1645 – 1646
Oil on canvas, 81.1 x 67.8 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, presented by William McEwan 1892
Photo: Antonia Reeve

7 July – 14 October

Scottish National Gallery

“Britain’s love affair with one of history’s greatest artists” is the celebratory focus of the Scottish National Gallery’s latest summer blockbuster. Rembrandt: Britain’s Discovery of the Master features 140 works: oil paintings, drawings and etchings by Rembrandt Van Rijin, works from his workshop and those by British artists he inspired from the 18th Century to the present day. Seeing Rembrandt’s impact on the art of William Hogarth, Joshua Reynolds, Henry Raeburn, David Wilkie, Thomas Duncan, Augustus John, James Abbot McNeill Whistler, Jacob Epstein, Leon Kossoff, William Strang, Henryk Gotlib, Eduardo Paolozzi, Frank Auerbach, John Bellany, Ken Currie and Glen Brown is one of the fascinations of the show. It is also an exhibition about historical acquisition and how an artist’s legacy is enabled. Works on loan from the National Gallery, British Museum, Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Tate, London, the National Gallery of Ireland, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow, Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery, Glasgow, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C bring together familiar images, new discoveries and reflections on why Rembrandt is so revered.

Outside the Netherlands, the UK holds the largest collection of Rembrandt works, a trend that began during the reign of Charles I and reached fever pitch in the 18th Century, when prints, drawings and paintings were highly sought after by private collectors. Cataloguing the artist’s work also began at this time, an indicator of Rembrandt as currency and a practical response to market driven climate of forgers and respectful copyists. The desirability of Rembrandt’s work among collectors in the British Isles has resulted in much wider awareness of his work and most importantly, the opportunity to experience it live, having found its way into public collections. Coming eyeball to eyeball with a Rembrandt seems to level all arguments about what good or bad art is. At base he shows us what art is, what it is for and why it matters.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69)
Two Studies of Old Men’s Heads, c.1639
Pen and brown ink, 8.1 x 9.4 cm
Collection: British Museum, London

The appetite for Rembrandt’s work has grown exponentially over the last 400 years, however his authenticity doesn’t lie with a stamp of approval from royalty, the aristocracy, learned experts or the validation of monumental prices at auction. The claim that his “imagery” is now “ubiquitous” and he is now a “global brand” is only true in terms of all the things his art embodies that cannot be bought, sold or even put into words. However you frame Rembrandt’s work, his emotional intelligence trumps every other narrative you attempt to overlay.  Therefore, I find it doubly fascinating that he has such a following in Britain. The most essential part of this equation isn’t the Master on the manor house wall or fashion, but the level of self-awareness communicated in his work, the thing that makes us what we are. In many ways the light in Rembrandt’s art hits a nerve of the great unsaid in British culture. Above all, his work is about intimacy and connection- something human beings will always crave and what makes him an eternally contemporary artist. Long before theories of Humanism, Existentialism or the apex of Maslow’s pyramid, there is Rembrandt.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69) Self-portrait aged 51, about 1657 Oil on canvas, 53 x 43 cm Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, Bridgewater Collection Loan Photo: Antonia Reeve.

His Self Portrait aged 51 (c.1657 oil on canvas, part of the Bridgewater Collection loan to the NGS, Edinburgh) exemplifies the artist’s timeless appeal. It isn’t the image of a Master, but that of a man, in whom we see our own anxieties, aging and mortality. Rembrandt doesn’t elevate himself above the progressive march of years. He renders himself with self-respecting care and humility, equally surrounded by shadow. To encounter such an honest soul in Art is profoundly moving and deeply comforting. I’ve returned to this work many times and experience it in waves, emotion which emanates from the lines of his brow and deep-set eyes. It’s confrontation with the ground of the painting, behind his eyes and to sorrow, which connects to your own- regardless of what century you happen to be standing in. His face emerges from the darkest earth brown umber, the fertile ground inside us,  the clay beneath our feet and the dust we will become. We all know what age will make us and there he is, facing that inevitability, sharing it with us with unflinching dignity. In psychological terms Rembrandt’s self-portraits are the personification of congruence because they aren’t just about the artist, they are about an essential exchange with the viewer. His humanity is his genius. He affirms what art is for every time we meet his gaze-and not just directly in self-portraiture, figurative or biblical works, but in his landscapes too.

