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.

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