Radical Rembrandt

Rembrandt: The Late Works, The National Gallery

Rembrandt did not invent the selfie: according to the OED, the image must be a photograph.  But if the self portrait is an early version of this twenty-first century trend, Rembrandt may well be one of its forefathers.  Although artists have been painting themselves for hundreds of years, not many did so as often as Rembrandt, who produced 80-odd self portraits; and these are just the ones that survive.  Unlike today’s self-snappers, Rembrandt did not tend to share his selfies, and the finished portraits were seldom bought by patrons.  Luckily for us, however, the National Gallery is doing the sharing for him, and on display as part of Rembrandt: The Late Works, are six self portraits from the last few years of the artist’s life.

Two of these pictures are from Rembrandt’s final months in 1669, and the artist does not look his best.  He may not have been – if you will excuse the pun – an oil-painting to begin with, but in these last works, in which his swollen, aged face seems to belong more to an 80-year-old than a 63-year-old, it is clear that his health is failing.  But not his painting, which is as robust as it ever was.  The artist was fascinated with his ageing appearance, and his self portrait habit peaked in the last two decades of his life.  On loan from Kenwood House, is the intriguing Self Portrait with Two Circles (about 1665-9), in which he paints himself against a backdrop of two perfect circles, the significance of which has baffled art historians for almost as long as there has been art history.  Is he emulating Giotto who could reportedly draw a perfect circle with a free hand, or are they there to counter-balance the massive triangular bulk of his body?   Whatever the answer, here is Rembrandt as Rembrandt.  He wears his work-a-day painter’s garb and has even eschewed the snazzy berets which feature in the 1669 Mauritshuis Self Portrait and the National Gallery’s 1669 version, donning instead a white artist’s cap and holding the tools of his trade.

Self Portrait with two circles (about 1665-69), Kenwood House, London © English Heritage

Self Portrait with two circles (about 1665-69), Kenwood House, London © English Heritage

Self Portrait at the Age of 63 (1669), The National Gallery © The National Gallery, London

Self Portrait at the Age of 63 (1669), The National Gallery © The National Gallery, London

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The Science of Art – Making Colour, The National Gallery

The Sainsbury Wing is looking different. The walls are almost black and there are backlit photographs of vibrant explosions and placards with neon lettering. Is this the right place? Have I accidently come to the Science Museum? For an art show, there are a lot of mineral samples in cabinets and apothecary’s mounds of colourful powders. This is not South Kensington, but for its summer show, the National Gallery has turned to science or, more accurately, chemistry.  Making Colour, which runs until 7 September, is about just that, and in a collaboration between curators and the gallery’s science department, who have been given a rare pass out of their labs and into the exhibition space, the gallery’s paintings are being taken back to their elements. If the curators had to dust off their GCSE chemistry while putting together this display, so will you, with rocks and minerals (remember, they are different) and old friends from the periodic table, cropping up throughout the exhibition.

Natural System of Colours, Moses Harris (1769/1776), © Royal Academy of Arts, London

Natural System of Colours, Moses Harris (1769/1776), © Royal Academy of Arts, London

The show has been arranged anti-clockwise around the colour wheel, from blue to purple. A bonus room at the end looks at gold and silver which, with no place on the spectrum of white light, are not strictly colours; but try telling that to an International Gothic or Renaissance painter. It was Isaac Newton who devised the first colour wheel in the 1660s, although his circle was not that colourful, and so it is a later version by Moses Harris which the National Gallery has used to demonstrate the concept. Continue reading

Beyond Civilisation – Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation

If you are looking for Civilisation in Tate Britain’s Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation, you will have to keep on looking until the sixth and final room of the exhibition.  And when you do find the 1960s television series, all you will see is a smallish screen showing clips on a loop, and a set of headphones.  The program’s success when it was aired both in Britain and then around the world, was huge, and its legacy has been lasting, so much so that it is not unusual to hear its presenter referred to as “Lord Clark of Civilisation”.  But before he wrote and appeared in the documentary, which was filmed in 1967-8 and shown in 1969, and before he branched into broadcasting at all, Clark had done a few other things, and it is these which are at the heart of Tate Britain’s new display.

Kenneth Clark in front of Renoir’s La Baigneuse Blonde (pl.1), c.1933 Private collection

Kenneth Clark in front of Renoir’s La Baigneuse Blonde (pl.1), c.1933
Photograph: Marcus Leith, Private collection

In 1934 Clark was appointed director of the National Gallery.  By this point he had spent a stint revising Bernard Berenson’s catalogue of Florentine paintings at the Villa I Tatti outside Florence, catalogued the Royal Collection of Leonardo drawings, organised a blockbuster exhibition of Italian Renaissance art at the Royal Academy, curated the Ashmolean for two years, published a book on Gothic art and bagged a beauty by marrying Jane Martin, whom he had met at Oxford.  Not bad for a man who had only just turned 31.  Clark described the years 1932 to 1939 as the “Great Clark Boom”, when he and Jane lived in a grand house in Portland Place, entertaining London’s fast set and appearing in 1930s equivalents of Hello.  “We were borne along the crest of a social wave”, he later wrote of this feverish period.

