‘Rembrandt’s Light’ lights up Dulwich

 

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.

The Denial of St Peter

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.

Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb

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.

The Artist's Studio

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.

JCH

‘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.

 

PRIVATES ON PARADE: The Renaissance Nude at the Royal Academy

The naked is sacred, as someone once said, but the nude is rude. The RA’s new show, in its Sackler Wing, offers plenty of both in an exhibition that (with a very few splendid exceptions) is not titillating in the least, but is thought-provoking in a most enjoyable way.

The show covers the period from 1400 to 1530 when, so the curators suggest, the ‘appearance, meaning and culture of the nude’ were still being worked out and explored by artists of the period, but in truth we’re still asking ourselves the same questions about nakedness and nudity, the sacred and the rude, today. What, for example, is ‘nude’? Does a half-length bust with one exposed breast count, if that breast is small to the point of androgyny? Is a Christian martyr nude, no matter how ferocious the thorns upon which he is being impaled, if he’s wearing a drapery version of boxer-shorts? Is the naked human body the ideal, as in the Garden of Eden; or frail, vulnerable, and an instrument of sin, to be punished in hell eternally? Indeed, is the naked human body always there to suggest our vulnerability? The poignant yet still lovely boxwood sculpture of an aging female bather, shielding herself like Botticelli’s Venus, says yes, it is; while the gigantic

unnamed

man and woman in Dosso Dossi’s Allegory of Fortune of c.1530 are anything but. And how many of these nudes, in our LGBTQ, #MeToo world, are to be seen as straight, and how many should we be interpreting as gay? Bronzino’s curly-headed St Sebastian, for example, absurdly calm and coy, and apparently wholly oblivious of the arrow sticking out of his ribs, has everything to do with the naked young male body and nothing at all to do with martyrdom; while Titian’s irresistible Venus Rising from the Sea is so very un-immortal, and so very much a human being placed there for the viewer’s pleasure, that she’s even wringing out her wet hair.

Screenshot 2019-03-06 at 14.33.16

Exhibitions in the Sackler tend towards the unexpected and the fun – the space is small, and the experience of going round it always more satisfying, and the shows themselves stronger than the padded-out blockbusters in the cavernous galleries downstairs. In The Renaissance Nude, many of the works are small as well – tiny, even, in the case of the illustrations from illuminated manuscripts, and the exquisite relief by Donatello that opens the show – and pretty small where the panel paintings are concerned, too. By no means all are top-rank, but the sheer anatomical daftness and psychological weirdness of some of the works here, especially those from the Northern Renaissance, only add to the exhibition’s fascination. One of the most winning is Lucas Cranach’s A Faun and his Family of c.1526 – Mr Faun the Hunter, Mrs Faun the Trophy-Wife and Master Faun the Toddler, with Mrs Faun’s modesty being preserved by a long2-a-faun-and-his-family-with-a-slain-lion-lucas-cranach-the-elder stray tendril of hair that curls round from that on her head to both hide where her pubic hair would be, and to substitute for it. Surely no-one ever viewed this painting without finding themselves cracking a grin?

And while the mechanics of the gaze may not have changed much in the 500 years since, taste certainly has. The ideal woman, in the 15th century, was short in the leg, wide in the hip, and so small in the bust that sometimes it’s only the elaborate hairdo that tells you the body below the neck was meant to be seen as female at all. The ideal man, meanwhile, was muscle-bound as Schwarzenegger, ‘a condom stuffed with walnuts,’ in Clive James’ memorable phrase. You can be staggered by the beauty of some of the works – the Durer engravings, the Raphael Three Graces, the Leonardo Anatomy of the Shoulder and Neck – but if any of this was the pornography of its day, it’s now not so much soft as flaccid. The human body might have been regarded in the Renaissance as the measure of man, but if skill at depicting it was the measure of the artist, most of those included here fall short by a country mile.

Screenshot 2019-03-06 at 14.52.56

The most intriguing part of this show is not the art on display in any case, but the attitudes. There is, for example, an engraving of the little-known legend of St John Chrysostom. It has the saint in the background, a homunculus crawling through the undergrowth on hands and knees like an animal, while in the foreground is a naked mother nursing her child – any excuse to show a buxom nude, you may think, as with so many Biblical/mythological scenes. But the legend behind the image is startling.  The mother was raped by the saint – and then in an excess of shame, he threw her down a precipice and thus never knew he had fathered a child. You can’t put on a show like this without provoking the odd giggle, but The Renaissance Nude will also have you pondering, especially in today’s context, what our attitudes toward sex and nudity and gender were in the past, and even what, were such an exhibition to be re-staged in 500 years time, they might have evolved into then.

 

JCH

The Renaissance Nude, Royal Academy, London to June 2, 2019

Raphael, The Three Graces, c.1517-18. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Unknown artist, Elderly Bather, c.1480. Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung, Frankfurt am Main

Titian, Venus Rising from the Sea (‘Venus Anadyomene’), c.1520. National Galleries of Scotland. Accepted in lieu of Inheritance Tax by HM Government (hybrid arrangement) and allocated to the Scottish National Gallery, with additional funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation), and the Scottish Executive, 2003.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, A Faun and His Family with a Slain Lion, c.1526. The J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, 1504. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Art Museum Council Fund. Photo: © Museum Associates/ LACMA.