This weekend John Berger will be celebrating his 90th birthday. For many people of my age, Berger burst into our lives in 1972 with his BBC series, Ways of Seeing, that with flair and imagination challenged accepted wisdom about art and culture. In the decades that have followed, Berger has enlightened and challenged me with more television documentaries, novels,screenplays, drawings, articles and essays. So today’s post celebrates John Berger, who in all the variety of his work has never ceased trying to make sense of the world, searching for a deeper, richer meaning in life and art, a Marxist ‘among other things’ whose words are sometimes those of the angry polemicist, but which invariably celebrate everyday experience and artistic expression with probing insight and subtle tenderness. Continue reading “John Berger: 90 years of looking, listening and seeing”
Guide books aren’t much use in Berlin at the moment if you’re trying to work out where to see what in the city’s main museums and art galleries. Everything is being reorganised: some galleries like the Neue Nationalgalerie – the main gallery for modern art – are closed for refurbishment, while the extensive programme renovation and reorganisation of the five monumental buildings on Museum Island and the massive project to rebuild the Berlin Schloss as the Humboldt Forum continues.
Only in Berlin for four days, we had to make some hard choices about what to see, a task made more difficult since even the most recently-published guide book couldn’t keep up with developments. We decided to make a quick visit to the Gemäldegalerie (Paintings Gallery) since it’s just a stone’s throw from the Berlin Philharmonie, where we intended to attend oner of the free Tuesday lunchtime concerts of chamber music – and because it houses treasures by favourite artists such as Albrecht Dürer, Vermeer, Holbein and Rembrandt. Continue reading “Brief glimpses of art and music in Berlin”
On 5 October 1669 the sheriff’s men are called to Rembrandt’s house on the Rozengracht in Amsterdam, fetched there by his 14-year old daughter Cornelia, his only surviving child and sole offspring of his relationship with Hendrickje Stoffels whose death six years earlier had left him distraught. Rembrandt lies dead, and there is a lot of sorting out to be done. The great painter’s final years have been marked by many misfortunes – the death of loved ones, and bankruptcy only avoided in 1656 by selling most of his paintings and large collection of antiquities. He has debts outstanding, there will be multiple calls upon whatever estate remains from both family and creditors, and there is his burial to be paid for. So an inventory must be made of the contents of the house.
Scattered through the rooms of the house were thirteen paintings, judged at the time to be unfinished. One of them was ‘Simeon with the Infant Christ in the Temple’, now judged to be Rembrandt’s last painting. Fittingly, this is the final painting in the National Gallery’s unmissable exhibition, Rembrandt: The Late Works, which I went to see last week. Continue reading “Rembrandt The Late Works at the National Gallery: unearthly brilliance”
An exhibition of Rembrandt’s late works featuring this painting, on loan from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, has just opened at the National Gallery. I hope to see it in November and, while I would not go as far as Vincent van Gogh who, in 1885, remarked that he ‘should be happy to give ten years of my life if I could go on sitting in front of this picture for ten days with only a dry crust of bread’, I am certainly looking forward to this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with great anticipation.
In the meantime, I have been transported by one of the best art documentaries I have seen on television in a long time: Simon Schama on Rembrandt Masterpieces of the Late Years, shown on BBC2 on Saturday (and available on iPlayer for three weeks). The author of Rembrandt’s Eyes was an obvious guide for a tour of the great master’s late paintings, and his survey was both informed and impassioned, culminating in a bravura assessment of ‘The Jewish Bride’ that just took my breath away. Continue reading “Simon Schama on Rembrandt’s late masterpieces”
Rembrandt, ‘Self Portrait with Two Circles’ (detail)
He was 59 yet looks, even by the standards of his time, very old. He would die four years later. Standing before Rembrandt’s ‘Self Portrait with Circles’ in Kenwood House last Sunday afternoon as crowds jostled and surged around me, face to face with the intensity of the artist’s stare, I felt myself drawn into a zone of contemplative stillness. In this large self-portrait, Rembrandt the painter has a commanding presence, yet as the poet Elizabeth Jennings observes in ‘Rembrandt’s Late Self-Portraits‘, in the gentleness and melancholy of that stare there is ‘a humility at one with craft’:
There is no arrogance. Pride is apart
From this self-scrutiny. You make light drift
The way you want. Your face is bruised and hurt
But there is still love left.
