Friday, 23 March 2012

Favourite Paintings - Rembrandt

When I was 8, we did a project on Holland in Primary School, and our teacher brought in some slides of Dutch paintings which we looked at through a viewfinder which you put up to your eye.  One was Van Gogh's Sunflowers, and the other was Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp (on reflection, a rather strange combination of images).  

Seeing coloured images like that was a reasonably uncommon experience in the 60s, in a house with no books and before colour television, so the experience and surprise of seeing these paintings in that small but intimate way had a rather profound effect.  One image was all about colour, the other all about gesture, both were full of emotion.  I loved them both.

Years later, when studying abroad as part of my degree, I had the opportunity to stand in front of Rembrandt's The Jewish Bride in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, one of my must-see artworks.

 Rembrandt van Rijn The Jewish Bride (oil on canvas c.1667)

The title is a speculative one added in the 19th century.   It's a big, dark painting, and yet it seems to glow. You can't take your eyes off it when you stand in front of it is because it is all about texture and colour and gesture and emotion.  It had layers and layers of paint and flickering brushwork that suggests different materials and textiles catching the light, and three dimensionality.  This is the golden sleeve of the man.

It's just paint, and yet it has a reality and a volume about it.  It actually seems to be coming out of the painting towards you, but also has a certain abstract quality about it close-up.

There is also a lovely sense of abstract pattern making in the gesture of the hands.

You can see that it's just paint, you can see the actual brushstrokes, and get the sense of the person making the brushstrokes and creating the artifice of the work; and yet it seems to become actual fabric, and light, and flesh, and touch and life, and also more than that - it becomes a real sense of something human and tender.  And that's quite an astonishing thing to do with paint and canvas.

As Fine Art students, we were also lucky enough to visit the Jan Six house in Amsterdam, which was not open to the public.  One of the paintings there was Rembrandt's portrait of his friend Jan Six.

Rembrandt van Rijn Portrait of Jan Six (Oil on canvas, 1654)

Again, it's a big old dark painting with that punch of orangey red, but the stunning thing, which has stayed with me all these years and which was right at eye level, was not the face, but the gesture of the hand pulling on the gloves.  

It's clearly just paint, and big, expressively loose gestural marks of paint at that, and yet it's the volume and weight and movement of a real hand pulling on a glove.  It is a casual yet hugely informed passage of paint which tells you all you need to know about the character of the sitter and the relationship between the artist and his friend, who allows himself to be preserved for all time in this intimate, informal act of dressing.

If you'd like to read more, there's an interesting essay here musing on the meaning of this gesture. 

Whichever way you look at it, it's just genius.

1 comment:

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