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.
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?
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
May I congratulate Prof.Van der Wetering on recognizing Rembrandt’s prime quality, that of responsiveness, which we see wonderfully displayed in “The Old Man Sitting on a Chair” and which he has finally allowed to be considered “a very important painting” and by Rembrandt.
I have put on my blog www.nigelkonstam.com
a letter I wrote to the Rembrandt Research Project (RRP) in 1988 offering to visit them in Amsterdam in order to discuss the damage they were inflicting on our culture, specifically a letter to the Guardian in response to their article “Call to bring Old Man out of the Shadows” 24 May ‘14 ioning “The Old Man Sitting in a Chair”. I was refused once (by Dr. Bruyn) but was not satisfied so got a second refusal “on behalf of all my colleagues” dated March 30th 1988. (Prof. Van der Wetering was a colleague.)
He and his colleagues have been trying to impose consistency on an artist who artists value for his responsiveness: almost the opposite to consistency. The RRP de-attributed this important painting and in so doing may be held partially responsible for the decline of modern, observed painting since.
May we dare hope that Prof Van der Wetering’s U turn marks the beginning of a return to realism in Rembrandt studies. I have ample evidence for the re-attribution of nearly 1000 drawings now distributed among his students. The principles on which I work can be found in my e-book on Rembrandt on the same website or in my article ”Rembrandt’s Use of Models and Mirrors” Burlington Feb. 1977.
Nigel Konstam 4. 7. 14
At 81 my dream of being able to restore Rembrandt to his true status is fading. I have done all I can to inform a new generation of how to go about it in my book and on YouTube. What I have been unable to achieve is the training of fresh minds and eyes to see Rembrandt as I see him. Though I have advertised courses at the Centro d’Arte Verrocchio no one has enroled. However, I feel my ship is coming home and the offer of training still stands.
There have been a number of unacknowledged victories over the years and two major ones just recently: The National Gallery has reinstated their Adoration of the Shepherds, dismissed by the RRP. Second, Van der Wetering, once leader of the RRP has welcomed back the National Gallery’s Old Man Sitting in a Chair as “a very important painting”. I vigorously opposed its deattribution at the time. I feel sure that my YouTube demonstration of “The Adoration” must have convinced someone with clout at the NG. It is still not reattributed by the RRP as far as I know.
I was the first to condemn Isaac Joudeville as a contender to have painted early Rembrandt portraits. Christopher Brown followed my lead and Joudeville has not been heard of since. (Johannes Raven has taken his place with even less to recommend him as a draughtsman.) I also insisted that Rembrandt’s Wallace self-portrait, nasty as it is, was still genuine. All of which are now accepted as true. We are just waiting for the landslide of 1000 Rembrandt drawings to return to the fold. This must happen when the scholars recognize that his contemporaries knew what they were talking about when they said such things as “ he would not attempt a single brush-stroke without a living model before his eyes” (A.Houbraken)
Here is further advice to the new generation
1. Be very skeptical of the old guard in every respect.
2. Try to get the cooperation of Scotland Yard (or similar) to check ink, paper and handwriting. (A list of instances will follow.)
3. Get an artist admirer of Rembrandt to teach you drawing every day till satisfied that you have got the point. Then once a weak, at least.
4. Study my film on Hadrian and the influence of Roman portraiture on Rembrandt and many others.
5. Study my criticism of Raphael.
6. Expect from Rembrandt observations of life as it is, definitely not idealized.
7. Beware of hubris and rigidity. Rembrandt is very varied, perhaps bipolar.
There is nothing wrong with experiment in art. We have evolved through an infinite number of experiments over a period of millions of years. It is nature’s way – natural selection must occur through the survival of the fittest. What is terribly wrong with our visual culture is the unnatural human selection that has been left in the hands of incompetent experts over the last 100 years: their background is usually literary rather than visual. They have been proved wrong so many times that they have become expert in little else but cover-up. (see www.nigelkonstam.com for a series of uncorrected fallacies in art history)
Artists are told to express their own era in art but there are many artists who intensely dislike the direction of our establishment culture today. We despise its values and art is first and foremost about values – human values. We express our own values which are also contemporary, in the hope that they will eventually be found more valuable than the values thrust down our throats by the “experts” and their allies in the mass-media.
We dissidents (“the wrong kind of artist” according to Sir Nicolas, our dictator) believe it our duty to oppose the establishment in the hope of achieving a change of heart. This has happened regularly in art before. The Impressionists in retrospect, are now seen as the avant-guard instead of the decadent lunies they were considered in their own day.
