Rembrandt: The Late Works (National Gallery)

rembrandt_ticket[1]Many an exhibition will market itself as “once in a lifetime”. The National Gallery’s Rembrandt blockbuster is no different, clearly marking out the rare accumulation of a vast amount of canonical works in one place. Exhibitions of this size take years to plan, fund and curate. Speaking to employees of the Gallery, it becomes clear that this was by no means an easy feat. The question on everyone’s lips: will it pay off?

It seems so. Aside from the excellent reviews the exhibition has received in the press, personal experiences have been equally positive. My fellow students are eager to part with their fiercely guarded student loans just to catch a glimpse of seminal works such as “The Syndics” or “The Jewish Bride”.

Focusing on his later years as an artist, the exhibition reflects a period of personal unrest. Rembrandt was beset with money worries, and as a citizen he had been hounded by the church for his common law marriage. Facing bankruptcy in 1656, he was forced to sell his spacious house and studio for more modest accommodation. One can only imagine the loss of pride for a man so concerned with self-representation in his paintings.

Yet despite this, Rembrandt was not ready to give up hope. The vast collection of work grouped together in the Sainsbury Wing assures us that Rembrandt’s creative energies could not be dulled by external factors. Organised thematically, the exhibition allows us to explore Rembrandt’s concerns during the last years of his career, spanning ideas like the representation of everyday life to more internal concerns such as intimacy and conflict.

Young Woman Sleeping  © Trustees of the British Museum

Young Woman Sleeping
© Trustees of the British Museum

In fact, it soon becomes clear that Rembrandt’s tender nature has not been blunted by hardship. His pen and ink drawing of A Young Woman Sleeping (c.1654), has been attributed as an affectionate rendering of his partner Hendrickje Stoffels. Stoffels, branded a whore by the Church due to her communion with Rembrandt, is here depicted softly in a position of complete innocence. This private insight into Rembrandt’s personal life suggests his ability to appreciate simple pleasures despite economic complications.

Self-Portrait with Circles. Kenwood House.

Self-Portrait with Circles. (Kenwood House)

Rembrandt’s union with Stoffels has marked him in historical discourse as a man who didn’t always conform. He offers us further hint of this inner rebellion through his many self-portraits of the later period. In “Self Portrait with Two Circles” (c.1665-9), he asserts himself as a wizened elderly man, with a frontal gaze and a hand on his hip. Painted ten years after he declared bankruptcy, Rembrandt is declaring his continued status as an artist. Our eye is drawn to his painting materials, which, undemarcated from his body, are offered as part of his very being. Two circles frame his proud expression, once again reminding the contemporary viewer that money would not stop him from devoting his life to art.

And it is this devotion, arguably, that comes through strongest in the exhibition – not only the dedication of Rembrandt to his art, but also of the gallery to its public.

Evy Cauldwell-French is a second-year BA at the Courtauld, specialising in 20th century interior design.

Rembrandt: The Late Works is at the National Gallery until January 18 2015.

How to draw the wind …

Frank Davies Memorial Lecture Series, Art and Vision Science

Double Echo: Exploring the Resonance Between Art and Science, Chris Drury, Tuesday 3 December 2013

Trace the flight of an Albatross circling the Antarctic over a period of eighteen months and use this to frame an ice-blue knot of continental wind patterns registered on one day;  rake a spiralling trail based on Native American weave patterns in the Nevada desert only to see it blown away again overnight. These are some of the ways in which artist Chris Drury maps the complex patterns that govern landscapes and climate, and repeat in the rhythms of the human organism. ‘Double Echo’ was the title for a discussion of drawings and sculptural works which respond to scientific studies with an embodied experience of place as well as a conceptual concern with the language applied to the conjunction of imagination and understanding: the repeated phrase ‘everything and nothing’ captures an overwhelming encounter with the vastness of the Antarctic; and perhaps the difficulty we all have in connecting our own lives to the big picture.

Chris Drury, Mushroom Cloud, 2010. Installation at Malga Costa - Arte Sella Italy – of over 3000 suspended dried mushroom pieces. © Chris Drury

Chris Drury, Mushroom Cloud, 2010. Installation at Malga Costa – Arte Sella Italy – of over 3000 suspended dried mushroom pieces. © Chris Drury

Introducing his talk with a suitably big event, Drury described how the landscape formed by a meteorite landing billions of years ago triggered a fascination with life’s patterns of destruction and regeneration that has inspired work on all scales from the geophysical to the thumb-sized. In this context, a study of the tenacious processes of bacterial and fungal growth that can both spell death and survive a nuclear wipe-out have resulted in fragile mushroom clouds that hang in an interior space, and glass etchings that trace patterns left by a drop of deadly spores. A related video work reflects on the shattering effect of the explosions at Nevada’s nuclear test site. Registering the vibrations of a column of smoke when hit by force of sound, the silent film also memorialises the spiritual-cleansing rituals of Indigenous practice based on the burning of desert sage brush. And a technological encounter with climate-change monitoring resulted in a series of layered drawings which combine physics with an individual’s physiology. Hearing the pilot of the survey plane describing the wave-like echogram of a cross-section of Antarctic ice-sheet as being like ‘taking the heart-beat of the earth’, Drury introduced him to cardiographers working at a London hospital, in order then to combine images of the blood flow in this man’s own heart with those pulses registered in the iced-over mountain range.

