Jun 052012

As I grew up I had a clear idea about ‘good’ drawing based on the Italian masters, Leonardo and Raphael. A drawing should be made with swinging lines and the shadows neatly hatched, preferably done in brown ink. I guess many laymen have the same idea. I had been at art school for over a year before I came to realized that there were more exacting requirements for quality in drawing. As a sculptor I saw that Holbein made a clearer and more exact description of the three dimensions of his subject. Next I perceived that Rembrandt conveyed psychological or dramatic relationships much more powerfully than the Renaissance masters.

Rembrandt became my guru. He seemed to have a much more casual approach. He left behind him an enormous output of drawings many of which did him little or no credit but his method is so personal and advanced for his time there was no need to sign them. In fact he very seldom signed anything unless it was for an autograph album. One might interpret this as carelessness or an amazing lack of self criticism. I prefer to believe that he wanted people to know exactly where he was coming from; his strengths and weaknesses and how and why he arrived at his new conception of drawing. He was obsessed with the truth.

Rembrandt saw that to convey psychological relationships the space relationships between the players was the all important factor. Unlike the Renaissance masters he paid little attention to facial expression and made only one anatomical drawing (from an existing display in the anatomy school: the skeletons of a horse and rider).There were of course, two commissioned painted portrait groups of anatomy lessons but clearly Rembrandt did not see the relevance of studying anatomy for his dramatic purposes. The Renaissance masters were following the Greek example and art academies have followed their example. We now know that the Greek perfection of anatomy was based on life-casting not on study. In fact the flexing of muscles rarely conveys psychological relationships.

Rembrandt made a very close study of Roman portraiture (he filled two books with studies of the 30 Roman portraits he owned, unfortunately these studies have been lost.) I explain the great significance of these for Rembrandt in my “Syntax”DVD.

A fundamental characteristic of Rembrandt’s practice, which the experts refuse to even contemplate, is his refusal to invent. This is immediately obvious when we examine his drawings of flying angels where of course there could be no model, so he was forced to invent.  The crude tubular result makes one wonder whether he was not deliberately making fun of this Renaissance technique. I use the example of Isaac and Esau in my DVD to demonstrate the huge difference we must expect from Rembrandt when he has no model before him. Rembrandt believed whole heartedly in observation, “ anything else was worthless in his eyes” “he would not attempt a single brush-stroke without a living model before his eyes” so say Rembrandt’s contemporaries and they say it over and over again. This is contrary to modern doctrine and therefore unthinkable for the experts. Their mind set is based on Picasso, they want to enrole Rembrandt under the same banner.

Rembrandt is an explorer, the experts are too closely enmeshed in the market-place to understand that he is not a banal producer of art-objects that need to be consistent. Explorers often find themselves in blind alleys. Rembrandt leaves us a full record of his failures as well as his successes. It is this openness that we artists find so endearing. It is horrifying to see it being hidden from view by those in charge. His failures teach us as much, or more about his massive creativity as do his successes.

The tragedy of modern Rembrandt scholarship is based on several other misconceptions. The most disastrous is the hubris that made Benesch,  believe he could date a Rembrandt drawing to within one or two years, three at maximum! His followers behave as if they believe the same. If a drawing does not fit their proscribed scheme it is handed on to a student, often one with no proven skill in draughtsmanship. I politely disproved this stylistic approach with an article in The Burlington (Feb. 1977) which demonstrated how Rembrandt’s style varies hugely depending not on the date but on the source of inspiration: whether it was direct from life, or a reflection in a mirror, or from construction, (construction often misleadingly known as imagination). The article has had no effect. Since 1977 the destruction of Rembrandt has accelerated. By now over half his life’s work in drawing and painting have been dismissed by the experts. So instead of the outstanding genius we are left with a Rembrandt that many of his students could better.

Another laughable misapprehension is that Rembrandt drew his Biblical subjects from “an inner vision”  (Benesch) rather than groups of models in his studio, which is again proven in my article. All the documents of his life bear witness to this same fact. Some of these misconceptions have been embedded in scholarship for 100 years during which time many real masterpieces of his have been cast aside.

Rembrandt scholarship is hopelessly out of touch. It must be started over again with entirely new criteria and new eyes. Rembrandt is as crucial a turning point in the history of art as Galileo is in science. Both turned away from received wisdom and observed nature anew. To misunderstand Rembrandt so profoundly is to misunderstand the nature of art since Rembrandt.

Jun 052012

We have the date of 1915 for the publication of Heindrich Wolfflin’s ground-breaking book “The Principles of Art History”. My essay is an inquiry into who is most responsible for the consequences of the ground on which Art was founded, breaking-up – the artist or the critic?

Picasso is a convenient hook on which to hang the artists’ smock but in truth we need to acknowledge that Rodin was the first to take major liberties with the unwritten rules of western art. Rules by which marks made on a two dimensional surface can be read as solid masses existing in  three dimensional space. Rodin’s early drawings leave us in no doubt that he fully understood those rules, yet in later life he went on to take liberties with the rules of drawing as he did with the classical rules of good manners in sculpture. (His sculpture has rules of it’s own.) Many artists in Paris followed Rodin’s example but Picasso went further than anyone else in search of freedom.