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John Constable, Sketch for ‘Hadleigh Castle’ c.1828–9 Tate; acquired by Clark for the National Gallery in 1935

It was not, however, as if Clark had come from nowhere, and the two portraits on display of him as a boy make it clear that his was not a story of rags to riches.  Continue reading

Bricks, Mortar and Paint – Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting

Saint Jerome had a pleasant working environment.  A well-lit, spacious L-shaped desk with generous storage space, beautiful views of the coastline, a (sleeping) pet lion and even a pair of slippers to hand.  His bench looks hard though, and is it a bit low?  This is Venetian artist, Vicenzo Catena’s Jerome, painted in around 1510.  Antonello da Messina’s Saint Jerome from 35 years earlier, also seems comfortable.  He has a loggia as well as a row of windows, plenty of shelving and better seating.  But the lighting is not as good, and his lion is awake and growling.  The two Jeromes are hanging side by side in the National Gallery’s Sunley Room, as part of Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting, the final episode of the gallery’s Renaissance Spring trilogy.  Saint Jerome has not always fared so well and these two depictions are unusual in assigning him such agreeable surroundings: more often than not during this period, he was given cramped, dimly lit digs in which there was hardly room for his halo, let alone the lion.

Saint Jerome in his Study Antonello da Messina about 1475, © The National Gallery, London

Saint Jerome in his Study, Antonello da Messina about 1475, © The National Gallery, London

Saint Jerome in his Study, Vincenzo Catena probably about 1510, © The National Gallery, London

 

The exhibition seeks, in the words of the curators, to put the “background into the foreground”, focusing on the architectural settings of a group of fifteenth and sixteenth century Italian paintings, mostly drawn from the National Gallery’s permanent collection, but supplemented with a handful of guest appearances from around the country.  Architecture in paintings, as opposed to architectural drawings, is uncharted territory and there has never been a similar exhibition in the United Kingdom or abroad.  Yet now this show has been put on, it seems such an obvious topic, with so many Italian paintings of the period set in some sort of built-up milieu.  And in a neat nod to the subject matter, the Sunley Room does not currently look much like the Sunley Room, and has been rebuilt as a labyrinth of passageways and squares, with each section devoted to a separate sub-theme of the exhibition.  There is even a mock-up of a Florentine street corner, complete with overhead tabernacle, blessing visitors as they pass through the display.

The early fifteenth century saw a fundamental stylistic shift in painting in Italy: gone were the piles of weightless figures tottering next to spindly, geometrically-suspect buildings that might topple at any moment; and in came solid, three dimensional people positioned in, on or aside coherent, sturdy and classically-inspired constructions.  Perspective had arrived and artists such as Masaccio looked to mathematical principles in order to place objects in real space and make backgrounds recede into the distance.  3D effects were being simulated on 2D surfaces.

Except that Building the Picture is not about this great artistic leap and do not expect, when visiting the exhibition, to receive an art history lesson in the basics of Italian Renaissance painting. Continue reading

Very Veronese

The National Gallery’s latest Renaissance instalment, Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice, turns the gallery’s walls into a colourful theatre of Venetian style and drama. 

Veronese loved clothes.  So much is evident from the canvases hanging in the upper rooms of the National Gallery, where Venetian noblewomen rustle against saints, gods and Roman soldiers in a parade of damask and taffeta.  Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice, which took five years to organise and brings together fifty of the painter’s works from across Europe and the United States, has transformed the walls of the gallery into a sixteenth century catwalk, with the artist’s models cropping up again and again, clad in one lavish item of fine couture after another.

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The Family of Darius before Alexander (1565-7), Picture: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

This is the first show in the UK devoted entirely to Veronese, which seems surprising given the artist’s stature as one of the foremost painters of the Venetian Renaissance, alongside Bellini, Giorgione, Titian and Tintoretto.  But if Veronese’s reputation was big during the sixteenth century and in the centuries that followed, so were many of his canvases, making the staging of any exhibition a major logistical undertaking.   A rumour that someone else in London was planning a show, a bout of jealousy on the part of Nicholas Penny – then newly appointed as Director of the National Gallery – and some hefty postage and packaging, however, have resulted in today’s display.

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Nail to Nail

The National Gallery’s Veronese spectacle, opening this month, will include a host of borrowed works from abroad.   But what did it take to get them to London?

It is hard enough arranging shipment to the UK of the marble statuette which, while you were on holiday, looked so wonderful in its Italian showroom.  But as the storerooms in the National Gallery’s basement fill with crates containing Paolo Veronese’s 450 year old canvases, arriving from Spain, France, Italy, Austria and the USA, you could be forgiven for wondering how on earth they got to Trafalgar Square.  Except that one rarely does spend much time thinking about the logistics behind a major exhibition.  And rightly so, for curators have not gone to all that trouble (and it is a lot of trouble) for us to spend our time inside the show focusing on negotiations, shipping, security and insurance.  The eve of the National Gallery’s Veronese extravaganza, however, when one hopes that the scene inside the gallery is one of cool efficiency and careful stage-management, seems like a good time to consider what goes on backstage.

Martyrdom of Saint George (c. 1565), San Giorgio in Braida, Verona

Martyrdom of Saint George (c. 1565), San Giorgio in Braida, Verona
Picture: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

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