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.

Elizabeth I and her People (National Portrait Gallery)

ElizabethReviewElizabeth I has been somewhat overshadowed by her namesake in recent years, but the curatorial team at the National Portrait Gallery, led by Tarnya Cooper, have sought to reestablish her as the mighty monarch she once was, as well as attempting to depict the lives of her subjects.
For a shy monarch the range of portraits of Elizabeth in the opening rooms are impressive, including rare examples of those painted from life. This was a time in which her image began to mean many things – from the power and prestige of its owner, to its reassuring qualities in the face of war. Her image was also one of the first to be mass produced, again evidenced in the exhibition with fine examples of coins, miniatures and portraits made from copies.
The largest room at the rear of the U-shaped exhibition space is concerned with the Nobility, Gentry and Court. This section opens, poignantly, with a portrait of Sir Walter Ralegh accompanied with a poem begging for Elizabeth’s forgiveness after his marriage to Elizabeth Throckmorton. The rest of the room is given over to detailing the huge advancements made throughout this era. Travel and adventure are shown in the portraits of Elizabeth’s Moorish ambassador and the Arctic explorer Frobrisher, and the fruits of other exotic endeavours are scattered throughout, the highlight being the first depiction of a Guinea Pig as a household pet.

Queen Elizabeth I, The 'Ermine' Portrait Attributed to Nicholas Hilliard, 1585

Queen Elizabeth I, The ‘Ermine’ Portrait Attributed to Nicholas Hilliard, 1585

All of the advancements were made possible by the increasing trade during the Elizabethan era, and these men and women have their own room in the exhibition. Again what is truly astounding in the works in this space are the international ties and the draw London must have had during this period. There are a series of remarkable, candid family portraits of the Wittewronghele family as well as many others from what would have been at that time far-off lands.

William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley (1520/21-1598) by an unknown artist

William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley (1520/21-1598) by an unknown artist

Towards the end of the exhibition the works began to peter out somewhat. The section on Professionals, Writers and Artists is a little sparse, although the painting of the poet John Donne is a highlight. In an attempt to represent the entirety of Elizabeth’s people the curators have left a small space for the Working People and the Poor, but it is really inadequate to get a truly rounded picture of their lives. This, though, is not the curators’ fault. As they openly admit there simply are not many representations of the poor during this period, and I think it is nice that they end the exhibition with this admission, rather than simply trying to hide it in the beginning or middle of the exhibition.

The focus is undoubtedly on the well-off in Elizabethan society but this is purely because they were the only section of society that were recorded. Overall though, despite the shortfalls of breadth, the exhibition does what it sets out to do: show the lives the first Elizabethans lived to their current incarnations.



Harry Laughland is an MA student at the Courtauld.

Elizabeth I & Her People is at the National Portrait Gallery until the 5th January 2013.

Facing The Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900 (National Gallery)

FacingModernPicI’ve always thought that the National Gallery could have a better temporary exhibition space – but this time its underground location was less of a weakness and more of a metaphor. For if history tells the breakdown of a liberal and democratic age into one of intolerance and bloodshed, the paintings themselves may rather tell of a death-drive spurting out from underground.

Death is what one sees upon entering the exhibition’s first room: it is Beethoven’s death mask.  A witness at the composer’s passing reported it was marked by a peal of thunder. Of course, it was apocalyptic – but still, that was 1827, long before the other works in the room were selected for the Miethke Gallery exhibition recreated in Room 1. But then again, that show was in 1905. Vienna 1900 eluded me in a wink.

Showcasing the Austrian Old Masters and their heroic models, the Miethke Gallery show established a genealogy for the new Viennese middle class. The New needed to set its footing in the Old. Accordingly, the moderns found in Ebyl and Amerling the precedents for their innovative painting – for the Kokoschka and Schiele and Gerstl in Room 2. Nevertheless, the contrast is startling, and it remains so throughout the show. For if traditional paintings are everywhere exhibited next to decidedly modern ones, this is only exhibition, not explanation: the viewer is not shown how the ones derived from the others.

Arnold Schönberg: Blue Self-Portrait, 1910.

Arnold Schönberg: Blue Self-Portrait, 1910

The criteria for grouping paintings in different rooms are just as evanescent. After presenting the New Viennese self-constructed antiquity, the subdivisions become thematic rather than historical, concentrating on themes such as the positive perception of private life, the figure of the artist, love and loss. ‘The Appeal of the Artist’ was surely my favourite. Both Rudolf von Alt’s and Schoenberg’s self-portrait were discoveries by artists I did not know before.