Drury’s works demonstrate a political engagement with climate change grounded in scientific research that already challenges comprehension when it extends into limits of particle physics and chaos theory. Exploring the aesthetics of such complexity, the art responds imaginatively to fragile habitats while also playing with contrasts of scale which -as pointed out during the question session – evoke a metaphysical fascination with the microcosm and the macrocosm. The key to this appeal lies in a delicate balance between immersion in an environment and the objective study of universal patterns. The result is an image of a whole which complements the research scientists’ atomized view of detail. And this rounds up the series rather neatly by bringing us back to the first Frank Davis lecture on perception and visual wholes, and yet also leaves plenty of complex paths still untrod.


Fifth Early Modern Symposium: Bringing Art into Being in the Early Modern Period (27th October 2013)

Vasco Nuno Figueiredo de Medeiros - Between Heuresis and Mimesis - Artistic Science and the Iconopoiesis as Mediators of the Creative Process

Vasco Nuno Figueiredo de Medeiros – Between Heuresis and Mimesis – Artistic Science and the Iconopoiesis as Mediators
of the Creative Process

Convened annually by two PhD students from the Courtauld, the Early Modern Symposium is an opportunity for scholars of all levels to give papers covering a period of almost three centuries, from around 1550 to 1800, and to discuss theoretical and methodological questions relevant to current research in the field. Anya Matthews and Giulia Martina Weston, who jointly organised this year’s event, proposed to explore the vast array of processes that make possible both the conception and birth of the work of art. Such a proposal was a perfect complement to last year’s theme, “Art and its Afterlives.”

Parmigianino, Nude man supporting himself on a rope (model for Moses?) recto and verso, London, Victoria and Albert Museum

Parmigianino, Nude man supporting himself on a rope (model for Moses?) recto and verso, London, Victoria and Albert Museum

The programme of the day dealt with the problems related to the study of workshops, of failures and successes of the creation process, and of the question of material specificity. It also suggested that we reconsider the role of the artist-creator in the wake of twentieth-century art historical analysis. This was why it was important to have several contributions focusing on the Renaissance, for it was then that the ideas of the artist as heroic creator and their artwork as a unique creation gained prominence. In her paper on Raphael’s workshop, Anne Bloemacher returned on the gap between the conception of the artistic idea and the delegation of execution. Sefy Hendler, by revising the issue of the paragone in fifteenth-century art theory, showed how a studio drawing by Parmigianino attempted to bridge the arts and offered a variety of vedute on one sheet.

Working drawing for motifs for plaster ceilings. English, 17th century.

Working drawing for motifs for plaster ceilings. English, 17th century.

Interior decoration was considered by Claire Gapper’s investigation of the development of English plasterwork as a necessary interaction of a multiplicity of figures – architects, draughtsmen, decorators and their patrons, some of varying degrees of competence (see image). Other interventions extended across periods. The rather intensely theoretical approach of Vasco Nuno Figueiredo de Medeiros dealt with the history of the dichotomy heuresis/mimesis and proposed to integrate praxis into this paradigm, through the mediating use of iconopoiesis. Working on cultural and geographical distances, Carrie Anderson presented the case of  tapestries with rather unlikely Brazilian fauna such as zebras and rhinoceroses donated by the governor-general of Dutch Brazil to Louis XIV as showing the exciting possibility of a transglobal exchange of ideas at an early period.

This is just a small selection from what was a long day, yet one which managed to retain its audience’s interest throughout with a wide variety of approaches and themes. The current interest in art-making processes is spurred by an increasing union of the old divisions of the historical field, encouraged by the universal assimilation of the issues raised by Aby Warburg and post-structuralist traditions. In recent scholarship, investigations across disciplines, bridging works and practices of different kinds and including material from science, popular culture and across time, are more the rule than the exception. However, if this conference was to be taken as a statement on the willingness of academia to deal with the question of process in art making, it would be inevitable to admit that, while the interest is there, it is too early to say which methodologies and themes will prevail in future scholarship.