Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 3: Rembrandt

I went to the London Wetland Centre for a spot of birding today, in the hope that the very cold weather might have conjured up something a bit special… which it hadn’t particularly. But some nice things: snipe, chiffchaff, skylark. Lots of ducks: a pintail, which is a bit unusual, but also wigeon, shoveler, teal, pochard and so on. And fuck me, did it look cold, swimming around on the mostly ice-covered lake. You can see why ducks need that thick layer of delicious fat.

Bird of the day, though, was bittern. Not quite as good a view as last time I went there in the snow, in February, when there were six or seven bitterns on site and I had unbelievably good views of them, but pretty pleasing nonetheless.

So here’s the painting, Rembrandt’s Hunter with Dead Bittern.

The ‘hunter’ is of course Rembrandt. The sheer number of self-portraits he painted is extraordinary. Some very straight, others in various moods and poses: as a hunter, as a soldier, in oriental robes.

You might think he was vain except that his self-portraits seem rather less self-aggrandising than those of some other artists. If he just wanted to flatter himself, he could have picked an image — society gentleman, rakish bohemian — and stuck to it. Instead he seems to be doing something more playful and more interesting. Or maybe he just liked working alone.

And while of course I don’t endorse the hunting of bitterns, which have suffered badly because of habitat loss, this picture does have me wondering what they taste like… I guess they might be slightly fishy?

Dutch Portraits at the National Gallery

I went to see Dutch Portraits: The Age of Rembrandt and Frans Hals yesterday. It was pleasantly quiet; I guess the prospect of lots and lots of paintings of men in black suits with white ruffs and little pointy beards doesn’t produce a frisson of excitement in your average Londoner.

And from that point of view, the exhibition is very much what you would expect; there are no startling surprises. There are some very good paintings though.

bit of Rembrandt

Whenever I go to an exhibition with a couple of named artists in the title, I tend to find myself treating it as a competition; Rembrandt vs. Frans Hals. I think it’s a very high compliment to Hals that for much of the exhibition, they’re neck and neck. It’s only when you get to the late Rembrandts that it becomes completely one-sided, but then those late Rembrandt portraits are, I think, among the finest works in the history of art. Of those I haven’t seen in the flesh before, the most remarkable is the incredible group portrait of the syndics (officials of the Draper’s Guild) which I’ve included a little section of above.

Still, I know Rembrandt’s work quite well, and several of his paintings on show here are part of the National’s permanent collection—notably the portraits of Jacob Trip and Margaretha de Geer. So for me the exhibition was more about discovering Hals, who I really only knew from the ‘Laughing Cavalier’. His most typical portraits are strikingly informal; one of the portraits has his subject leaning right back with his chair balancing on the just the back legs. That ability, to portray people looking relaxed and natural, is a good trick in itself, but he was also very good at using loosely handled paint to suggest textures: skin, of course, and almost as vital for the C17th portraitist, silk, satin, brocade, embroidery and lace. All those black clothes may have been superficially intended as a sober, modest reflection of a conservative Protestant culture, but with the lushness of the fabrics, the effect is no more humble than a little black Versace dress.

bit of Hals

Oddly enough, for a long time, I vaguely thought that The Laughing Cavalier (which isn’t the picture above; that’s part of the wedding portrait of Isaac Massa and his wife) was a Victorian painting. Obviously it’s not of a man in Victorian dress, but I vaguely thought it was a bit of C19th pastiche. I can still sort of see that in Hals’s paintings; often the informality has a kind of theatrical quality to it—cheesiness would be unfair, but I’m hinting in that direction—which is reminiscent of C19th narrative paintings. Certainly it doesn’t surprise me to learn that his reputation was re-established in the C19th after a period of neglect; I can see he would have been to their taste. I wouldn’t want to over-stress that comparison, though, because I can’t stand Victorian painting and Hals is much better than that.

I’ve mainly talked about Rembrandt and Frans Hals, but there were also some lovely paintings by other artists, most of whose names I’ve already forgotten. These exhibitions organised around a period always serve as reminders that for every famous artist there are dozens of very very good artists whose names are familiar only to specialists. Still, painters probably get treated better than poets by posterity, because the scarcity of original paintings lends value to work even by minor artists.

Fave books of 2006

It’s end-of-year list time. These weren’t all first published this year, and I daresay I’ve forgotten some, but they are at least all books I’d recommend. In no particular order:

Rembrandt’s Eyes by Simon Schama.

