Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Reflections on Rembrandt

Despite being exhibited at the National Gallery since October the 15th 2014, the Rembrandt exhibition had sold out when I arrived on Januray the 10th 2015. Fortunately, I had booked tickets in advance to Rembrandt: The Late Works. Such is the popularity of the Dutch artist, gone for almost 400 years. Conscious of his public fame and the gushing reviews from the critics alike, I entered the exhibition with some trepidation as to whether I was going to enjoy it because I actually liked it, or because I knew that everyone else did and therefore, I must.

Painting by Rembrandt
Self portrait, 1659

Regardless, here are some notes on my impressions of the exhibition and how it related to me as a photographer today.

Selfies

The first painting was a self portrait from 1659, and I found it really engrossing. It was fascinating the way the face was painted incredibly sharply, pin-sharply even, whilst by the time you get to the hand, it is not much more than a blur. It was like a really early use of a tilt-shift lens or a very, very wide aperture! The way the light falls away (a vignette?) into murky nothingness behind his softly lit face is lovely too. One of the things I liked here that appeared in many of his paintings was the way he was able to use thick, sweeping brush strokes, and very fine, delicate ones, all on the same canvas and to great effect.

The way that this self portrait was hung on the wall, with no glass covering it, meant I was able to examine it from an inch away, which to me seemed kind of special. It also struck me how much more vibrant and rich the real thing was compared to the copies you see in books and websites (obvious I know, but having never seen any of it in real before, it really stood out).

The Biblical, Thought Provoking, Captivating, Sobering and Awful

Some of the stuff was quite sobering and captivating. I understand what people mean when they describe Rembrandt's work as 'sensitive', 'emotive' and 'honest' and I like the fact that he was interested in the every day, as well as the dramatic (unlike his contemporaries). In fact, the very fact that he was unlike his contemporaries, a pioneer, trail blazer, avant garde, whatever you want to call it, appeals a lot and gives him great credit as well.

As a Christian, the fact that quite a lot of his work was based on biblical pictures meant a lot too; it was fascinating to see his interpretation of poignant moments in scripture. In particular, a painting of Bartholomew holding the knife with which he was to be flayed and martyred with was quite haunting and thought provoking.

Painting by Rembrandt
Lucretia

Rembrandt may not have left any ministry behind but it's almost like (with any biblical artworks) he left behind some visual ministry – his impressions of various parts of the Bible in painted form. Which could perhaps be more powerful to the reader; here, we focus on the presentation of scripture itself, leaving less room for us to be occupied with whether we agree or disagree with the minutiae of the doctrine being presented.

Bathsheba with David's letter was interesting too, I hadn't really thought too much about her perspective in the whole debacle before, and this added an extra dimension of unpleasantness to the tale.

Similarly, there was something about the painting of Lucretia, the one where she has just stabbed herself, that was mesmerising. Awful, but I could hardly tear myself away from it. The skin on her face is so perfectly painted and her look of reflective sadness, not terror, as she stands immortalised in the dusk between life and death is devastating.

Rich People and Photography

I wondered at certain paintings of rich people/dignitaries – I don't know if it was coincidence that Rembrandt paints the jewellery of such in finer detail than the faces – is this a cheeky suggestion that their riches are their identity rather or more than their faces?

Also similar to photography is his employment of Henri Cartier Bresson's 'Decisive Moment' (so to speak) – Lucretia seconds before and after the stabbing, the Staalmeesters looking at Rembrandt as one of them gets off his seat (quite an imposing one, this) and so on. Despite how long each painting must have taken, and not having a photo to work from, some of the paintings effused that characteristic most commonly attributed to photography – a split second; a fraction of time which tells a whole story.

Painting by Rembrandt The Jewish Bride
Jewish Bride

Finally, the Jewish Bride – one that really stood out as being a lot richer, deeper and more vibrant in reality. On 'Isaac's' gown draped over his arm, the paint is so thick that great clods of it stand out off the canvas, literally giving it an extra dimension! Observing the hand on the breast and heart (skilfully capturing the physical/emotional/spiritual sides to love all at once) it also occurred to me that between breast and heart would be a rib – possibly a reference to Adam and Eve? The rib taken from man so that he doesn't have to be alone, the groom/Adam here puts his hand over that rib taken from him as he holds the fruits of that taken rib?

Conclusion

Looking back at what I've written and thinking about my visit to the National Gallery, I realise that I do appreciate Rembrandt's work personally, and not just because of the hype. The exhibition was a really enjoyable experience and it has given me a lot to think about. One thing that looking at and considering Rembrandt's work did to me was to reveal a dissatisfaction I have with photography: photography feels rather two dimensional, cold and lacking expression (from the artist) when compared with the way Rembrandt was able to express himself in thick sweeping brush strokes and fine delicate ones. That tactile, sensual experience is missing from photography. A painter can implant feeling on a canvas almost akin to a pianist on the piano, which a photographer simply cannot. Still, I feel inspired in the very least to try and emulate Rembrandt's use of light in my photography and think of ways in which human psyche and emotion can be captured on camera.

The exhibition itself was crowded and unfortunately I was a little pressured time-wise – I got in at 16:00 and the exhibition closed at 17:45, with the shop closing soon after (a Late Entry to the Late Works...). Still, I just about managed to get myself a small Jewish Bride reduced to £3.50! A bargain, but no dowry...

If it's not obvious enough already, I should confirm that I am neither the artist nor the copyright holder to the works published above. All were sourced from Wikipedia/Google Images.

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