Many heroes of art tend to have been regarded as lunatics in their time. Our establishment have taken this to heart and promote lunacy wherever they find it. This has proved an unwise policy yet they persist. Readers of the Jackdaw will have no difficulty in seeing why the establishment policy has remained so narrow and stagnant for so long. The President for Life ensures a good living for his friends through government patronage, prizes and promotion. General promotion naturally follows this forceful lead, so the favoured few receive all that is available for the arts. The majority of artists (probably more than 90%) are not heard or seen in public. The lime-light of official backing is too powerful for any private initiative to break through their barrage of sound bites and prestigious exhibitions.
Certainly there have been artists who have gone mad: Van Gogh and Schumann spring to mind. In our own day so many pop musicians have gone off the rails there can be little doubt that the profession ‘artist’ is an unsettling one. Establishment critics need to find some better criteria. May I suggest a way forward.
Human knowledge tends to move forward building on past experience. Science normally progresses as a result of critical reviewing of past ideas. The same was true of the arts: Poets tend to read past poets and are influenced by what strikes them as apt for our own times. The visual arts used to move forward in the same way but have been recently diverted from this time-honour process by the experts’ desperate attempts to identify the ‘avant-guard’. Sadly, the history of these attempts does not give grounds for optimism. Genuine advance normally emerges in public consciousness well after the event. The long string of pseudo avant-guards that have emerged since WWII, lauded by critics and the mass-media should be subject to regular review. An annual show of The Tate Gallery purchases of the 60’s, 70s etc would certainly amuse thirty years later and might even give a necessary boost to the humility of the present generation of experts.
One of the main tragedies of our present culture is we rely too heavily on expert advice; even when it looks crazy. The extraordinary diversity of art in our time would be much better served if government patronage was handed in turn to a different school of artistic thought every two or three years. Leaving it up to the leaders of each school to decide how to distribute the prizes and which works of art to purchase for public collections. This would circumvent the mono-culture of the experts we are saddled with at present; it would give the interested public the possibility of enjoying the wide panorama of art that exists today but remains largely unseen.
It would save a great deal of government money if the arts administrators were replaced by part-time artist administrators, elected by each school, who would look after the interests of their school. The rivalry of the different schools would be stimulating. My guess is that better informed critics would soon emerge allied to each particular school who would make a lot more sense than our alienating “artbollocks”. Genuine public interest would be restored, which would draw back private patronage to augment and guide a new era of government spending. Sadly, The Arts Council has gone horribly wrong.
The American tax system of encouraging private patronage and perhaps 40 years later accepting prize works of art for museums (as a part of inheritance tax) is so much more sensible and democratic than our system. It gives the necessary spread of patronage and time for genuine evaluation. The wild extravagance of UK government purchases may have successfully swung the world market behind them. But leading a culture of pure greed should not be a source of pride. The world market is the least civilized ever; high rewards for nonsense has undermined morale and education in art.
We should encourage diversity; diversity is necessary for evolution. No expert can be expected to predict what will survive in art but they have certainly demonstrated their ability to knock art off course!
There is still plenty of figurative art being done today but we never see or hear of it in the media. It has been eclipsed perhaps because no one writing about art now has the experience to look at it and make sensible judgments about it. As observation has been the main stay of art for the previous 40,000 years we are clearly living through a long hiccup in a major and important field of human activity. Why?
As a student I subscribed to the growing interest in abstraction. Art seemed to be returning to an area that had fallen into neglect in the late 19thC. Brancusi and Picasso seemed to be reconnecting with an element in primitive art that demonstrates the abstract nature of thought resulting from the triumph of word and number. Human knowledge is transmissible and can therefore develop through time as a result of these abstract systems. That said, art is one of the few areas where we can confront and compare nature with what we think we see; we are often surprised. I see observed art as constructing bridges between the abstract nature of our minds and the complexities of the outside world.
The study of primitive and child art can teach us a lot about the way the mind twists the evidence. The advanced study of drawing used to recommend a number of ways in which we could learn to correct some of the loss that inevitably results from abstraction. Now alas, we have the situation where abstract art is matched with nothing. It is beyond criticism, in a world of its own. Our response to the outside world is visibly deteriorating as a result; particularly in the field of response to our fellow humans. Body-language is often misread which was once reliable and instinctive. This developing loss of touch with reality could endanger our survival as a species. (The catastrophe of Rembrandt scholarship over the last 50 years in de-attributing half his genuine works is a forceful reminder of our loss.)
