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The National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh (exhibition): Rembrandt: Britain’s Rediscovery of the Master

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 12 Aug 2018, 19:49

The National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh (exhibition): Rembrandt: Britain’s Rediscovery of the Master

The reviews of this exhibition sometimes play the ‘great master’ game: The Guardian’s reviewer says of the use of Glenn Brown, in the introductory curator’s film and on show with paintings based on Rembrandt works:

Who cares what Brown thinks about Rembrandt once you’ve seen his glib postmodernist exercises near to some of the most profound works of art ever created? Where Rembrandt used oil paint to probe the deepest recesses of existence, Brown creates self-conscious, fussy parodies full of perverse arabesques that stay steadfastly on the surface.[1]

Whether this be true or not, it hardly seems to get the point that this is a show not about Rembrandt but about him and his reception by audiences, including influential opinion builders like artists and collectors. The reviewer reserves his barb for Glenn Brown we note rather than confront the more numerously represented Frank Auerbach, who is harder to target. However, currently in the Laing Gallery in Newcastle, Brown is curating through his experimental art-objects the reception of the entire Laing collection, including some fine Auerbach’s and Bomberg’s.

This review is a ‘self-conscious, fussy parody’ that refuses to re-see a Master without insisting on that being entirely by their own skill and unaided insight, even via the open eyes of historical reception. Hence it may miss the point, even of Reynold’s touching up some of these masters. Fortunately, some of us try to see Rembrandt but accept views of him from elsewhere – whether by plagiarism, imitation, competition or, as in Auerbach’s case, sheer admiration of someone who has solved some of the problems raised by the problems of painting:

When I was young I felt like I was in the ring with (him) … Now I just need (his) help.’[2]

You can do worse than contemplate what Auerbach does with Rembrandt, including one modest drawing of Three Trees in this exhibition.

Yet the Guardian reviewer is correct in one respect. To see these rare Rembrandts, some not seen for many decades or at all, as well as great icons like Belshazzar’s Feast and The Mill, is to see something unbelievably marvellous. I don’t feel I need to prove though that I am sensitive to this by rubbishing Glenn Brown.

In the end, what compels is the mastery of what understanding the aging and change-through-time process conveys to Rembrandt and how he delivers that competence as a master of a style appropriate for a great subject. I could have stayed for ages in front of the tiny and lesser-known Head of an Old Man (1659) without needing to see less in A Man in Oriental Costume (1639) or the wonderful illuminations of An Old Woman Reading (1655) or the Falstaffian Portrait of an Elderly Man (1659). Of Rembrandt himself I hesitate to say more. I still feel overwhelmed.

However, reception studies of artists tell us a lot about what is seen in certain historical circumstances and how and why, if we are prepared to reflect in this way and not revert to the judgements of the ego and its pretence to ‘objectivity’. I have not before in an exhibition been so moved to feel I must review my thoughts of a painter as I have from seeing one rather wonderful Augustus John portrait inspired by Rembrandt. Rembrandt it is not, but neither is it what I though Augustus John was. Elliot (2018:51) kindly quotes John’s conclusion from seeing Rembrandt in the flesh:

‘the scales of aesthetic romanticism fell from my eyes, disclosing a new and far more wonderful world.’

All the best


Seifert, T. (Ed.) (2018) Rembrandt: Britain’s Rediscovery of the Master Edinburgh, National Galleries of Scotland

[2] Elliott, P. (2018) ‘Rembrandt and Britain: The Modern Era’ in Seifert, T (Ed) op.cit. cites this.

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