Oct 162014

Dear Prof. Bruyn,

I thank you for your letter of March the 7th 1988 in spite of its uncompromising tone and failure to answer any of my questions.

While I must agree that out views are incompatible I do not see that as a good reason for refusing discussion. On the contrary, we might learn a great deal from discussion. For example we believe that the world is round as a result of weighing evidence that once seemed improbable and certainly incompatible with beliefs, which were very firmly held. The fact that after 14 years Rembrandt scholars have failed to come up with any viable alternative to my third question suggests to me and others that my answer is correct.

You are persisting in a dangerous and costly course in the face of a massive vote of no confidence which I can more or less reproduce in front of any unbiased audience. Furthermore, every artist I have ever spoken to is with me, so are many members of your own profession – at what point are you prepared to reconsider your position?

I have not yet heard from Prof Van der Wetering. I still hope to receive a more open mind response from a scientist. As I am not satisfied with your answer I will be writing to other members of your team individually.

Yours sincerely,

Nigel Konstam

Oct 162014

There are a few artists left in the world who regard Rembrandt as the supreme draftsman. I am one of them; fortunate enough to have reached visual maturity before the Rembrandt Research Project had started swinging their hatchet. I see it as  my mission to convert as many as possible to this important belief.

The theoretical experts have, alas, shown themselves to be beyond the reach of such re-education. Let us leave them with their pathetic “leaner fitter Rembrandt”. I therefore speak to artists and laymen many of whom will, I believe, be able to follow the arguments with ease. I well remember as a school boy being attached to the drawing of Raphael, Leonardo and Michelangelo and wondering why Rembrandt could not do the same.

Rembrandt’s style of drawing is very unlike that of the Renaissance masters. It is very much freer on occasion, which has led scholars to speak of his short-hand, this term is entirely appropriate. The question is -  how does he manage to convey so much with so little? For anyone who is not blinkered by an obsession with ’stylistic analysis’ (like the scholars)  can see that Rembrandt is a master of psychological and dramatic relationships in a way that the Renaissance masters never equaled.

When it comes to studies of the nude Rembrandt usually falls below those masters who studied anatomy in depth. His interest was in conveying the spirit, mainly of biblical occasions. (He did two commissioned group portraits of anatomy lessons with scientists in attendance, and one drawing of a skeleton horse and rider but otherwise, contrary to Italian practice, showed no special interest in anatomy.) “He was taught by nature” meaning – what he personally experienced by looking carefully and with his special interest. Those of us who still look to Rembrandt as the supreme master do so because of his responsiveness to what he saw. It is the key to his genius. He seems to see afresh every time.

Contrary to the scholars who seem to believe that he drew his biblical compositions out-of-his-head (foolishly misnamed ‘imagination’) I believe he assembled groups of live actors in his studio to act out all his biblical scenes (as described by his student Hoogstraten and as a theatrical producer might do today.) This is his method; first to act out the scene, choose the moment and the view-point and then draw.

Having spent most of my adult life as a student of Rembrandt and having discovered his use of live models and mirrors in1974 I am in a position to explain why many of his drawings are ‘run of the mill’ when he is drawing from a reflection, and even less well realized when he is constructing out-of-his-head. According to Houbraken anything that was not observed from nature “was worthless in his eyes”. This statement is a very foreign idea to scholars so they have ignored it. Yet it is corroborated by many of his contemporaries and visible in many Rembrandt drawings. Often he seems to be positively making fun of the Raphael method of construction (see for instance his flying angels). Many of these drawings are no longer accepted by today’s scholars as by Rembrandt.

As a result of this oversight scholars have de-attributed over half the drawings which to me are quite obviously by Rembrandt. (I believe in about 2200 extant drawings by Rembrandt. They believe in a mere 500). Also, instead of the patron saint of visual truth that I see in Rembrandt; they see a disreputable painter/dealer  (most often compared to Andy Warhol in the press) who apparently signed works by his students.