The Mill (1645 -48, oil on canvas, The National Gallery, Washington D.C) was a revelation to me in that respect. I can see why it has been described as “the greatest painting in the world”.  Although the human figures in the foreground are small and largely in shadow, it is an image of absolute benevolence and empathy. This surprising painting of a mill in the landscape has the presence and authority of his portraits, rooted in how we see ourselves. It isn’t a scene of a landscape but a register of light and human consciousness. Certainly the cruciform sails of the mill read as a Christ-like guardian over Rembrandt’s homeland of Leiden, but what hit me between the eyes standing in front of this unexpected masterwork is the dawning of light- for the artist and viewer. J.M.W. Turner described how, in this particular painting, Rembrandt had “thrown that veil of matchless colour: that lucid interval of morning down and dewy light on which the eye dwells so completely enthralled.” The way that Northern Romantic artists such as J.M.W. Turner, Caspar David Friedrich or the contemporary Scottish landscape artist Allan MacDonald make that connection between Nature, the Divine and human consciousness aligns with the function of light in Rembrandt’s Mill. The presence of light is the entire crux of the image; as a sensuous reality and a prism through which a myriad of metaphorical colours can be seen. It’s the way, the truth and the life of painting. It even reverberates in the unusual geometry and patinated curves of the dark frame surrounding it, rippling outwards, beyond the pictureplane. Whether you believe in a God is irrelevant- this is as close to what moves, motivates and saves us as you are ever likely to get.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69)
A Woman Bathing in a Stream, 1654
Oil on panel, 61.8 x 47 cm
Collection: The National Gallery, London

Rembrandt explodes expectations of historical genre by being himself. A Woman Bathing in a Stream -Calisto in the Wilderness (1654, oil on oak panel) is an absolute affirmation that art is life. There is no imitation of anything. We can see Rembrandt’s hand, not just stylistically but experientially, in the intimate shorthand of abstracted marks that form her hand. This isn’t a typical male gaze, or that of a Master, directed at a generic woman. Her shift conceals and reveals her body, but that isn’t the focus of the image either. There’s preservation of the self, seeking of the self, in this work that resides with the female subject. She’s looking down into the dark water at her reflection, which we cannot see, and about to step into it, to immerse herself. The wilderness of self-awareness and knowledge of what we are as human beings is open to her, perhaps not in the historical confines of her actual life, but here she stands as Rembrandt envisaged her, reimagined in the 21st Century. Her action in seeing is unaided and there is tenderness and honest regard in how Rembrandt models the figure. He doesn’t deny her sensuality or her capacity as a conscious being. The adjacent label suggests life imitating art in an image of the artist’s lover, exiled in real life by bearing him a child.  The mythological subtitle is something Rembrandt is well versed in, but he’s not playing a literary card here. In fact, he’s not playing at anything in this painting. What I love about this work and so many others by him, is the peerless, heightened privacy of the moment, fixed for all time. I’ve seen people gasp in admiration, incline their heads in contemplation, breathe out in relief and smile in recognition, each in their own way understanding what this image holds. Their body language and emotional responses tell me why Rembrandt’s art is a universal touchstone, rather than a “ubiquitous” “brand” described by PR speak.  For me the joy of this exhibition isn’t simply as a survey of the taste for Rembrandt, which is what art is often reduced to as part of an enduring British class system. It is the way that Rembrandt’s work speaks for itself across all borders, boundaries and time- and very particularly to the British psyche, adverse to intimacy. I can say this because I’m from one of its colonies.

Frank Auerbach (b. 1931)
Drawing after Rembrandt’s ‘A Woman Bathing in a Stream’, 1988
Felt-tip pen on paper, 38.9 x 29.4 cm
Collection: The National Gallery, London
© Frank Auerbach

As much as Rembrandt is a publicly acclaimed, popular artist, he has always been an artist’s artist too. It’s interesting that he appeals particularly to male artists- or at least that’s the message delivered by the final room in the exhibition. I think this has to do with the holy grail of creative immortality, the “Master” validation, consciously or unconsciously sought. Alignment with that vision of greatness can be driven by ego, or the homage can be to the inner nature of Rembrandt’s work. He communicates very powerfully what it is to be human and that self-awareness is synonymous with making, casting him the patron saint of artists. In the history of Art Rembrandt has wholly succeeded in transcending himself.