I blogged about this before. Simon is a serious historian (rather than, say, a journalist who writes occasional books) who writes brilliantly and is a firm believer in the virtues of a narrative approach to history. So I think he’s usually worth checking out. In this case I think he does a really good job telling the life of Rembrandt and establishing it in context. As a bonus, the book is full of gorgeous glossy plates of the paintings — it would almost be worth buying for the pictures alone.

Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin.

Another one I blogged about earlier. I’ll just quote some of what I said then: “Oliver Sacks fans will remember Temple Grandin as the autistic slaughterhouse designer in An Anthropologist on Mars. She has a particular affinity with animals and has used her talent for understanding them to help her design corrals, feedlots and slaughterhouses which are less stressful for the animals. The subtitle of Animals in Translation is ‘Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior’. Grandin uses her insights as an autistic person to help explain how animals behave and in the process explores the nature of autism itself.”

A Social History of English Cricket by Derek Birley.

The title is an accurate description of the book. On the basis that everything people do is shaped by their times, I guess you could write a social history of English anything – theatre, banking, food – and there would be plenty of subject matter. But cricket does seem especially appropriate, and not just because it’s a stereotypically English pursuit.

The reason cricket neatly brings out some of the tensions in English society is that cricket was the one sport that attempted to combine amateurs and professionals. Of the other English sports, football quickly became a commercial activity, played and watched by mainly working-class men in professional leagues dominated by the great industrial cities. Rugby split into two sports: Rugby League (professional, working class) and Rugby Union (amateur, middle class). But cricket rose to prominence in the gambling culture of the C18th with aristocrats fielding teams against each other for high stakes, and the teams would include talented men from their estates or the local villages – grooms and blacksmiths and so on – who were paid to play. So from the beginning there was a culture of gentlemen amateurs and working class pros in the same team. Given the class-riddled state of English society for most of the past 250 years, a staggering amount of hypocrisy and doublethink was the result.

Grayson Perry: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl by Wendy Jones.

The memoirs of the Turner Prize winning potter. I blogged about this before here and here.

Lorca: A Dream of Life by Leslie Stainton.

A well-written biography of an interesting man I didn’t know much about before. Being a gay socialist modernist poet from one of the most conservative regions of Spain in the 1920s and 30s didn’t exactly make Lorca’s life easy. But it does make for an involving story. The poetry was interesting too, though it’s the kind of work that leaves you wondering how much you’re missing in translation.

The River Cottage Meat Book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

A book about cooking meat which combines practical information — the various cuts, how to choose the best meat and the underlying principles of different cooking methods — with information about different meat production methods and labelling schemes and a thoughtful consideration of the ethical aspects of buying and eating meat. And indeed a lot of recipes and a list of high-quality meat suppliers. A rare example of a food book which manages to be much more than just a list of recipes.

And finally, a book which I didn’t buy or read for the first time this year but deserves a plug – the Collins Bird Guide (to the birds of Britain and Europe) by Lars Svensson, Peter J. Grant, Killian Mullarney and Dan Zetterstrom. I’ve had the book for a bit, but I was struck again by how good it is when I was in Spain this year. You never quite know how good a field guide is until you use it, and this one seems to consistently provide the right information to allow you identify the bird you’re looking at. The illustrations are excellent and the text is thorough and lucid. I’ve used plenty of different field guides over the years, of insects and flowers and birds from different parts of the world. This is certainly the best of them.

‘Rembrandt & Co: Dealing in Masterpieces’ at DPG

‘Rembrandt & Co’ is on at the moment at Dulwich Picture Gallery, as part of the 400th birthday celebrations. Rembrandt’s 400th birthday was July 15th. To quote them:

Dulwich Picture Gallery explores, for the first time, the story of one of the most important art dealerships in 17th-century Amsterdam. The exhibition will show 19 Rembrandts from this period along with work by his contemporaries.

The idea presumably is to provide context for the Rembrandts, although a cynic might point out that it’s easier to persuade other galleries to loan you their Flincks, Ovenses and de Lairesses. They have got hold of some major works, though, most notably the portrait of Agatha Bas from the Royal collection and Man in Oriental Costume (“The Noble Slav”) from the Met:

 

I found this painting interesting because it’s so grand for what is basically just a character study – not a portrait of anyone in particular, or a historical or religious subject. It’s 5′ x 3′ 8″ and both very imposing and highly finished. I suppose there’s no reason why an important painting needs to be on an important subject, but it’s still slightly odd; almost as though it’s a quiet joke on Rembrandt’s part.