Richard Gerstl - Portrait of Alexander Zemlinsky (1908)

Richard Gerstl – Portrait of Alexander Zemlinsky (1908)

Moreover, I appreciated the emphasis on the fabricated nature of Freud’s ‘tormented human subject,’ an aspect easy to ignore face to so many dramatic suicides. Other rooms however fail to deliver what they promise. Grouping together group scenes and portraits, young siblings and adults, the display ‘The family and The Child’ is too heterogeneous to delve deep into the hidden tensions of idyllic families.

But then, why should one delve? There is here enough experimentation on the painted surface. Both the Amerlings and the Schiele reveal their great mastery, made all the more evocative by the flexible and atmospheric lighting. This is definitely not an exhibition to learn about history, but it may be a good one to learn about looking. For as in Gerstl’s Portrait of Alexander Zemlinsky, the revelation may lay on the surface.



Costanza Beltrami is a BA3 student at the Courtauld.

Facing the Modern is on at the National Gallery until the 12th January.


History of photography seminars, organised by Julian Stallabrass and Pei-Kuei Tsai, explores the history of the modern invention up to the present day by inviting academics, photographers, and curators to give a lecture at the Research Forum on Wednesday evenings a few times per term. The first of the seminars this term was given by Dr. Sarah James, UCL. She was welcomed back to the Courtauld, where she read her PhD with Professor Stallabrass in the middle part of the 2000s.

The topic of the evening was the exhibition What is Man? (1964) at the Academie der Kunst in Berlin, curated by Karl Pawek. Seen by 25 million people, it was an important photography exhibition in the relatively early days of temporary photography exhibitions in fine art context. James gave a richly detailed presentation on the subject, situating German visual culture within the historical contexts of the Cold War.

This context was woven largely through the Americanisation of post-war German culture, and within this framework, James took a comparative approach to analysing the exhibition, using the American exhibition, Edward Steichen-curated Family of Man (1955), as a basis. James offered a view of German visual culture largely influenced by their fascination for American media, with What is Man? as a response to American photojournalism found in outlets like the Life Magazine. The success of both exhibitions among the public, and their display of humanity through photomontages helps to draw an immediate parallel between the two.

The comparison across cultures and time works because of Pawek’s documented interest in Steichen’s work. On one hand, there are many similarities between the two exhibitions, such as the usage of metaphotography, conservative humanistic perspectives, international reach, corporate sponsorship, and popular appeal. However, differences emerge upon closer examination. One of the notable was that Pawek’s exhibition was not being explicitly religious in nature, whereas Steichen’s included quotes from the bible. Steichen also left out information about the photos, as they were meant to be read as simple documentary representations, and while Pawek did not include these details within the exhibition either, he did include the information in the catalogue.

On a fundamental level, James argued, Pawek presented a consistently more heterogenious view of the world than Steichen. In Pawek’s exhibition, the arrangement of photos alternated and shifted between single portraits and photos of masses, rather than focusing wholly on thematic display as Steichen did. Pawek also chose not to exclude references to racial unrest, something largely avoided by Steichen. Some of the most effective examples were from the power of the images themselves, such as Pawek’s photos of war and its aftermath, such as the images of people who survived Hiroshima. Another was the exhibition’s display of bourgeoisie engaged in ritualistic situations. By turning the lens toward the exhibition’s likely viewers, Pawek brought more depth to the critical aspect of the exhibition.

To attributing the differences to a specific German experience, James offers an interwar German photomontage as another point of comparison, focusing on the changes in the German perspective in photography. James used Ernst Junger’s collection of press photography, The Transformed World, published in 1933. Although it reached the public in a different format, it offers an interesting point of contrast to Pawek’s work, particularly in the splicing of violence with the images of everyday, creating a “stereoscoping vision” that bringing depth to the depiction of reality. To what extent his view can be representative of German visual culture in the 1930s, especially with Junger’s complex and somewhat ambiguous relationship to National Socialism, is open for discussion, but the comparison may still be useful as Pawek and Junger does share a thematic interest. In using both Junger’s and Steichen’s works, James presented a well-constructed argument that sees Pawek’s work as reflecting an intriguing confluence of both visions, and offers us a German image of man transformed by the World War II, the country’s defeat, and the aftermath.

(Click here for images)