Sunday, 13 August 2017

Fleapit revisited:Prick Up Your Ears.

"With madness, as with vomit, it's the passer by who receives the inconvenience" - Joe Orton.

I'm not quite sure how thirty years have passed since the release of Stephen Frears' Prick Up Your Ears and I'm even more uncertain of how, as those three decades elapsed, I'd never got round to seeing it. It's not as if it wasn't raved about at the time of its release and I was quite aware of Gary Oldman (who plays Joe Orton in this story of his life and death), having travelled up to a now defunct cinema in Camden to see him as Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy just a year before.

The BFI Southbank were showing the 1987 film as part of their Orton:Obscenities in Suburbia season so I was finally getting my chance to lay this ghost to rest. But thirty years later would it have the same impact on me as it did those who saw it on its release? Would it seem impossibly dated? Do people even know, or care, who Joe Orton is now?


Well, I can't answer the first question and the third is up for debate but on the question as to whether or not it looked dated the answer is yes, it did. But that wasn't a problem. It would've looked dated when it came out in '87. The rain soaked London streets, the seedy public toilets, the now vintage police cars, and the unflattering y-fronts all spoke of the late sixties far more than they did the late eighties. There's virtually no sunshine in the film. A fair amount of it is shot in the poky Islington flat Orton shared with his lover Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina) and rarely do they venture outdoors during the daytime. Even when they travel to Morocco to enjoy some dubious, potentially underage, sex the skies seem to be permanently overcast.


Alan Bennett's responsible for the screenplay and if that comes across in the slightly dour settings it does so even more in the amount of wonderful one liners dished out by Orton, Halliwell, and Orton's sister Elsie (played by Frances Barber). There are also appearances from Julie Walters (Joe's mum, Elsie), Richard Wilson (as, I don't believe it, a psychiatrist with a poor understanding of homosexuality), Eric Richard (a man whose features are etched into the mind of anyone of my generation after a decade long shift playing Desk Sergeant Bob Cryer in The Bill), and an uncredited cameo from Derek Jarman.

But the film belongs to Oldman and, to a slightly lesser extent, Molina. Oldman, in his handsome pomp, is a near perfect fit to play Orton, his star rising at the time the film was made as Orton's was at the time the film was set. He's got the insouciance, the devil-may-care attitude, the taboo busting disrespect for civilised society, and the sexually cavalier attitude down to a tee. Witness him checking out men's packages in the park and leaving a prestigious award in a urinal as he celebrates the winning of it with a leather clad gay orgy in a public toilet so grim looking you can virtually smell the piss.

It looks fun to play. Molina gets more of a challenge. Halliwell is a frustrated, fastidious, fusspot full of insecurities and jealous about Orton's success, promiscuity, and full head of hair. He jokes that it would take him three days to plan a wank and then enviously allows Orton to escort various articles of rough trade into tube station alleyways and tower blocks for dimly lit knee tremblers.


Halliwell even joins in sometimes and it's to Frears' credit that he shows us the duality of Halliwell's character, how he's changed. We see him both as Orton's crabby, complaining house husband and, by use of a non-linear narrative, his passionate lover and a once talented, if horribly hammy, writer and actor himself. By the avoidance of strict chronology Frears and Bennett are able to paint more rounded pictures of Orton, Halliwell, and their relationship, carried out for the most part, it's worth stressing, at a time when homosexuality was still illegal in the UK.

We jump from the years of Orton's success, and Halliwell's mental collapse, back and forth to his days growing up in Leicester where his mum paid for him to have elocution lessons so he can make something of himself. A third strand that weaves in and out of the film involves American biographer John Lahr (Wallace Shawn) and his wife Anthea (Lindsay Duncan) working, posthumously, on a book about the playwright. This gives Vanessa Redgrave, as Orton's theatrical agent Peggy Ramsay, a chance to lay the groundwork for Joanna Lumley's Patsy Stone character in Absolutely Fabulous a few years later.



It's not the most interesting part of the film and when the action was on Lahr & Ramsay I was always wanting it to switch back to Orton and Halliwell and their banter, badinage, and brawling. In 2017, despite homophobia still being undoubtedly a very real thing, homosexuality is more accepted than it was in 1987 by wider society so it's unlikely this film will have quite the impact on its re-release as it did when it first came out (if you'll pardon the pun) but that takes nothing away from its brilliance.

