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Posts tagged ‘Rembrandt’

Rembrandt’s Late Works: Better seen, and never forgotten

While the works of Rembrandt, Dutch master and one of the most applauded artists in the history of art, are instantly recognisable for their energetic brush strokes, moody lighting, undeniable intensity and rich umber colour palate, there is nothing like seeing his paintings in reality to truly appreciate the virtuosity of his work.

The National Gallery London’s new blockbuster on Rembrandt, The Late Works, provides just the opportunity to do that. In the dark bowels of the Sainsbury Wing of galleries, in rooms purpose-designed with dark walls and sharp focused lighting perfectly offsetting the brilliance of Rembrandt’s mastery over light, one enters the exhibition to come face to face with not one, but a whole room of Rembrandt self-portraits. Each demonstrates a startling honesty in self-examination, as the artist becomes visibly older and more saggy. But in as much as this room shows that a Rembrandt self-portrait is far from a rareity  (he made some 80 painted, drawn or etched self portraits in the course of his career), it immediately demonstrated that there is nothing like seeing these famous works in reality: for only then can you appreciate the brilliant layering of the paint, and the masterful use of brushwork to build an aging texture of skin which appears so realistic as it catches the light against a dark mocha background, that it almost feels as though Rembrandt has cast himself in three dimensions, ready to climb out of the frame when the many visitors to the exhibition have gone home.

Self-Portrait (1669)

Self-Portrait (1669)

Self-Portrait (1669)

Self-Portrait (1669)

Self Portrait with Two Circles (1665-9)

Self Portrait with Two Circles (1665-9)

Such was the main impression that this excellent new exhibition left on me as I departed. I felt thrilled to have had the opportunity to see so many brilliant works executed at the tail end of Rembrandt’s career, when his personal fortunes were in decline, but when the product of his paintbrush was more fantastic than ever. But so too was I struck by the breadth and significance of the collection on show, testament no doubt to the National Gallery’s partnership in organising the exhibition with the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, who either own or have access to much of the works on show. The result is the chance to come face to face with famous works such as the Jewish Bride – a subtly romantic painting which held Van Gogh so spellbound that he declared he would give up 10 years of his life for a few moments before the painting – and the masterful group portrait, The Syndics, a superb work on a huge scale, surely surpassable only by The Night Watchmen, perhaps Rembrandt’s most famous work.

The Syndics (1662)

The Syndics (1662)

The Jewish Bride (1665)

The Jewish Bride (1665)

A Woman Bathing in a Stream (1654)

A Woman Bathing in a Stream (1654)

The Consipiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis (1661)

The Consipiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis (1661)

The other thing that struck me was how bloody popular this exhibition is. Even when you have a timed ticket, you need to queue. Admittedly I went along at the weekend, but that does not mean to say that this show will be any quieter during the week, such is the appetite no doubt for a sensational London art show after a year consisting largely of flops and unknowns (I do not include Tate Modern’s brilliant Matisse or Malevich shows in this otherwise scathing review). What this then means is something of a struggle throughout the show, something which is felt less when gazing upon huge works such as the rather questionable Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis, a portion of Rembrandt’s less than successful painting for Amsterdam’s new Town Hall. It is however annoying when trying to study the stunning intricacies of Rembrandt’s print works. I never knew that he was such a skilled printmaker, and his drypoint etchings were, in particular, worth elbowing the odd visitor out of the way.

The Three Crosses (1653)

The Three Crosses (1653)

Christ Presented to the People (1655)

Christ Presented to the People (1655)

Christ Presented to the People

Christ Presented to the People

Christ Preaching (1652)

Christ Preaching (1652)

But what these crowds all go to show is how superb this show is – a final hurrah for 2014, and the first great show to come out of The National Gallery, in my view, since the Da Vinci sensation in 2011/2012. Whether it be the intense forlorn gaze of Lucretia at the point of her honour suicide, the sensationally melancholic Man in Armour thought to be Alexander the Great, or the knowledgeable calm grace of Margaretha de Geer depicted wearing her ginormous lace ruff, there are masterpieces aplenty to keep you hooked to this show, and resilient to the many crowds around you.

Rembrandt_lucretia

Portrait of Margaretha de Geer (1661)

Portrait of Margaretha de Geer (1661)

A Man in Armour (Alexander the Great?) 1655

A Man in Armour (Alexander the Great?) 1655

Rembrandt, the Late Works is on at  the National Gallery until 18th January 2015.