Love of the art and others. To the last
Experiment went on. You stared beyond
Your age, the times…..
As in all of the late self portraits, Rembrandt looks out from the darkness. John Berger, in an essay in The Shape of a Pocket, wrote that ‘painting – particularly in the second half of his life – was… for him a search for an exit from the darkness.’
Kenwood House is open once again after renovation, and this was the painting I most wanted to see there. It shows the artist, looking toward us, holding the tools of his trade: a palette, brushes and a maulstick. He’s wearing a simple linen painter’s cap whose brilliant white is depicted in slabs of paint slathered on the canvas thickly. In Rembrandt’s Eyes, Simon Schama wrote of how Rembrandt had here:
produced a manifesto of painterly freedom: his cap built higher with lashings of thick lead white, crowning the face still sovereign of his own studio, if not the world, the grey cloudlets of hair still curly with vigour.
There is more evidence of that ‘manifesto of painterly freedom’ in the way in which Rembrandt has painted ‘his hands, rendered as a blurred whirl of paint, slathered and scribbled, with the brushes also crudely suggested with just a few summary lines’.
Rembrandt portrays himself at work in his studio, intently studying his reflection, before turning to the canvas whose edge we can just barely discern at the right side of the painting. While Kenwood was closed, the painting went off to New York, to be exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum. In an essay for the New York Times, Roberta Smith wrote:
The work’s emotional gravity and psychic complexity underscore why Rembrandt is often likened to Shakespeare; no artist before him had painted human interiority in all its uneasy, ambivalent, conflicted glory. Again and again his portraits and self-portraits give us pictures of consciousness valiantly making its way through life. […]
The Kenwood painting is a superb example of Rembrandt’s late style, from a time when he had long forsaken the smooth-surfaced, so-called neat style of his earlier years and the Baroque compositional complexities of his middle period. The simple frontal pose and unadorned garb are about as Classical as Rembrandt gets; much of the surface exudes the painterly bravura of loose — or what the Dutch called rough — painting. The face is keenly real if still visibly textured; no one captures the play of light on ageing flesh like Rembrandt, but he abbreviated or omitted other details as needed, keeping the reality of paint and process and the reality of his subject equally before the viewer in a way that still feels innovative and even proto-modern.
Rembrandt, ‘Self Portrait with Two Circles’
Jonathan Jones,writing on his Guardian blog as Kenwood reopened to the public after refurbishment, reckoned that ‘this is a supreme work of art, the best we have’:
Rembrandt, at the age of about 59, looks at us from the depth of his years, and with the authority of his craft. He has portrayed himself holding his brushes, maulstick and palette, in front of two circles drawn on a wall. Why the circles? Do they represent a sketch for a map of the world? Or is Rembrandt alluding, with this drawing on a brown surface, to stories that say the first picture was a drawing made with a stick in sand?
His eyes contain so much knowledge and melancholy that even looking at this painting on a computer screen, I get the eerie feeling that Rembrandt is looking back and weighing up my failures. You can deduce the power of the original.
He was a failure when he painted this, a proud man reduced to poverty by his enthusiastic spending – but here he throws it back on the burghers of Amsterdam. Art is not a business; it is a struggle with eternity. Rembrandt stands not proudly or arrogantly, but in the full consciousness of the heroic nature of his work.
First there is nothing, then there is a circle. The human hand, guided by the eye and the brain, makes a mark that only we can make – there are no other geometricians but us, no other animal that can draw or presumably conceive a circle.
Rembrandt was a famous man, but, living beyond his means in the decade after he had completed the commission to paint the ‘Night Watch’ in 1642, by the 1650s he was bankrupt. He had failed to pay off the debt on the house he had bought in 1639, had not accepted any commissions since 1642, and had spent large sums building his art collection.