Enjoy the jokes about East Croydon being in the countryside, pubs being so gentrified they now serve salad, and the running theme of Orton ramming his typewriter up anyone he's taken a dislike to's arse but also come to marvel at a beautifully shot, wonderfully acted, period piece that feels very very English indeed. It's a deliciously saucy seaside postcard but it's stained with the blood and barbiturates of the era too.


Wednesday, 9 August 2017

British watercolours 1850-1950:Mantra for a state of mind.

"I did not feel that my imagination was in conflict with the real, but that reality was a dispersed and disintegrated form of imagination" - Graham Sutherland.

Back in February I spent a lovely afternoon in and around Petworth House with my friend 'Raymond'. Part of the day was spent perusing the exhibition Turner & the age of British watercolour which was informative and entertaining if hardly earth shattering. The British Museum's current Places of the Mind:British watercolours 1850-1950 could easily have been curated as a direct sequel to Petworth House's slightly more stuffy selection, starting as it does on the year of Turner's death.

It follows the story from the pastoral, idyllic, pretty pretty works of the late 19c through to the rise of abstraction, surrealism, and fauvism and is, of course, contorted and smashed apart by the two World Wars that dominated the opening fifty years of the 20th century.

It takes in artists as famous as Whistler, Henry Moore, John Singer Sargent, and Paul Nash (whose 1911 work The Wanderer greets us in the foyer to the show, an eerie meditation upon his beloved Kensington Gardens and Wittenham Clumps, an area that for Nash acted as his genius loci) as well as those I'd previously been unaware of. Names like John William North, Helen Allingham, William Small, and James McBey. It's a surprisingly extensive survey for a free show but something the British Museum is, when the mood takes them, very well equipped to do.

 
Paul Nash - The Wanderer (1911)

 
Hubert von Herkomer - The Cornfield (1887)
 
The title of the exhibition comes from Cornish poet and naturalist Geoffrey Grigson's 1949 essay 'Places of the Mind' which posits that every landscape drawing is a construct of the mind and imagination of its creator, an attempt to convey not merely the physical properties of a landscape but an almost spiritual quest to capture its essence and sense of place.
 
Certainly for the first half of the exhibition the essence of these landscapes seems to be very English and very rustic indeed. Bowling greens, people digging for potatoes and thatched cottages on the outskirts of Haslemere perpetuate the myth of England as a rural utopia. Hubert von Herkomer didn't just idealise the land but the lives of those who toiled it too. He even rose, and started painting, each morning at 4am so he could be like the rural poor of Bushey where he lived.

 
George Clausen - Haystacks (1889)

 
Edward Lear - Choropiskops, Corfu (1856)
 
Though much of the early work centres around an almost mythical Albion some watercolourists travelled further. Edward Lear, more famous for nonsense poems like The Owl and The Pussycat, thought Corfu the loveliest place on Earth and Henry Stanier marvelled at the ancient ruins of Karnak near Luxor in Egypt. Others ventured as far afield as Algeria and New Zealand. Some, like co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Dante Gabriel Rossetti even crossed over into the world of legend. Witness Lancelot and Guinevere over the tomb of King Arthur.

 
Henry Stanier - Karnak (1868)

 
Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Arthur's Tomb (1855)

 
Edward John Poynter - The Approaching Storm, Lake of Orta (1898)
 
Whereas Rossetti ponders the power of mythology, Edward John Poynter's The Approaching Storm stands in awe at the power of nature. It's one of the few works in the show that could be considered sublime. Mostly these studies of heather, hay, pansies, grass, trees, and dead birds seem to hew closer to scientific study than artistic revelation.
 
Sheep farms, views of lochs, Betws-y-Coed, and the cinder path between Letchworth and Hitchen are pleasant enough but most lack the imposing majesty of Staffordshire physician Peter de Wint's study of a Scotch fir. Paul Nash is quoted as saying he saw trees almost as people (individual, dignified, ever changing) and de Wint's work seems to evince the same quality from this magnificent, yet humble, conifer.

 
Anna Airy - Spring Hedgerow (1955)

 
Peter de Wint - Study of Scotch Fir (unknown)
 
John Ruskin, whose name is writ through much of the first half of this exhibition like a stick of rock, told his many acolytes to 'go to nature' (though not pubic hair on women, obvs, he didn't like that) and they did as he said. His own teacher was the splendidly nicknamed William 'Bird's Nest' Hunt and those that followed both Hunt and Ruskin produced enormously popular work in the Victorian era that's not really stood the test of time. There's an awful lot of filler at the start of this show. It's more than made up for by the gems served up later but there are sections that are clearly for the purists only.
 