This brings me to the point where I must attempt an answer to my initial question. The change in the course of art coincides with the rise of art history as a deciding power in art. Previously an artist’s fame was influenced by their standing with their peers, now it is decided by the mass-media directed by art experts who paradoxically know little of what has driven artists in the past. A paradoxical result of introducing professional art historians into British art schools is that a noble history of Man’s endeavor over 40,000 years has been cut down to the last 50. So recent students no longer feel that brotherhood of artists: that conversation with the past that frequently leads to genuine originality.
This essay was triggered by chancing upon a book on drawing “ Studien zur Gestalt des Menschen” (Urania 2005) by Gotfried Bammes. He reproduces splendid drawings by his students on various courses in the German speaking world. Such a book would be near impossible in the English speaking world, we are far too individualistic, aiming at novelty rather than that long established quality that we find here. Congratulations Herr Bammes for keeping civilization alive in difficult times!
Many illustrious artists have wrestled with such subjects in the past. For sensitivity to the quality of bone, to the articulation of the joints and the movement in space I do not think this has ever been bettered. Talent still exists but not the ability to promote it; because we have left that in the hands of a band of deluded experts. We, who do not profit from their delusion recognize it to be a ludicrous scam from which we can only lose (through our pension funds as well as the emptiness of our museums of modern art.) The vast sums spent on encouraging establishment art discourages the eclipsed majority of artists.
Value in art is now dictated by the auctioneers and their gambling clients, who are probably unaware of the damage they are inflicting on civilization.
I published my discovery of Vermeer’s use of two mirrors in The Artist Magazine in Jan.1980. (British Version) under the title “Vermeer’s Method of Observation”. Looking at his The Artist in his Studio, sometimes called Ars Pictoria I asked myself the question “how did Vermeer see himself in back view?” Two mirrors seemed the obvious answer. When I carried out the experiment to see if this was true I realized that this was his general method and this, one of his last paintings, was a cryptic description of that method. Very many of his paintings contain an area of painted cloth in the left or right foreground where his own head would normally be reflected in the mirror on his easel. The cloth substitutes for his own reflection. The second mirror has to be bigger and placed about a meter and a half behind him.
More recently (July 2011) I placed two films on Youtube where Anne Shingleton demonstrates how helpful the system is. The chief benefit is the fact that the loss of light, particularly in a 17thC mirror which uses silver not mercury as the reflector, reduces the image down to a point where light can be matched with pigment. In July 2012 I put up a third film pointing out the improbability of his use of the camera obscura as a general method. In my view he was primarily interested in light, and to observe unfocused light he was obliged to use the camera obscura, as the eye refocuses automatically.
I am delighted to see that Tim Jenison has reopened the debate but am not convinced that his explanation of Vermeer’s unique genius in judging colour and tone is better than mine. Mine is simpler and accords with the evidence in many of the paintings (particularly Ars Pictoria). Probably most important it affords Vermeer a panoramic view of the subject and the reduced image of it after bouncing twice in 17thC mirrors thus allowing him to match light with pigment. This is the crux of Vermeer’s success in painting light.
More at www.nigelkonstam.com
Many of us feel the need to make things. As a sculptor I am something of an addict. I certainly exhibit withdrawal symptoms after a few days without this addiction. It is sad that machinery has speeded and perfected so much hand work that mankind has become very short of these soul soothing activities.
Cookery, music, dance, gardening and art have to stand in for all those useful crafts that we once did but are now done elsewhere or mechanically. Only thirty years ago there were little workshops in every village in Italy making shoes , garments, even hand made cars, most of them have disappeared leaving only the disappointed traces in creative humans with no outlet. This lack of opportunity will have to be addressed as western culture falls apart. Passive entertainment is no substitute.
Art has been recognized as a useful therapy and I am the last to wish to cut off this safety valve. The democratization of art has undoubtedly contributed to the sum total of human happiness. But it has had the negative effect of reducing our expectations from a work of art. It comes as no surprise that the average time spent looking at a work of art is now 20 seconds. I have often spent less time myself. Art has become a private matter. Abstract art does not lead to the sharing of vision in the way observed art used to do.
Artists in their great moments have been the helmsmen guiding human perception; they spend their lives looking and comparing what they make with what they see in nature. But their tentative perceptions have been drowned out by the loud-speakers of a mass-media, entirely subservient to a fashion for art so meaningless that it requires no response or study.
We need an elitist art again based on observation to keep the pathways to perception from being lost. There are very positive signs that the human race is very much less responsive to its own body language than it used to be. The long running demotion of Rembrandt’s vision by the “experts” is an outstanding symptom of this disorder. It could prove fatal to humanity in the long run.