There is a compelling, mysterious quality to Rembrandt’s later work that derives not just from the intensity of observation and the painterly execution, but from their remarkable stillness. John Berger, in Ways of Seeing, wrote that in the later paintings Rembrandt turned the traditional purpose of portraiture – to be an an advertisement for the sitter’s good fortune – against itself:
All has gone except a sense of the question of existence, of existence as a question. And the painter in him – who is both and less than the old man – has found the means to express just that, using a medium which has been traditionally developed to exclude any such question.
‘A Face To the World’ is a poem on Rembrandt’s self portraits written in Scottish dialect by Laura Cumming:
He kent as thae een lookt at his
Oot’e the dark he made in yon picter
He lookt on a man, himself, as on
A stane dish, or leaf fa’ in winter.
That calm was his strang sough.
But in that dark twa wee lichts,
Een that is hope like lit windaes
An in that hoose muckle business.
Arriving in London that lunchtime from a chilly Liverpool, it was as if we had skipped a season: the capital was basking in the warmth of a summer’s day under skies of uninterrupted blue. The grounds of Kenwood were thronged with Londoners enjoying the sunshine after a winter of prolonged rain. We joined them, making a leisurely circuit around the grounds, with the elegant house designed by Robert Adam always in sight.
The interior restoration of Robert Adam-designed rooms, and the redecoration of a further four rooms in the 18th century style, was recently completed, meaning that visitors can once again see the paintings once owned by Lord Iveagh, the last owner of the house who donated it to the nation, along with his art collection.
The house dates originally from the early 17th century. In 1754 it was bought by William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield who commissioned Robert Adam to remodel it. This adds to the interest of the house for me, since I had been inspired by studying Lord Mansfield’s famous judgement in the Somersett Case for A-level History Special Paper back at school in the sixties.
Mansfield’s judgement in the Somersett Case came at a time when ships registered in Liverpool, Bristol and London carried more than half the slaves shipped in the world. James Somersett was a slave owned by Charles Stewart, an American customs officer who sailed to Britain for business, landing on 10 November 1769. A few days later Somersett attempted to escape. He was recaptured in November and imprisoned on the ship Ann and Mary, owned by Captain John Knowles and bound for the British colony of Jamaica. However, three people claiming to be Somersett’s godparents made an application before the Court of King’s Bench for a writ of habeas corpus to determine whether his imprisonment was legal.
On behalf of Somersett, it was argued that while colonial laws might permit slavery, neither the common law of England, nor any law made by Parliament recognised the existence of slavery, and slavery was therefore illegal. The arguments in court focused on legal details rather than humanitarian principles. Finally, on 22 June 1772 Mansfield gave his judgment, which ruled that a master could not carry his slave out of England by force, and concluded:
The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political; but only positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasion, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory: it’s so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from a decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the man must be discharged.
Mansfield’s judgement did not end the slave trade, but only confirmed that slavery was illegal in Britain. Although slavery was not completely abolished in the British Empire until 1834, Mansfield’s decision is considered to have been a significant step in recognising the illegality of slavery. As a result of Mansfield’s decision several thousand slaves were freed, some of whom remained with their masters as paid employees.
Back at school, I remember we were taught that Lord Mansfield declared in his ruling that ‘The air of England is too pure for a slave to breathe’, but in fact no such words appear in the judgement. Instead, they were spoken in court by counsel for Somersett, citing a report of a case from 1569, in the reign of Elizabeth I, in which
One Cartwright brought a slave from Russia and would scourge him; for which he was questioned; and it was resolved, that England was too pure an air for a slave to breathe in.
Painting of Dido Belle with her cousin Elizabeth, attributed to Johann Zoffany
There’s an interesting personal twist to this case. In Kenwood House there is a painting of Lord Mansfield’s great-niece, Dido Elizabeth Belle, illegitimate daughter of a captain in the Royal Navy, Sir John Lindsay, and an enslaved African woman known as Maria Belle. Mansfield was Lindsay’s uncle – and thus Dido’s great-uncle.