There's also quite an insight into the nepotism and incestuousness of the British art world of the time. There are works on display by Paul Nash's brother, John Everet Millais' brother, Camille Pissarro's son, and Ruskin himself's cousin's husband. Another very minor quibble is that some of the works (for example Anna Airy's Spring Hedgerow from 1955) don't even fit in to the curator's own self-imposed time frame. Peter de Wint died in 1849 so, even though his work is undated, it had to have been painted during Turner's lifetime.
 
It's a cheeky bit of artistic license and it seems pedantic of me to point it out when I'm able to glance freely at the wonders of Whistler and Sargent for an entire afternoon should I wish. By the 1880s inspiration was flowing into Britain from China and Japan, developments in the French art world had crossed the channel (along with some of the artists), and retirement into nature was being given a spiritual dimension.
 
Whistler's work horrified Ruskin nearly as much as the onset of pubarche and his criticism so stung the Massachusetts born painter that he took Ruskin to court and, surprisingly considering Ruskin's ability to call on more respected witnesses, won. Far more importantly, history has been far kinder to Whistler's work than it has to Ruskin's sanctimonious moralising. You can see the influence both of the Japanese woodblock school and French impressionism in Whistler's tiny watercolours but he's taken them somewhere else, somewhere quite new. The sepia tinged Thames at Battersea looks more wistful than ever and the Amsterdam canal, depicted at night in one of his famous Nocturnes, seems to suggest that Whistler was the first artist since Turner to really grasp what Turner was doing in his final sun dappled, almost abstract, paintings. It seems that what Turner had done for sunny days, Whistler was doing for dark nights.

 
James Abbott McNeill Whistler - The Thames at Battersea (1876-1878)

 
James Abbott McNeill Whistler - Nocturne (1883-1884)

 
John Singer Sargent - Torment in the Val d'Aosta (c.1907)

 
John Singer Sargent - View from a Window, Genoa (c.1911)
 
John Singer Sargent, though born in Florence, was another artist who'd come from The Bay State to London and he was another who used the influence of French art to put a drawing pin on the seat of the staid British art institution. Whereas Whistler had learnt from the Impressionists, Sargent, whilst acknowledging a debt to Claude Monet, had taken his cues more from the Fauvist school of Andre Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, and Henri Matisse.
 
Charles Rennie Mackintosh is now celebrated as one of Scotland's greatest ever architects and certainly its leading exponent of the Art Nouveau. But in the 1920s the poor duck was feeling undervalued at home. He felt he'd not received adequate appreciation for his architecture so he buggered off to France for a lustrum, during which time he painted the very lovely, almost Lowryesque (but with sunlit reflection replacing the soot darkened Lancashire skies) Port Vendres.


 
Arthur Melville - A Barber's Shop, Spain (1890s)

 
Charles Rennie Mackintosh - Port Vendres (1926-1927)

 
Eric Ravilious - Wannock Dew Pond (1923)
 
As Mackintosh looked in appreciation at France and Arthur Melville took a shine to Spain, Eric Ravilious cast his eye over the South Downs and Paul Nash did the same for the Cotswolds. Nash had taught Ravilious at the Royal College of Art and you can see obvious similarities in their style, the muted colours, the promise (and the menace) of nature, and an almost mystical appreciation of open countryside.
 
Nash's work was painted towards the end of World War II and Ravilious' during the pre-war period but the clouds that hover ominously over the Wannock Dew Pond had been, and were to become again, bigger, more real, and far more deadly. Joseph Pennell's Balloons over London, made at the start of the first world war, shows an already smog filled London cast into further shadow by a series of barrage balloons floating above the Thames ready to defend the capital against the Central Powers.

 
Paul Nash - Landscape of the Vale (1944)

 
Joseph Pennell - Balloons over London (1914)
 
Artists approached the war, and wars, in very different ways. Pennell lays bare the very darkness of the situation to quite chilling effect, his balloons "spread out against the sky/like a patient etherised upon a table", Henry Moore sketched Londoners in their bomb shelters but was also, like Graham Sutherland and Paul Nash, receptive to Surrealism. How else to explain the madness, mayhem, and wanton murder of war? How else do you square man's wilful inhumanity to man both in your mind and in your art?
 
