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Light works

John Evans on an innovative exhibition shedding light on Rembrandt’s practice

24 October, 2019 — By John Evans

Rembrandt, The Artist’s Studio, c1658. Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

WHEN galleries mount shows that mark art anniversaries things do not always end happily – but on occasion something really worth­while comes to light.

So it is at Dulwich where The Artist’s Studio, a modest pen and wash work, gives a true insight into the reality of artistic life for Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669).

In the drawing, from about 1658-59, on loan from the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, we see a bare-breasted woman, positioned for a modelling session, facing the windows. To one side is a large easel and above the windows, the bottom half of which are covered, the artist has positioned a cloth to reflect more light into the studio from a high angle.

The Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibition, Rembrandt’s Light, which runs until February, marks the 350th anniversary of his death and explores his skill with light and shadow, with some 35 paintings, etchings and drawing, major international loans included.

It concentrates on his “middle period”, 1639-1658, when he lived in his “dream house” in Amsterdam, now the Museum Het Rembrandthuis.

Arranged thematically, the show itself has been atmospherically lit by cinematographer Peter Suschitzky (of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back and Mars Attacks! fame).

A stand-out painting in an opening section is The Pilgrims at Emmaus from the Musée du Louvre, depicting the risen Christ, breaking bread, seated at a simple table with a white tablecloth. Across the room is The Woman Taken in Adultery from the National Gallery London.

A section titled Manipulating Light includes etchings and a remarkable oil on loan from the National Gallery of Ireland, Rembrandt’s only nightscape, Landscape with the Rest on the Flight into Egypt, from 1647. In this we see him using complex light sources to depict the nocturnal scene with the Holy Family illuminated by a campfire which is so heavy with paint it is startling.

Elsewhere there are delicate nude studies, male and female; an etching of St Jerome, not in the wilderness but at work in a study, so dark that the accompanying lion can hardly be seen beneath the desk.

Throughout this innovative exhibition the theme is interaction.

It’s the first show to be curated by Jennifer Scott since she became director at Dulwich and co-curator is the gallery’s Helen Hillyard.

In conversation with Suschitzky, Scott notes: “With the etchings in particular, we can get very frustrated when we can’t see all the details in the darkness. But I suspect Rembrandt would have loved that.”

And she adds: “…we’re putting forward the idea that there’s a particular way that Rembrandt intended us to view his works, and we are being manipulated… it’s as if we were in conversation with him when we look really closely and react”.

So she urges people to slow down to observe more.

That said, with a new LED Bluetooth lighting system and the intervention of a cinematographer, some regulars to the world’s first purpose-built public art gallery may be unnerved by some effects.

For example, to display Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb, 1638, from the Royal Collection, in a room where the lighting “gently shifts from dark to light, emulating the dawn breaking over Jerusalem and Mary’s gradual understanding of the moment’s significance” will be a challenge for some.

Far better is the final room with beautiful oils, including the Self-Portrait in a Flat Cap, 1642, also from the Royal Collection and (pictured above) hanging together, A Woman in Bed, c1647, from the National Galleries of Scotland, Girl at a Window, 1645, Dulwich’s own, and A Woman Bathing in a Stream, 1654, National Gallery London.

• Rembrandt’s Light is at Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, SE21 7AD until February 2. Tuesday-Sunday 10am-5pm, £16.50, concessions available. 020 8693 5254, dpg.art/rembrandts-light
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