Lindsay sent the child Dido to live with his uncle at Kenwood. Mansfield and his wife were childless, but were already raising Lady Elizabeth Murray after her mother’s death. Both girls were about the same age. Dido lived at Kenwood for about thirty years, her position an unusual one, since she had been born the daughter of a slave, and as such would have been considered a slave outside England.
Dido was treated as a member of the family, though would not dine with the rest of the family if they had guests, only joining the ladies for coffee afterwards in the drawing-room. As she grew older, she took responsibility for the dairy and poultry yards at Kenwood, and she also helped Mansfield with his correspondence – an indication that she was fairly well educated. The running of the dairy and poultry yard would have been a typical occupation for ladies of the gentry, but helping her uncle with his correspondence was less usual, since this was normally done by a male clerk. She received an annual allowance of £30 10s, several times the wages of a domestic servant. By contrast, Elizabeth received around £100 – being an heiress in her own right.
When all is said and done, many in the social circles that Mansfield and wife moved in must have been appalled by the couple’s embrace of a woman who was both the daughter of a black slave, and illegitimate. Certainly Mansfield was so worried for her future security that he specified in his will that his ‘mulatto’ great-niece was to be considered a free woman.
- Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait with Circles: BBC audio. Curator and critic Bill Fever discusses the painting with philsopher Nigel Warburton.
- The Girl in the Picture: BBC article on the background to the painting of Dido Belle
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along
– WH Auden, from Musee des Beaux Arts
For Jem Cohen, director of the excellent film Museum Hours which I have just seen, the film’s origins lay in his love of the paintings of Peter Bruegel the Elder and his sense that Bruegel’s paintings somehow echoed his own experience as a film-maker. The film is both a meditation on art and its meaning in everyday life, and the story of two strangers who meet and gradually become friends as autumn turns to winter in the streets of Vienna.
Johann is a guard at the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum where one day he encounters Anne, a Canadian who has come to Austria to be with her cousin who she hasn’t seen in years, who now lies in hospital in a coma. Anne (played by Mary Margaret OHara, the Canadian singer-songwriter known for her unique and unclassifiable 1988 album Miss America) knows no-one in the city and wanders its streets treating the museum as a refuge. Johann (played by Bobby Sommer) offers to help her, at first with directions to the hospital and then liaising with the hospital when language proves to be a barrier and obtaining for her a free museum pass. Gradually, they are drawn together as Johann joins Anne on hospital visits, and they explore the city, talking of their lives, and of paintings in the museum.
In his younger days, before he was employed as a museum guard, Johann had worked as a roadie and managed rock bands (Bobby Sommer here drawing on his own past). His observant, quietly-spoken narration lends the film its measured pace. At the hospital, at the bedside of Anne’s cousin, Johann describes from memory paintings that he has observed closely while performing his duties in the museum – works such as the self portrait by Rembrandt, painted in 1652 when the artist was beset by financial difficulties. He describes the paintings in loving detail, saying of a picture of Christ: ‘It’s the blueness of the river and skies, bluer than I could ever tell.’ As Johann speaks, Cohen cuts to a shot of a train moving silently beside a frozen river.
This is characteristic of a film which often turns away from the story of the two strangers (sometimes for as much as fifteen or twenty minutes) in order to meditate on looking and how we see the world – as reflected both in art and our daily lives. The camera moves constantly between details of canvases in the gallery out to the street – juxtaposing the faces of passers-by with portraits in the gallery, eggshells at the edges of a still life with cigarette stubs and a lost glove on the pavement. Cohen sees both as equally worthy of contemplation: the images on the museum walls and the quotidian swirl of passers-by and detritus on the street.