William Simpson's 1857 Summer in the Crimea eerily predates Sargent's Graveyard in the Tyrol, its host of falling crosses soon to hit the ground just as an astronomical death toll was soon to hit Europe. They're both wonderful paintings, almost too beautiful to in any way be associated with the bloodletting they're inspired by. It's as if the artists have managed to find some beauty, some humanity, even in the darkest of times. 
 
 
William Simpson - Summer in the Crimea (1857)

 
John Singer Sargent - Graveyard in the Tyrol (1914)

 
Muirhead Bone - Ruins of the Chateau of Soyecourt in the Santerre (1917)

 
James McBey - The Long Patrol, Desert of Sinai (1917)
 
Other artists were less afraid of showing the destruction, the bleak open spaces, and the long days and nights of war. The fruitless trees of Muirhead Bone's Ruins of the Chateau of Soyecourt and the arid, parched, desertscapes of James McBey's The Long Patrol both ache with a yearning for home. Yet, in Paul Nash's sea walls of Dymchurch and Edward Wadsworth's slag heaps we can see that, even after the war has finished, home has changed irreparably. The architecture built for war, and the destruction reaped by it, doesn't disappear when the war ends. It stays, forever a reminder, but rarely a lesson it seems, in how easily humans can spiral down into brutality and killing.
 
Wadsworth, the supremo of seaside Surrealism, was on his way to Liverpool to work on the infamous dazzle ships when the slag heaps of the steel works caught his eye. Nevinson, one of our greatest ever war artists, also looked at the rebuilding of the nation after the war had ended. His Air Street has something of Charles Sheeler and his fellow American modernists sense of building a new future about it. It shows the construction of Piccadilly Circus tube station and the Piccadilly Line that would run through it.

 
Paul Nash - Dymchurch, Sea Wall (1925)

 
Edward Wadsworth - Slag Heaps at Leeds Steel Works (1920)

 
C.R.W. Nevinson - Air Street (1924-1926)

 
Henry Moore - Crowd Looking at a Tied Up Object (1942)

 
John Craxton - Churchyard (1942)
 
Within less than 15 years the world was at war again and this time death and destruction must've been joined by even more disheartenment and disillusion than before. How could this happen again? Will this carry on for ever?
 
Henry Moore showed a mob staring (in awe?, in supplication?, in disgust?, it's not clear) at a rather phallic looking object that's been restrained for either its, or the mob's, own good. We can all see what it is but, like the war, none of us can work out why, exactly, it's happening.
 
John Craxton didn't send out mixed signals. The gravestones that populate 1942's Churchyard were soon to be joined by ever younger corpses as the war ravaged the continent, and much of the world. Picasso's Guernica is undoubtedly one of the strongest, most powerful, pieces of war art ever made and it was to him that many of the modern British artists looked. Keith Vaughan claimed that "what Picasso did to the human figure, Graham Sutherland (Vaughan's primary inspiration) is doing to the English landscape". Sutherland may've ripped, scarred, and mutated the rolling green fields of England but he could never do as much damage to the landscape, the country, and the world as the Nazis had done.


 
Keith Vaughan - The Wall at Ashton Gifford (1944)

 
David Jones - Eric Gill's House at Ditchling, Sussex (1922)

 
Eric Ravilious - The Red Cottage (1927)
 
The pleasant bucolic settings of Eric Ravilious' Red Cottage and David Jones' depiction of Eric Gill's Ditchling abode (remarkably free of natural light as if to show the darkness of the renowned paedophile's heart) had given way to tombstones, false idols, and meditations on a paradise lost. By the time Peter Lanyon made 1949's Portreath (in black chalk and grey wash so not strictly a watercolour, tsk), apparently about the decline of the Cornish mining industry, we'd moved almost fully into a violent abstraction not dissimilar to the works of Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, and the Abstract Expressionists that were becoming such a force in America.
 
Michael Rothenstein's Essex Landscape was rendered only slightly less savagely, Bedfordshire's John Tunnard was another who was inspired by Sutherland's Neo-romanticism and he later went on to include satellites and moonscapes in his work as if to escape the mess we've made of this planet and start afresh elsewhere. Henry Moore (and this exhibition is something of a revelation to those of us who were hitherto only really familiar with his work as a sculptor) takes inspiration from the Italian metaphysical painter Giorgio de Chirico as well as the prehistoric monuments of Stonehenge and Avebury.