Amsterdam Part I: Red Lights and the Rijksmuseum

Flying to Amsterdam yesterday afternoon, it dawned on me how close the city is to London. Barely were we up in the air than we began our descent again. Yet as far as the two cities go, Amsterdam is another world. With all the charm of an old Vermeer painting, town houses line the canals side by side like ballroom beauties jostling for attention. Row after row of consistently elegant canals are uninterrupted by the blot of modernity, while in the canals a near perfect reflection provides a mirrored second city interspersed with ducks and houseboats. I love the way some of the houses lean forward (allegedly to hoist objects to the upper floors rather than brave narrow staircases) and others are formed of slanting, crooked windows, doors and roofs… In Amsterdam it’s hard to find a regular angle anywhere.

Vermeer, The Milkmaid (De Melkmeid) c 1658-1661

No wonder it left me feeling dizzy this morning. Or perhaps that dizziness was testament to our first tourist stop last night… The red light district. Now I know, heading straight to the sexy sector borders on the cliche, but as we arrived in the evening, and had time of our hands after dinner, a trip to the red lights seemed the obvious choice. At first we couldn’t find it. Catching sight of a red glow in the distance, we headed towards them only to find they were the neon lights of a pub. Ready almost to give up, we stumbled upon a tiny narrow alleyway also glowing red. Full of anticipation we crept down and suddenly, my heart skipped a beat as we came across a woman, in black laced underwear, leaning against the glass of a doorway, touching herself. Being ever the modest kind of male, I wasn’t sure where to look! It was so surreal to be faced so unapologetically with this display of sexual advancement. This initial alleyway opened up into a labyrinth of scarlet tinted shop fronts. There were countless prostitutes, someone for everyone, fat, thin, big breasts, small breasts, all on show. It became quite intimidating when, walking past a whole row, you’d hear plastic nails tapping on the window, gesticulating that you should approach. At the same time it was a fascinating display. The women each posed differently, some smiled, some scowled “seductively”. Some were coy, others all out sluttish. I felt almost embarrassed that I was treating them as a tourist attraction when they vied so hard for my attention, but they were certainly busy. We saw numerous gentlemen walking in and out, curtains of each window being pulled shut when the lady was busy, open again when a client left with a satisfied smile.

So in the end, after the initial collision course with this advanced outward show of sexual wares, I found the district enriching, adding to the Amsterdam experience. However I felt sorry for some of the ladies who were often faced with aggressive, loutish customers. And it was this element of the area that appalled – groups of men, often english thugs, ogling at the women right up in their faces, throwing insults, banging on the glass, showing outright aggression and a complete lack of respect to these women as human beings. Perhaps, after all, this is a problem with legalising prostitution. In allowing the profession to be advertised so publicly, it encourages men to so easily exploit the situation, to commodify women, to treat them as subhuman.

Red lights were superseded by the glow of a bright winter sunshine as we embarked on our first morning in the city today. Leaving our chic boutique base (the wonderful Hotel Estherea) to wander the western canals, we enjoyed coffee by one picturesque canal, and pancakes with banana, bacon and syrup by another. All canals led to the Rijksmuseum, which, despite undergoing major restoration works, has opened it’s most prominent masterpieces to the public in a very polished modern extension to the rear. The collection on show was still vast in breadth and I rather enjoyed the fact that this was a select exhibition – if this is only a small portion, the whole collection must be vast, and exhausting. Instead, we got to see all the important works, while retaining sufficient energy to get back go to the hotel. This included Vermeer’s The Milkmaid, which is romantic in a haze of dreamy light floating through a townhouse window onto the calm woman dressed in rich yellows and blue. The light and shade of Rembrandt’s masterpiece, The Nigh Watch, was even more dramatic, and the vast work was suitably installed as the climax of this impressive show.

Rembrant: The Night Watch (1642)

As the sun goes down over a chilly bustling city, the refinement of the city’s cultural offerings will again make way for the emergence of its prominent underworld. Staying open at all hours however are the multitude of souvenir shops, the likes of which we just sampled in their plenty at the Bloemenmarkt (flower market). We weren’t overly impressed with the rows of multicoloured clogs, wooden tulips, ceramic windmills or magnets of whores in windows (not one, I think, for my grandmother’s magnet collection) but not to be left out, I walked away with a pair of soft clog-shaped slippers ready to comfort my feet after a first thorough days navigation of Amsterdam. Sure beats the wooden kind. See you tomorrow!