Antony Gormley: Being Human

Antony Gormley: Being Human

Alan Yentob’s film for the BBC’s Imagine strand last week made a powerful case for Anthony Gormley being one of the most original and profound of British artists at work today. In Antony Gormley: Being Human, Alan Yentob followed the sculptor to recent exhibitions of his work in Paris and Florence, and explored the influences that have shaped his life and work. Continue reading “Antony Gormley: Being Human”

Kathe Kollwitz in Berlin: the moral conscience of Germany

Kathe Kollwitz in Berlin: the moral conscience of Germany

Did any German artist confront the suffering of the first half of the twentieth century as directly as Käthe Kollwitz did? Through the years of war, political turbulence and social strife that defined her life, Kollwitz kept alive the moral conscience of Germany.

For fifty years Kollwitz lived and worked in working class Prenzlauer Berg, in the family home that also served as her studio and doctor husband’s surgery. The building was destroyed during the Allied bombing of the Berlin in 1943.  Today, the Käthe Kollwitz Museum can be found a world away, on elegant Fasenstrasse. Continue reading “Kathe Kollwitz in Berlin: the moral conscience of Germany”

Simon Schama on Rembrandt’s late masterpieces

Simon Schama on Rembrandt’s late masterpieces

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”

Contemplating the meaning of two portraits at Kenwood

Contemplating the meaning of two portraits at Kenwood

Rembrandt Self Portrait with Two Circles crop

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

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.

Dido Elizabeth Belle

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.

See also

The self-portrait: intimate truths

In Ego: The Strange and Wonderful World of Self-Portraits, last night on BBC4, Laura Cumming, the Observer art critic, presented an absorbing survey of the self-portrait.  She began with Durer’s compelling study of himself in 1500, aged 28, Self-Portrait with Fur-Trimmed Robe (above).  Durer was the first European artist to produce a self-portrait. That alone is remarkable, but in total Durer created at least ten: three paintings, a watercolour and around six drawings, including the portrait of himself at age 13 (below).  Laura Cumming began by recalling the personal significance for her of Self-Portrait with Fur-Trimmed Robe:

One summer of my childhood was spent in bed with measles. A family friend braved the quarantine bearing what she called her portable museum, dozens of old master postcards in a shoebox. Among the many portraits were some that stood out, having that intensity about the eyes that even a child recognises as the sign of a self-portrait; one was this Dürer. Too modern to have been painted so long ago, too vital to be trapped behind ancient varnish, the picture captivated me with its coldly glowing stare. It made me aware for the first time that people in paintings could be as exciting as people in life, that art could be as powerful as reality.

‘The self-portrait is quite unlike any other form of art, for it reveals the most intimate truths’

In her film Laura Cumming argued that self-portraits are a unique form of art – one that reveals the truth of how artists saw themselves and how they wanted to be seen by the world. The self-portrait has a ‘special look of looking’: the artist looks into our eyes with an intense gaze – though, of course, the artist is looking not at us, but at his own image in the mirror.  Cummings examined self-portraits by, amongst others, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Courbet, Messerschmidt,  Warhol and Wallinger, tracing the development of the genre.  I’ve chosen some highlights here.

Raphael: Self-Portrait 1506

Tintoretto: Self-Portrait c. 1546

‘He was an insomniac, painting through the night – note the pink-rimmed eyes.

Rembrandt: Self-portrait as a Young Man, 1629 (age 23)

Rembrandt: Self Portrait 1659 (age 53)

Rembrandt: Self-Portrait 1661 (age 55)

Rembrandt: Self-Portrait 1669 (age 63)

Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, 1638

Head tilting, body kiltering, Gentileschi rises to the creative moment like an action painter three centuries in advance. She could have shown herself sedately doing nothing, like most women before her. Instead she embodies her own legend as the most celebrated female artist of her time. Gentileschi wastes no time on eye contact, on social introductions, but gets straight down to work: a painter of strong women, a strong woman painter.

Jacques-Louis David, Self-Portrait, 1784

David is oppressively alone, not quite recognising himself immediately or completely in the mirror. There is a trace of bewilderment, even grievance and one imagines he has lost all sense of the brush and palette he grips so tightly. Imprisoned for his association with Robespierre in the French Revolution, David is literally in solitary confinement.

Van Gogh, Self-Portrait, 1889

A Starry Night in daytime, dazzling yet solemn, this is Van Gogh’s final self-portrait. He is of a piece with his own painting, speaking of himself in the same language he uses for fir trees and stars. The artist never quite explained how his colour effects should work, but the strange outcome of so much blue radiance here is uplifting calm. Sane and free of self-pity: the opposite of Van Gogh as clichéd martyr.

Laura Knight: Self-Portrait,1913

Laura Cumming explained that this painting was a first for a woman artist, showing Laura Knight with a nude model (fellow artist Ella Naper was the model).

Lucien Freud: Reflection (self portrait), 1985

Lucien Freud: Reflection (self portrait), 2002

Lucian Freud, Painter Working, Reflection, 1993

Lucian Freud casts a cold eye over his body in its mortal condition. Confronting his own reflection at 71, heavy workmen’s boots unlaced and flapping like the fetlocks of some hooved animal, he is a bare King Lear of the studio, a satyr or perhaps something more devilish. There is no reliance on the usual combination of pose, clothes and expression to put oneself across; identity emerges even naked. Whatever we are as human beings, we are infinitely more than our bodies. Freud brandishes his palette knife like a baton – maestro, subject and audience of his own solo performance.