 
Peter Lanyon - Portreath (1949)

 
Michael Rothenstein - Essex Landscape (c.1942)

 
John Tunnard - Projection (1941)

 
Henry Moore - Two Upright Faces (1936)
 
But in the build up to, and in the aftermath of, the Second World War it was Surrealism that, according to the curators of this exhibition, really took hold. Inspired by Sigmund Freud, microscopic life, theories of biological development, the sculpture of Barbara Hepworth, and the Spanish Civil War the works of Cecil Collins, Reuben Mednikoff, Ralph Maynard Smith, and John Banting took on fluid, alien, gauzy qualities that hark back to forebears like Constable, Cotman, and Turner (there's a small section devoted to these antecedents) but also look forward to future developments in watercolour proving it not to be a dead, dusty, form to be preserved under fingerprint smudged vitrines but a living, breathing, media as easily changeable as that of the pigments in their water based solutions themselves are.
 
This alluring survey of the form started off slowly, but as with the advent and development of first the railway system, and then the motor car and the road network, soon spread its tentacular arms out into all corners of the British (and beyond) art world. There wasn't even time to cover Edward Burne-Jones, Arthur Rackham, John Minton, Samuel Palmer, Spencer Gore, Ben Nicholson, or even the 'primitive' Cornish fisherman, scrap merchant, and boat painter Alfred Wallis (all featured in this show) so rich and deep was this overview. I came away both educated, entertained, and, somehow, simultaneously energized and exhausted. I hope, in some small way, my write up has the same effect on you.

 
Cecil Collins - Seashell, Mysterious Joy (1936)

 
Reuben Mednikoff - October 2, 1938, No.4 (1938)

 
Ralph Maynard Smith - Better Be Yourself, Make Your Own Music (1948)

 
John Banting - The Orator (1937)

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Fleapit revisited:The Big Sick

What if you fell in love with someone and you knew your family wouldn't approve? Not only would they not approve but they'd very likely disown you for letting one of the most normal, and pleasurable, things that can happen in life happen to you. That's the premise of Michael Showalter's The Big Sick. That and how would the relationship between your potential in-laws and yourself play out when you have a girlfriend in a coma?

I know. I know! It's serious. But this is, to all intents and purposes, more a romantic comedy than a weepie or a medical drama. I'm an emotional man, a romantic at heart, so, naturally, I wept - but most of you will probably be made of sterner stuff. Though there were laugh out loud funny scenes the emphasis was more on the rom than the com which, as a Judd Apatow production (think Superbad, Bridesmaids, Anchorman:The Legend of Ron Burgundy), wrongfooted me a bit, but in a good way.

Stand-up comic Kumail Nanjiani plays himself, in a story loosely based on his real life, as a Pakistan born, Chicago based, Uber driver who spends his evenings performing fair-to-middling stand-up and trying to catch a break. His family are of fairly traditional stock, introducing Kumail to a series of potential brides in the hope that he, like his brother Naveed (Adeel Akhtar who's previously appeared in Four Lions and The Dictator), will accept an arranged marriage and find love that way.

Kumail, though always respectful and with clear and deep wells of affection for his family, can't bring himself to think this way. He doesn't want to be a doctor or a lawyer, he's given up praying, he drinks wine, and he's only gone and fallen for a white girl. Emily (Zoe Kazan) is based on Kumail's real life partner Emily J.Gordon who co-scripted the film with Nanjiani. She's a trainee therapist with a kooky streak that instantly wins Kumail's heart even if it takes a while for either of them to admit their true feelings.


Romance on the screen doesn't really work unless you can believe in the characters and Kumail and Emily's relationship is both credible and sweet. From the witty banter the night they meet, to his slightly awkward attempts to mansplain 70s British horror comedy The Abominable Dr Phibes, and those quiet moments cuddling on the sofa. The film does a great job of condensing the intensity and the serotonin highs of the early weeks and months of a new relationship.

But Kumail's inability to reconcile his love life with his family life, or prioritise one over the other, leads to predictable difficulties and eventually they go their separate ways, though it's made very clear that they still love each other. Just as Kumail's comedy career starts picking up he gets a call from Emily's friend Jessie (Rebecca Naomi Jones) to tell him Emily has been rushed to hospital.


Kumail heads straight there where he meets, for the first time, Emily's parents. Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano) are up from North Carolina to be at their daughter's bedside. They're one third Darby and Joan, one third at war, and final third some kind of comedy double act. During the long hours, and days, spent by Emily's bedside and around Chicago Kumail gets to know Beth and Terry, and Beth and Terry get to know Kumail. Awkward questions about 9/11 (which gives Kumail one of the film's funniest lines) are replaced by genuine affection and it's great credit to all involved that this is never allowed to get too schmaltzy.

