Updated: Oct 13, 2019
The screen saver on my computer’s desktop is a detail of a late Rembrandt self–portrait. The painting can be seen at Kenwood House in London. It is one of the finest of the self-portraits that Rembrandt painted towards the end of his life. As a student in London in the early 1980s, I went to the gallery and was emotionally entranced by this painting from 1661.
We talk a great deal about form in art, a concept that can be difficult to understand and grasp. At its simplest, it is making an illusion of three dimensions appear on a two dimensional surface. Artists use modelling to depict light falling onto objects, direction of line to emphasize weight and the direction of forces acting on that weight, but it is more than that, it is the depiction of how gravity presses everything onto the surface of our planet. The British artist David Bomberg wrote a small thesis on what he termed the ‘spirit in the mass’. For me, and this is my simple understanding of his writings, he states that in finding the mass, the weight, the form of your subject, you should also be finding and imbuing your drawings and paintings with an emotional response to the subject of your work, an emotional response found by working and reworking as you try and find a ‘true’ reality. Bomberg was an inspirational teacher to a generation of painters, most notably Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. (Auerbach was in turn an inspirational figure to the artist Peter Predergast (see earlier blog)
They took up the challenges of Bomberg’s philosophy and are now some of the greatest of British painters. Frank Auerbach states that Bomberg wanted his students, ‘actually to apprehend the weight, the twist, the stance, of a human being anchored by gravity’ and to attempt to ‘define their experience of matter’. Their working practice involves a process of making and remaking a work many times over. The paintings they made in the 50s seem to take on a physical manifestation of mass in their use of dense paint.
It is no accident that Auerbach and Kossoff spent many hours working in the National Gallery in London, and drawing from Rembrandt amongst others. What they found in this homage to the Old Masters was a source rich in the portrayal of human emotions, the ‘spirit’ within the forms, that are classically rendered to produce such strongly resolved paintings of weight, strength and drama.
This is where Rembrandt re-enters the discussion. The late portrait is a solid rendition of a head in space. The structure of the head is defined beautifully by the strong lighting from the left. The painting is full of precise impasto brush stokes working wet paint into wet paint to produce a fluid tactile surface charged with a soft emotional power. The picture is full of masterful strokes; they have a subtle balance of weight and direction. The body and clothes are simplified in broad blocks while the hand holding his brushes and palette is little more than a lightly brushed sketch. This allows all the focus to be on Rembrandt’s head. Here Rembrandt’s genius goes into overdrive.
Look at the curve of the forehead, aided by the fluid rendition of the painter’s cap with its diagrammatic rendition of folds and shadow. Look at the soft jowls around the mouth of the aged painter, the world weary eyes filled with wisdom and a measure of sadness.
Particularly, look at his nose. It is of course an impressive nose, the nose of an aging man. Large and round, it is a prominent feature set in space aided by the masterful rendition of a spot of light on its bulbous tip. This is a warm painting choked with emotion but not at all sentimental.
I spent a couple of hours in the 1980s drawing in a sketch book from this painting. It drew me in and the closer I looked at it, (so close the museum security officer asked me to step back) the less I could pin-point the true essence of its power.
There is a mysterious emotional strength that comes from the late self-portraits of Rembrandt, which partly comes from the fact that no matter how much you analyse such works they will always have an indefinable quality. That is probably the ‘spirit in the mass’