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Rembrandt's Women (London)

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Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BD
For general enquiries, telephone 020 7300 8000. 22 Sep 2001-16 Dec 2001.

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      08.09.2001 08:02
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      I have been described in that past as (among other even less complimentary descriptions) "a hairy ar*ed Welsh scientist", but I'll continue to argue that this does not preclude me from enjoying a number of the Arts. I find that I have at least as much sensible to say about them as most of the arty-farty set (if not more, in some cases). Unlike my elder daughter I cannot paint for toffee. My 'greatest work' in the Barry Boys Grammar School Art Department was a blank sheet of paper which I submitted at the age of 11 to represent "Work", but it was not appreciated by Doug Sutton, the Art Master, and I got a detention for it. These days of course, it would have been praised and would have been in contention for the Turner Prize (no joking ! - particularly if I was also female/willing to get my kit off/permanently pissed and had rotting teeth). OK, enough booling on, I'm here to hoist the flag for an excellent exhibition about to be flung onto the London scene. I can now be complacent and smile, because it is not essential to subject myself to the herding through the Royal Academy of Arts, at Burlington House on Piccadilly, at a time pre-ordained by a 'tickey' bought in advance. The exhibition "Rembrandt's Women" has already completed its stay at the National Gallery of Scotland, finishing on 2nd September, and is now scheduled to open at the Royal Academy on 22nd September closing on 16 December. My advice is to go early, both in the day and in the season. If you go early in the day, then you can (hopefully) avoid being chucked out early, and if you go early during the period, then maybe you will consider it worth going back. I made a 'mistake' in awaiting a visit from one of my friends from Wales, 'up to see the Festival' and then, because of his illness, waiting until the last day of the exhibition before the visit. Now, I will say that The National G allery of Scotland is by no means the best gallery for such exhibitions. I have always found it to be a pretentious building (in common with the other Playfair designs that I have visited in Edinburgh). Its lighting is somewhat lacking in imagination in the part of the building that is used for such events. In this case, I feel that the Exhibition will be even better presented at the Royal Academy. I am fortunate in that I still have the occasional dealing with the Royal Society of Chemistry and the RSC HQ is also in part of Burlington House, so that I hope to have a meeting at a suitable date during the Exhibition, so I can perhaps go for another feast. Anyway, we approached the gallery at 13.15 on Sunday last, to be met by a queue and a very friendly lady handing out brochures for the Exhibition. She informed us that it would take 30 minutes to be admitted, that the building closed at 18.00 hours, and that it was unlikely that the queue would shorten. That is the sort of information that I like ! So we read the brochure, and chatted to the others close to us in the queue, and entered about 35 minutes later. We left at 17.45. Going with someone, and chatting to others in the queue is something to be recommended. You can then continue conversations, and point out details to each other as you wander around the exhibition. Certainly this improved my enjoyment but I really must watch what I say .. A comment I made about one painting, in the manner of "...that fat tart over there ...", caused one 'lady' to glare menacingly at me. I think she thought I was referring to her .. and, shall we say, I wouldn't have fancied two falls/two submissions etc. with THAT lady, let alone the armoured goddess in the painting (see below). Thankfully Heather wasn't with me applying a restraining hand. I am not going to describe each exhibit, but just the few that I kept going back to. Interestingly, only one of these is in the 13 that are featured in the advertising brochure, so you will most likely find that your selection would be different. One of the beauties of these exhibitions in Edinburgh is that you can get very close to the exhibits, and not being on 'timed tickets' in Edinburgh, people do mill about somewhat. The Exhibition The title alone (Rembrandt's Women) alone is guaranteed to get a good audience. All the sisters will be there to "tut-tut", and all the auld lechers, too to go "Hmmmmm", and a good number of those 'in between'. Some of the exhibits are described as 'erotic', and that might persuade many old roués (who would not normally