There were some nice prints as well, like this view of Amsterdam:

I always think it’s striking how much difference the medium makes. You can see similarities between Rembrandt’s prints and his paintings, particularly with the portraits and biblical scenes where the composition and the use of chiaroscuro is similar, but the feel is so different. You can see quite a few Rembrandt etchings and copperpoints on the Rembrandthuis website.

I didn’t find the context of the other artists’ work particularly enlightening, although it did emphasise the quality and distinctiveness of the Rembrandts. It also brings out the ruthlessness of time’s effect on art. These were all respected and successful artists in their day, but not many of the paintings offer much to the modern viewer. Some are quite attractive, but hardly any of them spark any kind of connection. For me, at least.

Rembrandt’s Eyes by Simon Schama

I’ve only read two books by Schama; Citizens, his book about the French Revolution, and this biography of Rembrandt. Both have been excellent. They’re also quite hard work simply because he’s so thorough. Thoroughness is no doubt a virtue in a historian, but it does make for large books. Rembrandt’s Eyes is frankly too large to read in bed, as it weighs a whopping five and a half pounds. The reason it’s so large is that it’s printed on thick glossy paper and full of beautiful reproductions of the paintings. Amazon’s price of £13 is almost worth it just for the pictures.


Self Portrait at an Early Age, from the Rijksmuseum. Click on the image to see a larger version.

I was slightly taken aback when the first chapter of a Rembrandt biography was about Rubens’ father. Schama’s obviously feels that Rembrandt can only be understood in the context of his predecessor (who was born 30 years before him), since he devotes 200 pages, nearly a third of the book, to Rubens. I actually forgot that the book was supposed to be about Rembrandt at one point. This kind of attention to context — not just artistic, but the political and religious background of the region – is perhaps unsurprising given that Schama is primarily a historian, rather than an art critic. He’s brilliant at evoking the everyday reality of life in C17th Holland, as well. There’s one tour-de-force where he introduces Amsterdam by showing the city via the five senses, one at a time. So for example, the section on smell begins:

First, the Zuider Zee itself, sucked through the inlet of the IJ, washing against the slimy double row of palings separating the inner from the outer harbor, carrying with it a load of tangled wrack and weed, worthlessly small fish, and minute crustaceans generating a briny aroma of salt, rotting wood, bilgewater, and the tide-rinsed remains of countless gristly little creatures housed within the shells of barnacles and periwinkles. In the yards behind the first row of houses facing the docks there were better things to smell. Lengths of green timber were stood on end to season, some already bent to form a rib in a ship’s hull. A man might walk down the alleys parallel to the harbor, inhale the sharp tan of fir (for masts) and oak and beech (for hulls), and for a moment think himself in a fresh-cut wood in Norway.

And on through the smells of taverns, the night-soil boats, the tanners, the plague-pits, the nosegay sellers, the bakers; and then each of the other senses in turn.

Having said that Schama is primarily a historian, I still think he does a great job writing about the paintings. That’s just as well, since it becomes apparent during the book that there is very little surviving material written by Rembrandt. There are no journals or essays, and Schama only quotes from letters once or twice. Really, the only times we get direct written contact with Rembrandt’s life is when he’s dealing with the law – buying a house, writing a will, being declared bankrupt, or indeed having his ex-mistress declared as of unsound mind.

Those things are interesting, but by themselves they give a skewed and incomplete view of someone. So Schama has to fill out the gaps though the paintings, and does it admirably. There can hardly be a more appropriate painter to do that with, since Rembrandt was an almost compulsive self-portaitist. Not only did he produce nearly 100 self portraits in different costumes and different personae, but he painted his own face into most of his history paintings as well. There was a part of me that wanted to hear Rembrandt’s voice more directly, to be able to read his words; but perhaps it’s fitting to tell an artist’s story though his art.


Self Portrait at the Age of 63, from the National Gallery.

I can’t think of anything bad to say about this book. I enjoyed reading it, and learnt a lot about Rembrandt, Rubens and the Low Countries in the C17th . Most of all, I was introduced to a lot of beautiful paintings I didn’t know before.

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