Museum Hours is far removed from a conventional Hollywood narrative: the lead characters are not young and glamorous stereotypes and their burgeoning friendship does not lead inevitably to sex. There is no neat resolution to the story of their encounter, and there is no sentimentality in the scenes at the hospital by the bedside of the comatose woman. Nevertheless, this elliptical study of two adults drawing comfort from a chance relationship is engaging – made even more so by the way in which Jem Cohen interweaves their story with his portrait of Vienna street life and a meditation on the way that life and art intertwine.
Looking is the central theme of Museum Hours. It is significant how often Cohen lets the gaze of his camera rest on eyes: eyes in paintings on the gallery walls, on city signs; eyes on sculptures, and the faces of passers-by in the city streets.
In the streets and public spaces of Vienna, Cohen’s camera notices details that we might pass by unseeingly: young boys on skateboards in a park, an old woman slowly climbing a hill, a stonemason’s carving in the walls of an ancient church, abandoned drink cans in the gutter, the faces of people muffled against the cold waiting at a bus stop, boarded-up shop windows, and the faces of individuals hopefully sifting and sorting through second-hand offerings at a street market.
Jem Cohen has spoken of how much of the inspiration for Museum Hours – the way in which he places his camera in public spaces to observe people and things and watch for the random – came from the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s celebrated gallery of paintings by Pieter Breugel, with their crowded compositions and attention to the haphazard details of everyday life. Cohen has shot many of his films in a documentary mode on the street, where, in his words, ‘there’s a kind of democracy of action, with random events and details all coexisting’. Looking at Bruegel’s paintings, Cohen writes,
I was particularly struck by the fact that the central focus, even the primary subject, was hard to pin down. This was clearly intentional, oddly modern (even radical), and for me, deeply resonant. One such painting, ostensibly depicting the conversion of St. Paul, has a little boy in it, standing beneath a tree, and I became somewhat obsessed with him. He has little or nothing to do with the religious subject at hand, but instead of being peripheral, one’s eye goes to him as much as to the saint. He’s as important as anything else in the frame. I recognized a connected sensibility I’d felt when shooting documentary street footage, which I’ve done for many years. On the street, if there even is such a thing as foreground and background, they’re constantly changing places. Anything can rise to prominence or suddenly disappear: light, the shape of a building, a couple arguing, a rainstorm, the sound of coughing, sparrows…
In the film’s pivotal scene, lasting some 20 minutes or so, an art historian (superbly acted by Ela Piplits) talks to a sceptical gallery tour party about the meaning and significance of Bruegel’s Conversion of St. Paul. Cohen scripted the lecture himself, and it clearly expresses his own deeply-felt responses to Bruegel’s paintings. The historian points out that, though ostensibly ‘about’ Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, we also need to be mindful that he painted this work in 1567, just as the Catholic Duke of Alba was marching into the Netherlands at the head of an army of 10,000 men to suppress the Dutch Protestant revolt. Bruegel’s painting, she suggests, executed in a time of political repression was, like his work in general, radical, ‘more radical than they might seem.’
Saul – the figure in a blue doublet who has persecuted Christians – falls from his horse in a tiny detail shown in the painting’s middle distance. What we see at first glance, the lecturer argues, is a mass of foot soldiers and cavalry, dominated by a large horse’s arse. Bruegel, the lecturer continues, was radical for making ordinary people and everyday events valid subjects for artistic scrutiny. Though not himself a peasant, he dressed as a peasant to immerse himself in their culture. His paintings with their depiction of the small details of peasant life are ‘not sentimental, nor do they judge.’
She notes how, in Bruegel’s painting of a peasant wedding, many viewers are puzzled by the absence of the couple being married. She points out that the bride is the unobtrusive figure seated against the green curtain (the groom traditionally did not appear until later in the festivities). Jem Cohen, in an interview on Fandor has explained how Bruegel’s approach to painting a scene has echoed his own experience as a filmmaker, seeing the relationship to shooting in a documentary mode on the street, ‘where there’s a kind of democracy of action, with random events and details all coexisting’.