go to such events) to get off their day beds to pay a visit and have a 'peer' but, sorry to disappoint you, these exhibits are themselves no great shakes. Now, it really goes without saying that we have all heard of the painter and engraver Rembrandt, a prominent 'Old Master' and I am certain that most of us can recall at least one of self-portraits. He was Dutch, and there is a museum in one of his former houses in Amsterdam devoted to his work "The Rembrandthuis". He lived from 1606 to 1669 and it seems that during that time he lived a fairly flamboyant life, but a life that was dogged by bankruptcy and family tragedy. Suffice it to say that his family line died out within two generations. What the exhibition tries to do is to examine how Rembrandt chose to represent women over the period of his life, in some of his great works, in his sketches and in his 'etchings'. Prior to seeing this exhibition, I was aware that there were significant numbers of Rembrandt Sketches and 'Etchings', but I could not recall any images of these, and certainly none of his paintings featuring 'ladies' came to mind. I therefore approached this exhibition with a completely open mind. I had seen nothing but a short artic le about the exhibition in the main section of 'The Times' written by Magnus Linklater in mid-July. That he recommended it as a 'must' was good enough a recommendation for me. It turns out that the desire to feature such an exhibition came from Scotland. The gallery has the portrait "A Woman in Bed" and this so intrigued the curator, Julia Lloyd Williams (look you ! a taffy tart !) that she did some research about the women in Rembrandt's life and the idea for the exhibition just came from there. That she was able to extract exhibits from such illustrious collections as The Queen, the Dutch Royal Collection, and the Hermitage Museum in St Petersberg says a lot for her diligence. A total of 143 exhibits were featured in the Scotland gallery, including two from the Gallery Collection that were not included in the Catalogue. Whether or not there will be others in London cannot be confirmed yet. The magnificent illustrated Catalogue that accompanies the exhibition (£22.50 paperback/£38 hard-back) is most definitely well-worth buying since it is packed with information. I have given the catalogue numbers of each piece that I have mentioned in the text, to avoid confusion and hopefully to help readers. If possible, do as I wished I had done - buy the Catalogue first, study it to 'pick out' what you feel will most interest you. However, in saying this, in Edinburgh on the last day, they gave 'free admission' to those who bought the Catalogue, so the cheapskate in me won again. HIGHLIGHTS A Woman in Bed (Cat. 100) I have already mentioned this above, and had noticed it before in the Scottish National Gallery collection There is a certain 'freshness' about it; the bint, although by no means attractive has a certain 'earthiness' (similar to Charlie Dimmock, but without the chuckles). The Scotsman newspaper on 5th August 1929 really hit the nail on the head when it describes the painting. It suggests that you "go and look" at it " ... Do not be in a hurry; wander around the Gallery and then come back to her once more ...and once more ... Take your time. Are you not beginning to feel that you know that gentle peasant woman, and read something of the tragedy of her life....". Oh yes ! I had not read those words until I was in bed later that day, reading the Catalogue, but earlier in the day, I did keep going back. Rembrandt's Mother (Cat. 5) Now I hold a lot of prejudice against the British Monarchy, and the general lack of access that the public has to The Royal Collection is one of my greatest 'moans. In their favour, the paintings there are kept in impeccable condition. This painting is recorded as being given as a pressy for Charles 1, and the general consensus is that it is Rembrandt's mother, but as the Catalogue points out, this same woman has been used as a sitter for other painters. My own opinion is as follows. The painting is executed with such great Love that it really must be that lady. OK, her skin is flawed, with each black-head and each white-head recorded with such precision, such exactitude that I reckon the painter just loved that face .... the face of his mother with all the effects of the age and the anguish recorded .... for posterity. I again kept going back .. looking ..as close as possible, and encouraged several others to do the same. Such perfection in paint, from about 1629, I found it incredible. When you compare it with the other 'commissioned pieces', then you will not find such perfection .. they each almost seem like a pastiche in comparison. My opinion, I know, but check it out - see if you agree. And see if you can guess what she is thinking. I