What’s on in London – Rembrandt: The Late Works & More

Bathsheba with King David's Letter, 1654

What’s On In London – by Pat Levy

Rembrandt: The Late Works. The National Gallery Open till 18 January 2015. £18 (£9 students, jobseekers)

Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age.

The Barbican. Open till 11 January 2015. £12 (£8 students)

Grumpy looking self-portraits, dark interiors lit by lamplight, wealthy Dutch people in ornate clothes – picking out the one or two Rembrandts in any gallery you come away with the feeling that you can tick another great painting off your list of things to see – the Primavera, the Mona Lisa, a self-portrait by Rembrandt. What the Late Works exhibition at the National Gallery in London allows you to do is something very different – get into the heart of the man and grasp at the way he puts his life and understanding into his work.

A bit of biography: these works cover the period of the early 1650s to his death in 1669. In the 1630s Rembrandt was famous, rich, married and enjoying a wealthy lifestyle, collecting art and jewellery. In the 1640s it all starts to go pear-shaped with the death of his wife, his living beyond even his extensive means and the taking of two mistresses. One of them sues him, the other is banned from the church for bearing him a child and he is forced first to auction off all his stuff and then declare himself bankrupt.

At the same time Rembrandt’s style is changing in a way that makes him less and less popular with the monied classes. His paint is laid on in thick daubs, sometimes using a palette knife and is so thick in places it almost stands out from the canvas. To get the effect he wants he layers paint over paint, not waiting for it to dry and then scratches details on with the end of his paintbrush. Close up, his paintings look a mess. One in particular I noticed was A Man in Armour (1665). In the crowds visiting the exhibition you politely grab whatever space you can and my first view of the painting was close up. Bit of a mess really, great streaks of white and yellow paint and dark surroundings made no sense at all. The crowd shifted a little and when I stood back his armour glittered and a sad determination filled the man’s downcast face.

What struck me also in the exhibition was Rembrandt’s compassion. As his portraits grow darker, the faces of his subjects seem to fill with emotion. Titus in Monk’s Habit (1660) shows his son wearing a Franciscan monk’s habit. His eyes are cast down as if in contemplation and the dark surroundings make the man’s face seem to shine with a soft sadness.


In these later years his companion Hendrijcke Stoffels models for him and two paintings of her stand out. One is A Woman Bathing in a Stream, thought to be a depiction of the Old Testament figure Susanna. In the story the married Susannah is spied on by two elders of her tribe who threaten to tell her husband she has cheated on him unless she has sex with them. It all turns out well in the end. In most depictions of the story the elders are there, pawing at her or sneaking a peek as she undresses.

Here Rembrandt paints her in isolation, looking down at her own reflection as she steps into the water. We become the elders, voyeurs in her private moment, looking at the flesh of her legs hoping for a glance in the reflection of more intimate areas of her body.

Bathsheba with King David’s Letter called by Kenneth Clark ‘Rembrandt’s greatest painting of the nude’ is also likely to be Hendrijcke. Again Rembrandt strips the story away, showing only Bathsheba, her servant and the letter, her nudity and the bedroom telling the story of her seduction and the complex expression on her face telling everything about her emotions. It is hard not to make the connection between Bathsheba – a woman scorned for her adultery and Hendrijcke turned away from the Church by her lifestyle. As the accompanying notes to the exhibition remind us Rembrandt found beauty in the everyday, an ordinary looking woman washing, or an old man slumped in a seat, an elderly lady with a bible.

These paintings stood out for me but the exhibition overflows with Rembrandt’s work from tiny engravings to huge works designed to cover an entire wall. A series of engravings, all slightly altered, show the man’s craftsmanship at work as he refines his subject; preparatory drawings show how his paintings evolved as he painted and in one case show what is now lost to us: the design for the frame of one painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Joan Deyman shows us the whole composition of the painting which, damaged by fire in 1723, stands beside it.

This exhibition will almost certainly never be brought together again in our lifetimes.

Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age.

2. Iwan Baan, Torre David #10, 2011

The Barbican. Open till 11 January 2015. £12 (£8 students)

Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age is a humdinger of an exhibition at the Barbican, bringing together some of the best work of a remarkable set of photographers who look beyond the medium’s ability to document what the built world looks like. There are some 250 works on show, from 18 photographers, starting with Berenice Abbott’s ground-breaking shots of the birth of skyscrapers in New York and Walker Evans’s photographs of the vernacular architecture of the Deep South. Abbott captures the visual presence of an empire in the making while Evans snaps the dwellings and churches of the whites and blacks who provided the cheap labour that the same empire depended on for its wealth.

Contemporary photographers include Guy Tillim’s exposé of what happened in Angola, Congo and Mozambique when notions of modern architecture were transplanted there. There are also astonishing scenes of built structures by Nadav Kander and Iwan Baan. With admission costing €15, which allows for repeat visits on the same day (not possible with the Rembrandt show), this is a value-for-money exhibition and an opportunity to view the Barbican – London’s own contribution to brutalism.

9. Nadav Kander, Chongqing IV (Sunday Picnic), Chongqing Municipality, 2006

Credit for Iwan Baan photograph = Image courtesy of the artist and Perry Rubenstein Gallery, Los Angeles

Credit for Nadav Kander photo = Nadav Kander, courtesy Flowers Gallery

Credit for A Woman bathing in a Stream 1654 © The National Gallery, London

Credit for Bathsheba with King David’s Letter 1654 – Paris, Musée du Louvre, Département des Peintures © Musée du Louvre, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Angèle Dequier

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