|Picture: Metropolitan Museum of Art|
Reviews of the late Rembrandt show have been entertaining, if not always enlightening. "Rembrandt the Rotter" says the Daily Mail, telling us that his personal life was 'a mess'. The Daily Mail is a remarkable newspaper, nasty and vitriolic and without a shred of interest in being correct. It's known for the dominant role of its subeditors, who change things as they please without troubling themselves to check facts. They claim the Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo is coming up for auction (it's for sale at Frieze Masters) and repeat all kinds of speculative gossip about Rembrandt as fact.
The Financial Times is the greatest newspaper in the world, but their review - by Simon Schama no less - is almost as bad. Schama talks about a self portrait in the show on loan from the Met dating two years after the Frick's of 1658. But that portrait, from the Altman bequest (pictured above), isn't in the show. There are other self portraits, including one from the National Gallery in Washington, but none dates from two years after the Frick's. Did Schama actually see the show before writing the review? He describes the layout carefully, almost as if protesting too much. I don't see how anyone who had seen the show could have made the error about the Met's self portrait.
Schama says the Family from Braunschweig isn't in the exhibition, but it's actually a family portrait that's in the Braunschweig museum, not a portrait of a family from there. And it is in fact in the Amsterdam leg of the exhibition. He says the Claudius Civilis was 'mistakenly' hung at eye level, but there is no way that it could have been hung at the 'right' height in the NG's galleries. And I have actually seen it hung high at a special exhibition in Stockholm, and whilst you get some sense of the impact it would have had, you miss out on seeing Rembrandt's bravura handling of paint. I prefer it this way. And Schama laments the absence of Jeremias de Decker from the Hermitage, oddly describing it as 'the greatest of the late portraits'. That is an extraordinary view of a perfectly good but relatively minor late portrait. The obvious omission is rather Jan Six, the keystone portrait that inaugurates his late style and whose absence is especially noteworthy given that its loan to the exhibition was refused at the eleventh hour.
I've been a few times now. My first visit was late afternoon on Thursday when it was buzzing without being overwhelming. Friday evening's late opening is usually the quietest time, but it was absolutely heaving, as was Saturday morning. It's a radically different experience. You can see the prints and drawings, but the paintings can scarcely be appreciated when you have to shuffle along to see them a patch at a time. I know it's a familiar lament to be made about every blockbuster, but it shouldn't be forgotten. It's all very well the critics enthusing about the show they've seen, but most people get rather a different experience.
|Picture: National Gallery|
A final gripe. To secure the loan of Jacob Blessing from Kassel, the NG has lent them Belshazzar's Feast (above). Instead of loans being agreed collegially on the basis of the exhibition's value, they are subject to undignified horse trading. It's bad enough that so many pictures are subject to the stresses and risks of travel for the exhibition itself; the risks are now doubled up with quid pro quo loans. Visitors to the NG who aren't paying through the nose for the overcrowded Rembrandt show not only lose the chance to see the NG's best late Rembrandts, they also miss out on a major earlier work. And Velazquez's Rokeby Venus is out at the same time - another cornerstone work that, with Belshazzar's Feast, ought never to be lent.
As a minor compensation, the Dutch galleries are now showing a number of pictures usually in store, including some Frans Hals and a number of Rembrandt school works. I really like the Rembrandt gallery where the Trip portraits usually hang; the context of weaker pictures from Rembrandt's school and by his followers is welcome. Although I don't think the Old Man in an Armchair is by Rembrandt, it's a good picture that deserves to be shown more often. Best of all, there's a rediscovered Wtewael on loan, strengthening the relatively weak showing of Northern mannerism at the NG.