reckon it is along the lines of: "well. ..this is all very well Remby, but the turnips need hulling for Dinner, and isn't it about time I had tha t glass of Schnapps you promised me ..." There are also a number of sketches and etchings of his mother that are really excellent (particularly Cat. 3). Since he did a lot of teaching, then I would anticipate she was a 'cheap sitter' (" ... a bottle of Schnapps will keep her happy for a whole afternoon ..."). A Young Woman in Profile with a Fan (Cat. 19) A sketch of his wife, Saskia, is shown in the Catalogue, but not in the Exhibition (too fragile to travel). I found it a bit choccy-boxy, myself, but this portrait is just brilliant. Perfect skin, but some lines on her neck, again recorded with love .. and the details of the hair is again just so incredible. I kept going back .... Although there is some dispute of the identity, I just felt that this had to be his wife, Saskia, and it is certainly the same woman featured in some of his classical paintings. After all, using your wife as your sitter obviously is almost as cheap as using your mother ... Bellona. (Cat. 26) This was "the fat tart over there " referred to above. Wow ! Just the sort of wench that my good friend, ericisking, would have wanted at his side at that football match in Turkey (described in is crowned op "Turkish Delight"). Indeed, with just a red scarf added, she would really look like an MUFC supporter ! Described as “Bellona, the Goddess of War”, she is dressed in armour and with a magnificent shield, decorated with the head of the Medusa. According to the catalogue, this shield was in the inventory of Rembrandt's studio and is recorded a being made by "Quentin the Smith". I offer no further comment on that aspect. It was the great attention to details that made an impact on me. Apparently not greatly admired by Rembrandt scholars, so perhaps we just have different tastes in women. Ok there are a few more paintings that I enjoyed seeing, but those are the o nes that had the greatest impact on me. Sketches & Etchings A great number of these. Perhaps the most attractive are those showing children, being taught to walk, being cuddled, etc. Cats. 47 to 58, 79 and 105 to 107)), and particularly that of a 'naughty child (Cat No 52). And who can fail to smile at the look of joy on an old grand mother's face in the crude drawing "An Old Woman Teaching a child how to Walk (Cat. 106)? Erotic (?) Etchings Well, there was one (quite amusing and exquisitely etched) image of a fat friar sh*gging a milkmaid in a cornfield ("The Monk in the Cornfield", Cat. no 108), depicting the depravity of the Roman Church of the time (and since ?). Obviously such images were very sought after in the period by the Proddy's of the day. And that of a couple having a gr*pe outdoors ("The Sleeping Herdsman", Cat. 98), and a pair coupling in a bed ("The French Bed", Cat. 109) but as I have said, nowt to get anyone excited about, just a chance to marvel at Rembrandt's attention to detail, and his ability to transmit imagery so expertly with just a few strokes of his pen, his pencil or his etching tool. The wood-cuts of the earlier German artist, Albrecht Durer, have also intrigued me for the past 30 years, and i have bought a number of prints, so it comes as no surprise reading the catalogue to find that Rembrandt was a keen collector of these woodcuts. He even gained some of his inspiration from them. Anything Else ? Oh Yes, the 'intimate touches on the depiction of The Holy Family (Cat. 26A). I'll only 'wet' your appetite for that one.... Also there is a painting loaned from The Prado in Madrid. The frame on this painting is a Real Work of Art in itself. Go and seek it out. When you find it, you will KNOW. And the drawing of a scolding woman (Cat. 68) will also look 'familiar' to some (lol). Oh and thos e of you who see only the RA exhibition will miss the superb painting "An Old Woman Reading" (Cat. 121) which is from the Duke of Buccleuch's collection. If anything should make you want to vote for a party that would 'nationalise the art collections of the UK, and put them all on Public display, it is this. So there is my message. If you have any appreciation of art, or even just pretensions in that direction, and can get to London easily, then book early and go. Go and marvel. Look at the exhibits. Walk around. Go back to those which have caught your brain, your soul, as so many did mine. It is bound to be a sell-out. And those from Edinburgh who missed it when it was here .... Be Sad Be Very Sad. Oh, and the comment that makes up the title ? That was whispered by a Dutch young lady that I had met in the queue when gazing at "An Old Woman Reading" .. and that is one that you won't be able to see in London. © Sidneygee 2001

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