I get a big kick out of Bruegel. I’m not obsessed, but he’s amazing in many ways—his genuine interest in the actuality of peasant life, of street life in general, coupled with forays into the fantastic… Most of my work is grounded in the everyday, which can also be very strange, so I would hope we somehow share common ground. He decoupled landscape from being just the background for religious subjects, and compared with most of his contemporaries he pulled large-scale oil painting down to earth, into the world we all move through. I see him as a radical force, but also humble and funny. My relationship felt personal; I somehow felt he was a proto-documentary filmmaker.
In his Director’s Statement, published on the Museum Hours website, Cohen adds:
On the street, if there even is such a thing as foreground and background, they’re constantly changing places. Anything can rise to prominence or suddenly disappear: light, the shape of a building, a couple arguing, a rainstorm, the sound of coughing, sparrows… (And it isn’t limited to the physical. The street is also made up of history, folklore, politics, economics, and a thousand fragmented narratives).
In life, all of these elements are free to interweave, connect, and then go their separate ways. Films however, especially features, generally walk a much narrower, more predictable path. How then to make movies that don’t tell us just where to look and what to feel? How to make films that encourage viewers to make their own connections, to think strange thoughts, to be unsure of what happens next or even ‘what kind of movie this is’? How to focus equally on small details and big ideas, and to combine some of the immediacy and openness of documentary with characters and invented stories? These are the things I wanted to tangle with, using the museum as a kind of fulcrum.
In one of the most insightful reviews of Museum Hours, Michelle Aldredge writes on Gwarlingo:
Cohen suggests that it is not merely looking that matters, but presence–a type of looking that requires quiet and stillness and openness to the unexpected. Death is the common bond everyone shares. It is what allows us to draw a line from an Egyptian Pharaoh to a Dutch fox hunter to a tour guide in contemporary Vienna. It is presence that allows the boundaries of time and place to fall away. […]
As Johann sits with Anne by the cousin’s hospital bed and describes various artworks to the dying woman, the mere fact that Johann gives this dying stranger his time and attention imparts a certain dignity to her tragic situation. She is no longer dying alone in a hospital bed in Vienna with no friends or family to witness her passing. Impermanence is a constant, but that is no reason to withdraw, Cohen’s film seems to say.
Aldredge picks out a significant scene in Cohen’s film, in which Johann recalls a young ‘punk’ fresh out of university who had joined the museum staff and complained that the museum’s artworks were nothing more than trophies of the wealthy. He is unhappy that the museum charges admission, but Johann points out that he doesn’t object to paying admission to see a film. What is the difference?
With this simple scene, Cohen hints at a much larger topic—the commodification of culture. Without hitting us over the head with a message, he skilfully raises the question of audience and class. Is art only for the elite? What does it mean that Bruegel’s peasants are now ensconced inside of a great institution like the Kunsthistorisches? Shouldn’t artists be fairly compensated for their work? But when does compensation turn into commercialization? Who are artists working for? Themselves? Wealthy patrons? The general public? Is it right that an artist as great as Rembrandt should have so little money at the end of his life, as evidenced by his shabby clothes in a late self-portrait? And what stories do museums tell us? Can we really trust text panels and audio guides to tell us the whole story? For today’s youth, is the museum only a place to look at naked women and gore?
In an epilogue, Cohen leaves the gallery and presents us with a shot of an old woman making her way slowly and effortfully away from us up a steep city street until she is obscured by a building in the foreground. The image is framed in black, as if it is a landscape and she just a figure within it whose presence we might easily overlook.
Although I can appreciate that this slow-moving, episodic film might not be to everyone’s taste, I loved its intelligence and originality, greatly enhanced by the three central performances of Mary Margaret O’Hara, Bobby Sommer and Ela Piplits. O’Hara and Sommers apparently added a good deal of improvisation to their roles, making their characters appear truly authentic. If you are interested in art, especially Bruegel, and appreciate cinema that eschews stereotypical characters and conventional story arcs, this one’s for you.
Jem Cohen’s Ground-Level Artistry
In this YouTube video essay, Kevin Lee compares Jem Cohen’s the punk-rock documentary Instrument with Museum Hours