Looking at Picasso’s Blue Period drawing we can again say that he fully understood the rules. Indeed he operated with amazing skill within those rules. I am looking at a dry point dated 1905    “The Washing” in which a Saltimbank mother is engaged in washing her child, watched by the father. The cat rubs himself against the father’s back with a movement around his body that is more than convincing, it is utterly cat-like. Yet the cattiness must have been the result of many separate observations rather than the prolonged view from a fixed viewpoint we would normally associate with this quality of drawing. The embrace of the mother and child is another instance of the same quality, drawn from a mixture of memories and observation. The achievement takes ones breath away.

Dry-point is a technique requiring a firm hand to scratch the surface of a plate of copper or zinc with a steel point. It has the advantage over etching that if necessary one can take as long as one likes preparing the design on the plate. With etching the surface is covered with a thin film of wax on to which one can scribe from a preliminary drawing but the wax is easily damaged so corrections have to be done with the etching needle through the wax. Whereas with dry point one could temporarily cover the naked copper with a layer of guache and go on  drawing and correcting until one is satisfied. Then scribe through to the copper, leaving the impression of dazzling, first-time, virtuosity.

I doubt whether history will ever know whether Picasso used a similar method for this work. What is certain is that he never again produced such a complete masterpiece under the old rules. There are isolated passages in his later work that remind us of his brilliance but never again the continuous modeling of solid and space displayed here.

Picasso and Braque went on to invent Cubism in which the third dimension is taboo. Cubism argues that a drawing or painting takes place on a two dimensional surface and should stick on that surface, not break through to the third dimension as tradition suggests. (Cubism is an extreme version of the then current “Functionalism” in architecture.) Picasso quickly out grew this constricting dogma but it left a stain on his art. From then on there were flashes of brilliance mixed with an entertaining richness of invention, handling and sexy subject matter but sadly not the old ambition to give form to the complex wonders of the visible.

Picasso was brought up in an artistic family. He absorbed the rules of art instinctively, so much so that he may have had no idea they existed. I myself had an art training as an adult and therefore, maybe have more consciousness of the unwritten rules. Indeed I have made an attempt to codify the rules in my DVD on “Syntax”. I believe I have defined the key role Rembrandt played in the development of syntax in art since his time. Picasso had boundless enthusiasm for the adventurous quality of  Rembrandt’s drawings, which I share.

After his initial seriousness Picasso became more and more playful as he himself recognized “I wanted to become a painter but I became Picasso”. His art is entertaining, inventive and very conscious of the debt he owed to the past. As an educator I find some of his sculptures useful and witty in making a point. Picasso had every right to behave as he did but I regret the huge influence he has exercised on the course of art for the last century.

We all enjoy play; all salute the idea of liberty but if we offered complete freedom from the rules to chess players not one of them would be interested. Chess is a game that requires intuition, foresight, flexibility and inventiveness but take away the rules and it becomes a game for infants. Sadly art has become a far less serious game since Picasso.

Where does Wolfflin come into this picture? He wrote a very earnest book. He had had an art school education which may have impressed his art historical colleagues but his book horrified me when I first read it around 1975. He did not seem to have the least appreciation of the will to explore that is the driving force behind  most serious art. He and his followers gave a strong push to the 20thC band-wagon which had gone off the rails. His influence on art criticism is as big as Picasso’s on art. As a result connoisseurship has evaporated.

Wolfflin focuses his attention on superficial style without appreciating the depth of serious exploration that prompts the marks artists leave behind on the canvas or paper in the process of giving form to the particular experience. Any practitioner could have told the experts that surface style changes largely according to what tools or materials are being used. To associate changes of style only with the development of the artist (as in recent Rembrandt scholarship) is a mistake that could only have been embraced by a mafia of heedless dilettante.

I have been offering advice to Rembrandt scholars since 1974 when I made the definitive discovery, that yes, Rembrandt used models to act out his Biblical scenes before he drew from them. This rediscovery happens to match with what his contemporaries had told use; “he would not attempt a single brush stroke without a living model before his eyes”(Houbraken). His student Samuel Hougstratten  advised “take one or two of your fellow students and act out the scene, some of the greatest masters did the same”.

But the experts continue with their absurd study of style, summarily dismissing what does not match their misguided expectations. By now they have so disfigured the image of Rembrandt that he is quite unrecognizable to those who knew him of old. They have de-attributed over half his paintings and drawings.

How is it possible that modern trumpeters are valued more highly than Rembrandt, the artist who has done more to educate our senses to the expression of human feeling than any other? We are a culture in headlong decline.

