Rembrandt: The Late Works at the National Gallery, London

Rembrandt: The Late Works
The National Gallery, London
Sainsbury Wing

I visited this show on 20.11.2104.

Let’s get the ‘negatives’ out of the way.

There’s no other way to put it – it’s in the cellar – and was like an oversold transatlantic flight except that no one was bumped because we all were! Bumping into one another that is. There were too many people crammed into rooms that were too small and claustrophobic. Why put work of such magnificence into galleries that are the wrong scale for the work? The lighting I can understand but in the space as it is the lighting is oppressive and increases the sense of being in a dungeon. If the attempt was to replicate some sort of ersatz ‘domestic’ environment then it doesn’t work. At a full price ticket of £18.00 it’s expensive enough. If I wanted to go to a gig where I expected to be jostled and couldn’t see the stage then fair enough but not here – this exhibition design just isn’t good enough.

And yet …
In between the heads, over shoulders in the gaps in the jostling throng you glimpse the work. It’s beautiful. In his self-portraits – at any moment his lips might move a smile flickering briefly across his face. In the portraits one expects a head to turn and a question be asked.

But it’s more than that …
The work is not ‘realist’, not some ancient form of photo-realism; rather it’s about the sense of a person more than their simple representation, it provides the texture of their being. In some ways he does with the face what Turner does to the sea and land because there is both so much and so little – things left out. You can fill it in just like in a conversation where we leave out so much but still understand the ‘other’. There is space in the work for me, the ‘other’, in the visual ‘conversation’. This dialogue engenders understanding – more than understanding – it creates empathy – more than that – the connection is emotional – Rembrandt paints emotion. He is as alive in that damn cellar at The National Gallery as he was on the day his brush lifted paint from his pallet and there is joy in that. It’s breathtaking.

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