‘Rembrandt: The Late Works review – triumph in master’s tragedy’ by Jonathan Jones | The Guardian (Oct. 12, 2014)
Rembrandt is so high in the ranking of great artists that our amassed reverence has sunk like syrup into the brown and gold surfaces of his paintings.
There he is in the first room of this startling exhibition, gazing back from his self-portraits, a sage and infinitely gentle soul: Rembrandt the master. Then the curators pull a hidden lever and the floor disappears.
This brilliant, brave blockbuster reveals the true Rembrandt – a man at the end of his tether. It is a shocking and cathartic journey through the tragedy of his fall. By exposing that, it reveals his ultimate triumph. It is like seeing a great actor play King Lear and Prospero as a double bill.
In the second room hangs one of Rembrandt’s most bizarre and disturbing works,The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis. This mad history painting was commissioned in 1660 for Amsterdam town hall. Rembrandt was one of several artists hired to decorate its interior with noble scenes glorifying the Dutch republic.
He portrayed the rebellion of the ancient Batavians, a favourite patriotic legend of a republic that had recently freed itself from Spain. But he changed it into an image of madness and desolation.
Tradition had it that the rebel leader Claudius Civilis had only one eye. Instead of concealing or ennobling this lack as a conventional history painting might, Rembrandt homed in on it with morbid fascination. The empty eye socket of Claudius Civilis becomes the focal point of this painting of blind faith and blind courage – a desperate, scary drama of suicidal heroism.
This vision of extreme, amoral bravery with its dark suggestion that war, freedom and nation are empty myths was quickly taken down from the town hall.
The censorship of one of his most ambitious paintings was a further humiliation for Rembrandt. For the man we meet here was a failure. In the 1650s, in his mid 40s, Rembrandt went bankrupt. He had to sell all the jewels and art he had collected in his wealthy years. The luscious gold-spun clothes and jewellery in his 1665 masterpiece The Jewish Bride, one of this exhibition’s most incandescent marvels, are imaginary replacements for the material possessions he lost.
As a bankrupt he depended on his son Titus and his housekeeper and lover Hendrickje Stoffels to do business on his behalf. For her pains, Stoffels was excommunicated from church for “practising whoredom with the painter Rembrandt”.
Love and sex are among the great themes of Rembrandt’s late art, as he insists on the beauty of the human stuff Christianity condemned. In one erotic etching he portrays a black woman naked. He loves her difference. But his most frequent model was Stoffels, who poses for him stepping into a stream or as the Roman heroine Lucretia choosing death over shame.
These portraits are both sexual and full of pathos. He wants to show the world – show history, show us – that she is no “whore” but his dignified and serious beloved.
She poses most poignantly as Bathsheba, who in the Old Testament was summoned to sleep with King David, simply because he wished it. A servant washes Bathsheba’s feet while she sits gravely meditating on David’s letter. Rembrandt hails the grandeur of her nakedness – and her sorrow, as she endures the burden of a king’s desire.
So many sorrows, so many souls. They look at you from Rembrandt’s great group portrait, The Syndics (1662) – faces that suddenly seem alive and self-conscious, returning the beholder’s gaze with a kind of intimate pity. We are all in this together, they sadly, silently say.
Rembrandt’s compassionate drawings of a young woman hanging from a gibbet are among the show’s many shocks. She and the Syndics – even though the girl is an outcast, an executed criminal, and the Syndics are pillars of Amsterdam society – are somehow the same.
For they and we are headed to the same undiscovered country as the horribly cut-up corpse that Rembrandt portrays with eerie attentiveness in The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Joan Deyman. A student holds the sawn off top of the dead man’s skull, as if it were a cup. The exposed brain is a labyrinth of pink goo.
Rembrandt learned so much from his failures, his humiliations. He learned that we are all equal. The shadows of death gather around us like the black ink that overwhelms his etching of the crucifixion – but we can be heroes in love, in truth.
Here is the human condition laid bare by a man who never painted to reassure. No artist has ever been more modern than Rembrandt, if modernity means looking with total frankness at the darkness and the light.
Jones, Jonathan. “Rembrandt: The Late Works Review – Triumph in Master’s Tragedy.” The Guardian, 12 Oct. 2014 (accessed 13 Oct. 2014). <http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/oct/12/rembrandt-national-gallery-late-works-london>.