How do I explain Rembrandt’s genius? Firstly by his mastery of intimate space, by which I mean that space that is created between individuals in dramatic or psychological situations and which is the main indicator as to what is going on between them. The Renaissance masters relied upon gesture and facial expression, which are important but Rembrandt as a draftsman, though he studied his own expressions in a mirror in early etchings, rarely relied upon facial expression for his effect. He used what you can take in from a distance: the related body language, which is too subtle to be invented, it has to be observed.

How do I explain Rembrandt’s original method of drawing? It is three dimensional geometric drawing derived from his study of Roman portraits. My book “Sculpture, the Art and the Practice”explains in detail how the Romans copied their original (terracotta) portraits into stone. (see – the analysis of a bust of Hadrian. Rembrandt owned 30 Roman portraits and filled two books with drawings from them.) I also explain the difference between the Classical Tradition and the Alternative Tradition in my book. The classical is useful for invention; the alternative more sensitive for precise observation.

The Alternative Tradition (a name I had to invent because the distinctness of this tradition had not been recognized before). It is derived from Roman geometry. A huge swathe of  western art is constructed in the Alternative tradition but I think I am the first to outline its special features and understand from where it comes.

Holbein is the clearest example of drawing with this method. Rembrandt expanded Holbein’s geometry to incorporate space as well as solid. I believe that this is the secret of his unique ability to convey the psychological essence of a relationship. That intimate space had to be observed. He realized that anatomy was irrelevant to his purpose. His refusal to go to Italy to imbibe the classical tradition, his independent spirit, relying on his own experience rather than on tradition is what we should value most in Rembrandt.  He is the instigator of a new, more subtle tradition. When will the experts open their eyes to that marvel?

Oct 022014

Prof. Van der Wetering, recently leader of the Rembrandt Research Project (RRP) enthusiastically told The Guardian (May 24th’14) that the deattribution of “Old Man sitting in an armchair in the National Gallery was “a vast mistake…it is of wonderful quality and revolutionary in a sense…a very important painting”. As one who had written to the RRP in 1988 about this very painting asking if I could come to Amsterdam or preferably invite them to my collection of Rembrandt maquettes with mirrors in Tuscany to dissuade them from this sacrilege, I was all agog. In 1988 they had refused my offer twice; Prof. Van der Wetering was a member then.

What had produced this Pauline conversion? I have just read his article in the June Burlington and have to admit myself somewhat disappointed. The same pointless and misleading art historical nonsense about style, fitting this painting neatly into a pigeonhole for 1652. If you can believe it, one of the reasons for the deattribution in the first place was that the hands of the Old Man do not match.

While the Old Man’s right hand on which he leans is fairly standard, his left hand rests on the arm of a chair, and is painted with a first-time breadth and accuracy that takes ones breath away. I and many painters of my generation regarded it as the holy grail of painting along with “The Wading Woman” (Hendrickje in1654) also in the National Gallery. That hand was so felt, it had  that loss of muscle-tone, the bones fell about the chair arm as only such an old hand could do. It could not have been further from an idealized hand by Van Dyck for example. No wonder he was criticized “ it is rare to find in Rembrandt a beautifully painted hand” (Houbraken). This is a masterpiece of observation and empathy.

The X ray (seen in the Burlington) shows that the initial sketch needed but the slightest touches to adjust the top of the hand to balance it perfectly on the knob of the chair. (If Auerbach had achieved such fluency he would be dancing on cloud 9.)

Well, Van der Wetering uses the unmatched hands of the Old Man to compare with the unmatched hands of “The Girl Sitting in a Window” in Stockholm, which happens to have been painted in 1651. Such bathos! Of course her hands do not match. One is tucked so deep under her chin that what we see is her wrist not her hand. The other under her elbow, could well be sited as a badly painted hand by Rembrandt.

I no longer look forward to Van der Wetering’s completion of the RRP’s promised 6 volumes. Nonetheless I salute his courage in changing his mind, thereby undermining confidence in his and the RRP’s work. In fact many years after my initial invitation he came to me with a group of students for a whole day of instruction on the art of drawing and Rembrandt. At the time (perhaps 2008) I thought nothing had penetrated.

Nigel Konstam 24 8 14