We have come to value the recognizably new because we have lost touch with the qualities that make art valuable. Art historians generally seem to value the products of the imagination above observation. They do not seem to realize that what we see has necessarily to be interpreted by the imagination using previous experience as a guide. Traditional art creates vibrations in the soul by quoting echoes from the past. Absolute newness precludes this deep communication. I blame Wolfflin and his critic followers, a lot more than Picasso. They have seized the reins of power that guide establishment art and subconsciously perverted it to something they feel capable of commenting on (see “The Painted Word” by Tom Wolfe). Recent Rembrandt scholarship is a disgrace that Art History should never, ever be allowed to forget. Art History does not self-regulate, on the contrary it blocks criticism from within and without.

See www.saveRembrandt.org.uk

Jun 052012

By definition an expert has a specialized knowledge in a limited area, normally  they share their expertise with colleagues. The danger is that should new evidence upset the assumptions of that area of expertise the team of colleagues will unite against it. How can a single outsider succeed in questioning a team as large as Rembrandt scholarship, many with honourable positions in academia and privileged access to learned magazines? He is a lamb to the slaughter.

I dreamt that my case was  so strong, so easy for the layman to understand, so much in everyone’s financial interest (only the experts would lose face), so well supported by the documents (note 1), and supported by many esteemed names within the field of Art History (note 2) that I could not fail. But in the 38 years since I made my discoveries (published Burlington Feb 1977) I have failed to make any positive  impact, save the recent return of Rembrandt’s Adoration of the Shepherds to it’s rightful position in the National Gallery. So far I have earned no more than £30 (from The Burlington) from my discoveries.

The watch-dog of the media seems to be a very sleepy watch-dog in the area of art. My book  “The New Key to Rembrandt” was first accepted by Phaidon Press (with the whole editorial board behind me) and then rejected after a truly heinous report (grossly unjustified) from an expert. Nearly 30 other publishers followed Phaidon.

I am lucky. I have spent my time in the most pleasant “wilderness” of Tuscany, pursuing my interests in sculpture, teaching and art history. My work has been honoured with a permanent museum here which includes 14 other noteworthy discoveries in art history. They also have been similarly neglected.

Can civilization survive such successful sabotage from within? It is dangerous to trust experts in art because there is too much money and prestige attached to their decisions and too little practical experience behind their supposed expertise.

1. there are few contemporary documents telling us about Rembrandt but all support my discoveries by statements such as “He would not attempt a single brush-stroke without a living model before his eyes.” “He had a wonderful talent for reproducing concrete subjects” The inventory taken of his possessions at the time of his bankruptcy also testifies to a man who created a visual feast for himself  and his students to work from. His house and furniture, are reproduced time and again in his and in his students’ works. All support my evidence.

2.Prof. Sir Ernst Gombrich was immediately active in my support. He invited a sub-editor of The Burlington Magazine round to visit my exhibition at Imperial College’s Consort Gallery, they agreed that I should resubmit my article, which had previously been rejected. It was submitted again and again rejected. Gombrich called a governors meeting in which it was agreed that he should help me rewrite the article. We did that with the further help of Dr. J Montagu, and on the third submission Benedict Nicholson wrote “ I find the evidence you have accumulated of the greatest possible interest, and so I am sure will Rembrandt scholars, who must now get down to revising the corpus of drawings.” (For the first article I had received the help of Andrew Wilton of The British Museum print-room. He reported to me that his colleague, the Rembrandt expert, Christopher White had said “ it would be very important if he could prove it”. That article was well beyond reasonable doubt. I have since added “The Adoration of the Shepherds” on YouTube, which puts the odds against it in astronomical proportions.)

Meanwhile as the result of the exhibition I got warm letters from the head of the department of prints and drawings at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Dr. M.Kauffman “ you certainly make a pretty good case for the Rembrandts”. Prof. M.Podro from Essex wrote “I am a great admirer of your whole project…your evidence is of immense importance and critical finesse”.

Of my first exhibition  Max Wykes Joyce wrote “Certainly the exhibition is a seminal one that should not be lightly dismissed”(International Herald Tribune) and Prof.Bryan Cole in  “Icon” of Imperial College “Not only do these reconstructions (many of which compel assent) cast doubt on received wisdom as far as the dates are concerned: they also imply that a view of Rembrandt’s imagination in construction as depending only on the inner eye becomes very difficult to sustain. I find myself totally convinced by Mr. Konstam’s arguments here. His feeling for the materials of the artist’s work is very strong and it would be a pity for scholarship not to profit from his imaginative researches.”

After my lecture at the Slade, Prof. Sir Lawrence Gowing wrote “I find your division between imaginative and objective much more satisfactory and comprehensible than anything before.” Sir John Pope Henessy invited me to a most cordial conversation in his study at the British Museum. We discussed the relationship between Masaccio and Donatello. I think we were in complete agreement that Donatello must have made maquettes for Masaccio in the Brancacci Chapel. (I had made a maquette to demonstrate a near perfect mirror image there. A mirror image is quite different to a print or cartoon reversal.)

When he opened my second exhibition at Imperial College Gombrich said “Konstam has prepared a great feast for art historians at which he invites them to eat their own words” That exhibition unwisely included a number of my new discoveries of artists use of mirrors: Velasquez, Vermeer and Poussin were among them. The iron curtain fell, no reviews, no letters, no sales.