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Light on a master

5 October 2006

9:10 AM

5 October 2006

9:10 AM

It’s strange that while Britain has gone fairly mad over Mozart’s 250th anniversary, with vulgarities ranging from Mozart for Babies on Classic FM to Mozart mugs on coffee mugs, etc., we haven’t heard much about possibly his only cultural peer, Rembrandt. The Germans have now put us thoroughly to shame on the artist’s his 400th anniversary.

At the Berlin Kulturforum, where the relatively new Gemäldegalerie is just across the road from the home of the Berlin Philharmonic, there are three superb commemorative exhibitions which together will lead up to a high-powered symposium on the latest debates of the Rembrandt Research Project. The main show, over two floors, has more than 80 oil paintings from all over the world under the umbrella title Rembrandt: Quest of a Genius. Apart from a judicious selection from the many German museums with significant Rembrandt holdings, there are paintings from Lille, Dublin, Warsaw, Washington, etc., and several fortunate anonymous private collectors.

Washington has contributed one of his most intriguing works, an almost painfully realistic portrayal of a ritual circumcision in which you can see and, wincingly, virtually feel the mohel’s knife. As always when you see the works of a master en masse you recognise his tics and tricks as almost old friends and yet still marvel afresh at the combination of technical virtuosity, psychological insight and wonderful, non-judgmental humanity. No one, except possibly Caravaggio, could match his juxtapositions of light and shade. Even in a relatively simple painting like ‘Young Woman in a Pearl Embroidered Beret’ you get gradations of light between the gold-set pearls of her headgear, dully gleaming, and the almost fierce lustre of the pearl necklace set off by her pale, indoor face with its cheeks pinkly flushed and a rather endearing, reddish tip to her nose, as if she had a cold. On the whole she seems a rather stodgy, if expensively accoutred, young woman, but once you’ve seen her you’ll never forget her face.

The girl was simply an oval head-and-shoulders job in contrast to an enigmatic full-length ‘Portrait of a Man Standing’, tentatively identified as Andries de Graeff, lent by Kassel. It’s a classic Rembrandt rendering of a rich burgher, lavishly dressed in opulent but exclusively black and white, with long, curly fair hair and wearing a rather nondescript glove on his left hand. What makes this arresting picture enigmatic is partly his coolly confident — even supercilious — direct, unsmiling gaze and partly his gloveless right hand loosely pointing downwards. Why is it gloveless? If you follow the direction of his fingers you see, rather crumpled on the floor, the matching glove. Why is it there? Has he dropped it or has he, as the prelude to a duel, hurled it on the floor to challenge an unseen rival in either business or love? There’s certainly something martial about both his posture and the heavily studded half-open door behind him, so that you could wonder, as so often, about Rembrandt’s sheer storytelling drive.

The exhibition boasts two Susannahs, one alone at her bath and one not only watched by an Elder, but also about to be groped by another Elder, both men so luxuriantly clothed as to explain Rembrandt’s frequent cash-flow problems because of his vast acquisition of furs, silks and brocades. The Queen has lent her Windsor Castle ‘Self-Portrait’, second in my view only to that at Kenwood. The show is elegantly hung and the lavish catalogue a treasure-trove of Rembrandt lore.

No space, alas, to detail the glories of the large, separate and also splendidly catalogued exhibitions of drawings in the gallery’s basement and prints in the Kupferstichkabinett, perfectly displayed and accompanied by engagingly frank wall notices admitting that Berlin has significantly reduced the massive number of Rembrandts it holds in these media, as modern scholarship had denied authenticity to a number of works previously deemed to be by the master, but now attributed to his pupils. Full marks for frankness but, bizarrely, no marks at all for security. I could easily have brought a couple of grenades into the painting galleries and, within seconds, caused considerable loss of life and destroyed several priceless masterpieces. But, like peaceable critics the world over, I merely took out my notebook and started making notes with an innocuous felt pen. I was immediately accosted by a guard and told to desist. My pleading in German that I was a critic was brushed aside and, when I mentioned short-term memory-loss problems and the need to write notes about the significant pictures on the wall that were ex-catalogue, I was told that if I absolutely had to make notes I should leave the gallery, write them in the entrance lobby and then come back …From the country that more or less invented Kunstgeschichte this is pure, inexplicable madness. Apart from that, these three exhibitions are a credit to Germany and a trip to Berlin is strongly recommended.

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