2, February 2015 § 1 Comment
Knowing the exhibition would be crowded we organised our tickets for the last two hours of the day. Even so the smallness of the rooms and the number of people jammed into them did not make for comfortable viewing. A similar crush occurred during the Da Vinci show. It’s time the National Gallery allocated a bigger space for its major shows.
The first room of the exhibition held four self portraits from the last ten years of Rembrandt’s life. Entering from the grey damp London weather directly into the vivid charcoal reds and resinous blacks of the paintings we experienced a quick intake of breath. The powerful self portraits each capture a memento of passing time on his face and form, his flesh more grey, his eyes growing more opaque with the years. Those who know any of the other nearly one hundred self portraits can see his loss of energy, humour and confidence. We believe the paintings to reflect the veracity of his physiognomy and yet we are not looking for attributes that would identify him. We feel he is revealing his inner depth. Knowing that he died bankrupt having turned away from the lucrative commissions which would have kept him in the public eye, suffering the death of lover and children, we feel we are witnessing his sorrowful soul.
The exhibition continues with a journey into the oeuvre of the great Rembrandt as he experimented and pushed his technical skill to express his tender view of humanity. The paint itself captured us as it pulsed and swirled, thin as silk one moment and heavy with turbid weight the next. The transparent darks pushed back into unspecified backdrops while the lead white clumped or embroidered the edge of collars or highlights on nose and eyelid. We were particularly taken by these warm and textured whites. They were a character of their own, playing a part as varied and eloquent as a Shakespearian actor. Rembrandt placed the white with palpable energy, using a stick, a brush, perhaps a rag. It hovered under glazes and emerged like waves breaking. His limited palette, with little or no blues and limited earth greens did not keep him from expressing nature while his concentration on capturing faces was best served with the “tetrachromy” of the Ancient Greeks: white, black, yellow and red.
A portrait of Lucretia whose blood leaves her white gown stained red, trembles with sadness and dishonour as she plunges the knife into her side. Perhaps it is a tribute to his mistress, Hendrickje, who was hounded by society to confess her sin of living out of wedlock with Rembrandt. The subject from Roman history expresses a woman’s deeply conflicted emotion. The emotion is the theme again with the magnificent painting of Bathsheba as she contemplates the letter from David, her King. The somewhat damaged surface of this work does not distract from the subtle current of anguish she expresses.
There are many etchings and drawings interspersed with the paintings in this exhibition. Rembrandt’s etchings are a miraculous tangle of haunting lines. With bravado and verve he depicts so much information with so little effort. These pieces greatly added to our understanding of his vision and method. The vivacious brushwork is equivalent to the handling of the etching needle, the supremacy of white is equal to the vibrant unmarked white of the paper. Light is the subject and everything else falls to its authority. We see his thought process more clearly in the etchings but the large textural paintings dominated the show.
21, December 2009 § Leave a comment
Near the close of the semester I took the opportunity to demonstrate two traditional techniques to the students of the painting class. Oil paints are just one in a long line of materials that artists have used to create paintings. Tempera paint which uses egg yolk as a binder rather than linseed oil has been around since at least the time of the ancient Greeks. Pigments from earth sources as well as organic material are used for the colouring matter and the yolk binds them and adheres them to a surface. The other technique we looked into is using marble dust to extend oil paints and to make them more transparent.
Tempera colors were used extensively before the mid 1400’s when linseed oil began to supplant the use of egg as a binder. Most of the early Renaissance work we know is in this medium including the large pieces of Botticelli, “Birth of Venus” and the “Primavera” now in the Uffizzi. Tempera has the advantage of reading very well in the high end of the tonal range and having fast drying times. It works up almost more like a pencil rendering with a linear approach and little surface build up. It can be pushed to transparent, opaque or opalescent with ease.
Introducing marble dust into oil paint extends the paint and lightens it without turning it cool and chalky as white would do. It makes the paint more transparent and more pasty, reducing drying time and creating impasto effects. It is almost like adding light without unduly changing the tone or temperature of the color. If you add some drops of Liquin to moisten the mixture the resulting putty can dry overnight even in thick areas. Painters such as Velasquez and Rembrandt are known to have added some sort of marble dust or chalk to their pigments.
These and other techniques are interesting to extend our handling options and help us to understand why art of the past has certain characteristics. Techniques may suit some temperaments and some subjects better than another.