A new show has opened for autumn at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. It’s called Rembrandt’s Light. It’s intelligent, empathetic, surprising and at one point breathtaking, and I urge you all to go and see it as soon as possible.
Dulwich, the UK’s earliest purpose-built public picture gallery (it was founded in 1811), was designed by Sir John Soane, an architect obsessed with light. Soane’s architecture suits Rembrandt – his idiosyncrasy, his small spaces within larger rooms, the domesticity he celebrates, and Soane’s understanding of the nature of outside light inside, as well. One senses off-stage at the Gallery a great deal of determination therefore to make Dulwich the premier London site for this Rembrandt year – 2019 being the 350th anniversary of the artist’s death. Because if ever there was an artist obsessed with exploring light and its effects, and equally adept at manipulating those effects – visually, temporally and emotionally – it was Rembrandt.
The first mighty coup Dulwich have achieved here is to have their show lit by the cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, who lit Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back amongst many another major movie. This, you might think, would be quite starry enough, but the show takes the ethos of the movies further, until it has you thinking about light, and its opposite, darkness, in ways that make it quite one of the most arresting and satisfying exhibitions I have seen this year.
It has fun with the theatricality of the paintings, first of all. ‘EXT. JERUSALEM – NIGHT,’ begins the wall-text for one of the show’s major loans, the Denial of St Peterof 1660, which you would usually have to go to the Rijksmuseum to see, as if Rembrandt were storyboarding a movie. Then, balancing the fun with proper heavyweight curatorial purpose, you are led to see (in my case, for the first time) how Rembrandt uses light in this work to depict time itself – the fiery glow up-front, at the surface of the painting, where St Peter utters his third denial, and in the murk of its background, Christ with his hands bound, hearing the words, and slowly, resignedly, turning toward their source.
Rembrandt van Rijn, The Denial of St Peter, 1660. © The Rijksmuseum
The showstopper here – and at the press view, it had hardened reviewers gasping – is the lighting of the Royal Collection’s Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb. Hung on a wall in Buckingham Palace, I hate to say it, but it’s just another 17th-century religious painting. The way it is displayed here, with the lighting set to softly intensify around it, you come as close as you could reasonably expect to sharing the Magdalen’s astonished, almost terrified recognition of Christ; and you see as well the brilliance in Rembrandt’s own lighting of the scene: the symbolism of the dawn, the painful brightness of Christ’s robes, the light cast on the Magdalen’s face as she finally sees him for who he is.
Rembrandt van Rijn, Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb, 1638, Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019
Rembrandt of course created his works with no such 21st-century aids; all he had in his ruinously expensive house and studio on the Breestraat in Amsterdam were daylight and candles, but if that house gave him his light, no wonder he thought it was worth going broke for. Two of the rooms in the show (and it’s not huge, by any means, there are only 35 works and five separate spaces, and a very open hang – ‘slow-looking’ is what this show is about) recreate a studio-room in that house as it is shown in his own drawings and etchings of it – the large window, the linen hung above the window to reflect light down into the room, and then the same space as it would have appeared to his students by night, as they worked away under flickering candles with a slumbering fire in the grate. One lovely example of how intelligently this show has been hung shows the studio by day, with a model, half-clothed, sat under that fall of light, keeping warm by a stove; and then beside it is a study of a half-clothed model sat just as she might have appeared in that studio to the artist.
Rembrandt van Rijn, The Artist’s Studio, c. 1658. Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
The final room (see image at top) contains a run of portraits, including Dulwich’s own wondrous Girl at a Window of 1645. Here she’s been hung against a panel of one of those state-of-the art super-blacks, so she seems to be hanging in a void. She hangs between a model waiting very likely in Rembrandt’s own bed, and very likely for Rembrandt himself, drawing back the bed curtain at his approach; and the artist’s study of his partner Hendrickje Stoffels, standing in a stream. Why Hendrickje should be paddling about in a stream at night, dressed only in her shift, no-one ever asks. The whole point of the scene is its sparkle – a word Rembrandt used about his paintings in 1639. The final work in the show is Rembrandt himself, in his self-portrait of 1642. He too is looking highly twinkly – as well he might.
Visitors should look in on the small display of ‘Artists in Amsterdam’, as well, which makes its own quiet point of London’s European connections. And don’t forget the deeply pleasing exhibition publication, either, which has big, high-quality illustrations and a properly thought-through narrative. Dulwich is pioneering a £5 ticket for this show, for 18-30 years olds. Scoop up as many as you can find, and take them with you.
‘Rembrandt’s Light’ at Dulwich Picture Gallery, 4 October 2019 – 2 February 2020
Top: ‘Rembrandt’s Light’ at Dulwich Picture Gallery. Lighting by ERCO. Photography by Gavriil Papadiotis.