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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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’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.
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.
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.