Frank Auerbach (b.1931)
Tree at Tretire, 1975
Chalk, charcoal and gouache on two sheets of paper, 77 x 72.5 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, presented by Miss Dorothy Claire Weicker, 1984
© Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art
Photo: John McKenzie

Henryk Gotlib’s Rembrandt in Heaven (c1948-58, oil on canvas, Tate Gallery) made me smile in it’s reverent homage to the ruddy faced, aged man, flanked by angels and being presented to a melancholy Christ, with Mary standing supportively behind her troubled child. The earthy palette and gaze of the angel on the far left, which meets our own, tips its hat to the substance of Rembrandt’s art. The hand of the angel gestures simultaneously towards the Master and his Master, pointing toward heaven. The high esteem of the artist is clear, but so is his naked, everyman appearance. The interest in Rembrandt by artists during the post WWII period is a natural gravitational pull. Post collapse of civilization, it is a time when the world is trying to rebuild itself, when individuals are grappling with the rubble they are, or are standing in. Rembrandt’s essential humanity is a focus of light in that darkness. That innate sensitivity, manifests in Frank Auerbach’s abstract work, Tree at Tretire (1975, chalk, charcoal and gouache, NGS, Edinburgh) in direct response to Rembrandt’s The Three Trees (1643, Etching, drypoint and engraving, British Museum, London)

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69)
The Three Trees, 1643
Etching, drypoint and engraving, 21.3 x 27.9 cm
Collection: British Museum, London

Rembrandt’s arboreal trinity has a figurative presence, tempered by the delicacy of drypoint. He is as close to the etching plate as he is to the soul of the subject, a quality to be found in contemporary master printmaker Ian Westacott’s etchings of trees, which are essentially figurative.  This is also the energy Auerbach taps into with the velvety boldness of charcoal in his Tree at Tretire. It has nothing to do with being influenced by Rembrandt the Master and is much more about human connection beneath the subject. The force of Auerbach’s conviction, applied to his chosen media on paper, creates a visceral sense of disintegration, coupled with restoration. Auerbach translates the figurative power of Rembrandt’s The Three Trees into an abstract vision, rooted in the human need of his own time. Rembrandt is primarily known as a painter, however his work as a printmaker equally sees him at the height of his powers. One of my favourite works in the show is only slightly larger than a postage stamp, the exquisite etching Self-portrait in a Heavy Fur Cap; Bust, 1631 (The Hunterian, University of Glasgow.) The hand-held size, direct gaze and vulnerability of finely etched marks create an image of the artist grounded in intimacy and his lifelong commitment to understand.

Rembrandt Van Rijn- Self Portrait in a heavy fur cap: Bust, 1631. © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2018

Ken Currie Rembrandt’s Carcass (1991, etching, NGS, Edinburgh) after the painting Slaughtered Ox, portrays the artist as a flayed bag of flesh, richly illuminated in black and white. Laced with Currie’s characteristic brand of irony, it is a memorial, a homage, and as with so many of his works, a hymn to human consciousness and mortality. As Currie has stated, “being haunted by paintings” is the mark of Great Art.

For me, the image that best sums up the exhibition is An Old Woman Reading, 1655 (Oil on canvas, Buccleuch Collection), believed to be an image of the artist’s mother. It is the presence of light, emanating from the open book, concentrated on her face and chest in warm russet and golden hues that equally fills the heart and mind of the viewer. Her face is bent in concentration beneath the black hood, her mouth slightly open, completely absorbed in self-determination, seeking enlightenment. Perhaps it’s the bible she’s contemplating, but standing here in front of this painting the chapter and verse does not seem to matter. What is communicated is compassion, love and empathy; Rembrandt’s shining, inextinguishable legacy and the ultimate value of art.

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/

Special thanks to Harris Brine, The National Galleries of Scotland Press Office, The Bridgewater Collection and Graham Nisbet at The Hunterian, University of Glasgow for their assistance with images.