Thursday, 27 November 2014

Rembrandt's Themes, and other recent books

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Richard Verdi Rembrandt's Themes: Life into Art Yale University Press 2014 £25

This is a magnificent short study of Rembrandt's subject matter. He returned to the same themes again and again, seemingly by choice rather than from commission. The evidence is that he had a degree of freedom in what he painted, and his chosen subjects reveal a Mennonite sensibility. I really recommend that you buy this above the Late Rembrandt catalogue. It's beautifully produced and illustrated, finely written and truly illuminating. 

Rembrandt scholarship has been rather consumed by acrimonious debates about attribution. No one enjoys attribution controversy, debate and acrimony more than I do, but it's a welcome change to read a book that steps back from all that to focus on Rembrandt's underlying genius. A good proportion of his output is portraiture, including some of his most famous pictures. But it's in the narrative pictures that we see the full range of his genius and his humanity. Verdi's splendid book ranges from detailed discussion of the genesis of some of his pictures, to the recognition that some masterpieces like the Return of the Prodigal Son "require few words, so serene and holy does it seem". That's an experience I often feel with Rembrandt, which has struck me a few times in the National Gallery's Late Rembrandt show. 

The book is based on a series of lectures, and it is an exploration rather than a definitive study. I think that's the best way of approaching Rembrandt, for he will always resist definitive systematisation. His history paintings began with animated crowd scenes that were noticeably more effectively and dramatically orchestrated than his peers' from an early date. But it's the more introspective and profoundly emotional late masterpieces that best show his unique genius. This book explores the genesis of these greatest of paintings, explaining their context in Rembrandt's development and the themes he pursued. 

A late entry to my mental list of 'best books of 2014'.
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James Hamilton is an academic, but this is a collection of anecdotes about art and commerce in Victorian Britain rather than an academic study. There's some interesting material here and I enjoyed reading it, but it's not quite the comprehensive account I'd hoped for. Hamilton has some strange literary foibles that start to jar, like long and irrelevant lists. For example, we are told that the new rich filled their villas with art "in Ealing and Hackney, Blackheath and Roydon, Herne Hill and Tottenham, Birmingham Bristol and Hastings" (p. 60). He never uses one example or one adjective when he can fit in six or seven (the Victorian art world includes "patrons, financiers, collectors and industrialists; lawyers, publishers, entrepreneurs and journalists; artists' suppliers, engravers, photographers and curators; hostesses, shopkeepers and brothel-keepers; quacks, charlatans and auctioneers", p. 3). It's an oddly old-fashioned affectation, redolent of nineteenth century British novelists like Dickens.

The book's strength is in its primary material; I found many of Hamilton's conclusions and generalisations too sweeping, such as the surprising claim that in the 1820s and 1830s collectors avoided old masters because they were too risky, concentrating instead on contemporary (p. 172). I thought that the great contemporary boom was late in the nineteenth century, and the '20s and '30s were a golden age for old master collecting as great works continued to flow into London from continental Europe, with the resumption of trade following the Napoleonic Wars.   

One of the most interesting sections concerns the moving of pictures, a hazardous business then as now. By the 1850s and 1860s specialist vans fitting with deep shelves were available for transporting pictures, but there are alarming tales of pictures damaged in transit, such as James Ward's Waterloo Allegory: "the  figure of Belona cracked by rolling yesterday - obliged to scrap[e] it off", wrote the artist (quoted p. 273). And as today, pictures were sometimes hastily cleaned for exhibitions. "Some picture cleaners might have been scrubbing floors", says Hamilton (p. 272). A Turner that came loose in its packing case damaged several pictures returning to London from Dublin in 1865, and were presumably sent to the National Gallery's repairing room, where robust 'repairing practices' were adopted (p. 283).

There's much else of interest, but it might better have been structured as a blog rather than a book. Lots of interesting material to dip into, but little evidence of underlying organisation. 
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A.N.Wilson Victoria: A Life Atlantic Books £25

This is an endearingly old-fashioned book in tone and style, and it's a fine and readable biography enlivened with idiosyncratic asides about the tendency of whisky to increase hot-temperedness and lack of charity (p. 324) or the lineage of 'celebrated photographer' Patrick Litchfield (p, 284), or his views on her title 'Empress of India' ("a title which many people would consider more appropriate for a railway engine, or possibly a pig, but it was the consummate cupola on the Victorian political endeavour", p. 368). Quite verboten in an academic study, but I'm sure his readers will share my delight in having such an opinionated and articulate guide to Queen Victoria's life. 

I've wanted to read a good biography of Queen Victoria for a while, hoping for more insight into nineteenth century Britain. The Victorian age was a fascinating dynamic period of economic growth, political intrigue and social transformation. But this book confirms to me that Queen Victoria was just a cypher, a dull dim woman at the top of her society but not at all at the centre of it. Wilson is mostly honest about her shortcomings, but sometimes tries to hard to make more of her than is really there. Sometimes he writes utter nonsense: "Queen Victoria was not a cerebral political analyst; yet she was developing, after nearly fifteen years on the throne, a symbiotic sense of her subjects, and what they felt" (p. 169), implying that she was a Princess Diana avant la lettre. She was a very average person, but that is not at all the same thing as the thoughtful (or sometimes plain cynical) empathy of the modern celebrity. 

There are plenty of examples quoted where Victoria was out of touch, or plain naive. The book also gives some feel for how quickly things were moving in the nineteenth century, and the canniness of the statesmen of that age are fine foil for the Queen's dullness. He quotes Victoria's favourite Lord Salisbury: "The classes that represent civilisation ... have a right to require securities to protect them from being overwhelmed by hordes who have neither control to guide them nor stake in the Commonwealth to control them" (p. 434). It's interesting on many levels. It immediately strikes the modern reader as grotesquely elitist, but the fact that it was stated at all reveals a degree of defensiveness against populist pressure, real and perceived, which was relieved by a series of preemptive reforms. Nineteenth century Britain had a succession of outstanding parliamentarians but, Wilson's pleas notwithstanding, the Queen at the top was an increasingly irrelevant figurehead who increasing withdrew from even a ceremonial role.

Wilson speculates that she was sometimes 'out of her mind', on the evidence of letters written in the 1860s showing a complete loss of control, scrawled in blue crayon and barely legible. Perhaps some echo in Prince Charles's spidery missives to ministers today? 
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I read Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy on my flight to the US. I don't think it's aged well, and its flabby plot needed a good editor. But I still enjoyed it greatly, an epic tale of pursuit of the American dream gone bad. Among other novels I've read recently, Emmanuel Carrère's Limonov stands out, a fictionalised biography of a Russian dissident who is unsavory on many levels, interspersed with autobiography reflections on writing the biography. It has been extremely well reviewed, rightly so in my view. Carrère is apparently already well-known if France. This book deserves to make his reputation in the anglophone world too. Another French novel I read in translation is Baise-Moi by Virginie Despentes. I previously read and enjoyed her Apocalypse Baby, but Baise-Moi was her most famous and controversial book. I enjoyed it much less, finding it a rather predictable Thelma and Louise style schlocker. Skip it, but do have have a look at Apocalypse Baby if you fancy some grim French nihilism. 

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