The name Rembrandt surely feels like an imposing place to start when thinking about the world of art. But of course he himself rejected the Italian masters in favour of furthering his native Dutch tradition. Rembrandt pursued the use of realism which infiltrated even his more ethereal matter; his status did not hinder his ability to be perceptive. Rembrandt: Britain’s Discovery of the Master exhibits in the Scottish National Gallery until 14th October. Through a selection of oil paintings, prints and ink sketches it seeks to show the man himself and the work he inspired. A man who can feel as elusive as the greatness of his influence.
Two fears about art exhibitions are often difficult to escape from; that the experience will border on dry or that it will be overwhelming enough to want to throw in the towel at the first glance of a burnished gold frame. This exhibition was neither. The structure allowed one to feel as if they were being gently led around. Not in the hopes of achieving some greater enlightenment at the end but in order to achieve a more intimate understanding of the artist as he became the subject.
That which was most breath-taking, of his multiple self-portraits, was entitled ‘Self-portrait, aged 51.’ It was the most exposing of his psyche as we stare into the eyes that are not looking at us but at his own face reflected back at him through a mirror. The colour palette is striking in its muted and modest tones, his face delicately covered in shadow as was his style. The man that is revealed seems searching and yet he was also able to face his own mortality. The painting, an example of his willingness to mire himself in the human condition.
His other portraits were also deeply thought provoking. That of his last surviving son, ‘Titus at his desk,’ 1655, seemed particularly nostalgic; his childlike innocence treasured eternally. There was also an anxiety in the painting, evoked from the precarious pen holder hanging on the edge of the desk.
Of his sketches, ‘Lamentation over Dead Christ,’ 1635, remains a lasting image. Christ lying on the ground, bathed in a milky glow is put to death by a society shrouded in a cold dense mist. It was distinctly haunting. Also striking, the ‘Hundred Guilder Print,’ 1648, was a depiction of Christ healing the sick. Rembrandt’s sensitivity to light, dark and shade seems to allow Jesus and those he helps to be caverned, protected from the dark.
Perhaps the purpose of the exhibition although not necessarily its principal draw, are the stylistic influences Rembrandt had on his contemporaries and successors. Works like 18th century Samuel Reynold’s version of ‘The Mill’ and 19th century figures like Geddes and Wilke show Rembrandt’s impact on artistic output. But I think that was clear already. Further links are constructed with 20th century artists like Auerbach and Kossoff; at least thematically, Rembrandt’s interest in imperfection and authenticity do feature.
Fascination with Rembrandt continues to pervade the art world. As an expression of this, the exhibition is provocative. However, exploration of his connection with Britain can risk drawing tenuous links in order to claim a piece of him. It can also further the meaningful impact of his work on the British public. Ultimately, the exhibition allows a greater audience to engage directly with Rembrandt’s work. The power of some of the headline pieces lies in their ability to draw people in and mystify them as they try to come to terms with what he really stood for. And I think in that sense, it is entirely successful.