Sunday, 12 October 2014

Reviewing Late Rembrandt

Picture: Guardian
"Rembrandt is so high in the ranking of great artists that our amassed reverence has sunk like syrup into the brown and gold surface of his paintings", begins Jonathan Jones's review of the National Gallery's Late Rembrandt show. It's one of the worst lines I've read in an exhibition review, but I sympathise with Jones's plight. Rembrandt is an artist who packs a real emotional punch that's rare in the visual arts. Seeing his late masterpieces in Kassel and Braunschweig (Brunswick, but sounds so much better in German) were memorably emotional moments for me. The problem that Jones unwittingly illustrates is that it's so hard to convey that power credibly, without sounding a bit ridiculous.

There are other artists I admire enormously who don't have anything like the same emotional appeal. I feel the difference, but I struggle to articulate it. Maybe it needs a poet rather than an art historian. I tend to fall back on more neutral descriptive tropes that seem inadequate to Rembrandt's genius. Maybe I should stop fearing my own absurdity and reach for the syrup. 

Apropos of poetry and art history, I recently read a wonderful book of poems based on pictures at the National Gallery written by a poet who is also an art historian. I don't read much poetry, but I enjoyed Lynn Roberts's A Brush with Poetry immensely. Perhaps she will be able to do a better job of conveying Rembrandt's magic.


  1. Gosh, Michael - how unexpected, and how kind! Thank you so much...

    I don't think that I have any more chance than Jonathan Jones of conveying Rembrandt's particular power and emotional heft, but here (in a sonnet) is another aspect of his painting:

    Rembrandt: The anatomy lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp

    This was the temple of the body, which is
    now a new found land to map and mine;
    pale as Caribbean pearl, it spills its riches
    for these explorers, leaning to divine
    the dense lode-bearing veins where life must flow
    like Indian rubies, see the sinews gleam
    subtle as silver ore from Mexico...
    They’re habited in black and white and seem
    like acolytes receiving from their priest
    a sacred text, a sacramental rite
    on this pale altar, which will open in a feast
    of sudden colour – coral and gem-bright
    garnet and sapphire, jet like living coal,
    and all the body’s wealth – except the soul.

  2. What superb reading of that painting.So-it is possible after all to describe a painting,even though what is expressed on painting exists utterly beyond language.Thanks for the gem of a poem.
    I found in reading Kenyon Cox,American painter and art-writer some excellent descriptions,or characteristics of Italian renaissance painters.Each one divining the essence.Not an easy feat..............................