Tears may outweigh the laughs but the film always seems to strike just the right balance of each. Kumail is excellent throughout and Zoe Kazan's Emily is always an equal and never a foil. Romano and Hunter reveal themselves to be fully fleshed out characters unafraid of their all too human flaws. Kumail's family don't get too many scenes that aren't based around the table of their big house in the Chicago suburbs yet Zenobia Schroff (as Kumail's mum, Sharmeen) manages to make a Muslim mom that could've appeared straight out of central casting endearing and layered and Anupam Kher (Kumail's dad, Azmat) seems to be ever keen to show the fictional Kumail where he got his comedy chops from.



Backstage at the comedy club we get to meet Kumail's mates CJ (Bo Burnham), Mary (Aidy Bryant), and the hapless, hopeless Chris (Kurt Braunohler). They help a little with the exposition and developing the plot but essentially they're there to support Kumail emotionally using the tried and tested method of ripping the piss out of him at every given opportunity. Bar one heckling 'jock' at a stand-up night there's not one unlikeable character in this film.

That's not a problem at all. In life we surround ourselves with people we like but that doesn't mean we don't sometimes fall out, or that things are easy, or that we don't have stories to tell. This is a heartwarming, charming film that manages to say things about race, misunderstanding of different cultures, and the different ways different people (even in the same family) choose to assimilate when they find themselves in new environments. Jordan Peele's Get Out used horror to denude his anti-racist message of self-righteousness. This film has put comedy, equally successfully, to very similar ends.

Far more than a film about race, however, it is a film about love. The love between lovers, the love of family, and the fear of what happens when we realise we may lose the person we love the most. Appropriately enough, I loved it.


Sunday, 6 August 2017

Low lands, high art.

You won't be surprised to read that I've visited the National Gallery many times (there are blogs on Delacroix, Chris Ofili, and Australian Impressionism to prove it) in recent years but I'd not descended into the bowels of the building for many a year. I'm sure last time I did there were just toilets and cloakrooms there but it seems like they've now opened up a series of new, far less busy, galleries down below for those who find their extensive collection does not, somehow, slake their thirst for great art.

I'd gone down there to see a small two room exhibition dedicated to the 17c northern European artists Peter Paul Rubens and Rembrandt Harmenszoon von Rijn. It would be a chance to compare and contrast two of the biggest names of that century's art world but there wasn't a lot of information available, we don't get to find out if they ever met for example, so any visitor would have to do a lot of the work for themselves.

Rubens was, by 29 years, the elder of the two and, to all intents and purposes, the more wordly wise of the pair. Rubens was born in 1577 in Siegen, then in the Holy Roman Empire and now part of North Rhine-Westphalia. As a young man he travelled in Italy, spent time in Antwerp, and carried out diplomatic missions to Paris and London on behalf of the Spanish Habsburg rulers. Rembrandt was born in 1606 in Leiden and died 63 years later in Amsterdam. In all that time he never once left the Dutch Republic.

You can see it in their art. Rubens' large allegorical paintings are imbued with bright colours, sunshine, and are often set outdoors. Rembrandt's work is more sombre, painted with a muted, often deathly, palette and, more often than not he sets his paintings either indoors or with virtually no recognisable background at all.


Rembrandt - Self-Portrait at the Age of 34 (1640)

They certainly make for odd bedfellows and there's an underlying suspicion that the National Gallery have mounted this exhibition just because they can, because they own all of these paintings. It's free to get in though so that's fair enough.

Dark and introspective Rembrandt may've been but he did not lack for confidence. His 1640 self-portrait borrowed the pose from Titian's Man with Quilted Sleeve from more than a century before, as if to say that he, Rembrandt, was the equal of any of the great Italian painters. Unlike Rubens he may not have visited Italy but he was very much aware of the work of the Italian masters.

He was also generous, if brutally honest, when painting the portraits of others. The Trips were a powerful merchant family from Dordrecht but Rembrandt didn't flatter Jacob Trip, his physical frailty rendered by delicate, almost impressionistic, brushstrokes. Trip's wife, Margareth de Geer is given the rare, and remarkable for a woman of the 17th century, honour of being painted in a frontal pose, perhaps revealing her to be the true power behind the Trip curtain.


Rembrandt - Portrait of Jacob Trip (c.1661)


Rembrandt - Portrait of Margareth de Geer, Wife of Jacob Trip (c.1661)


Rembrandt - The Woman Taken in Adultery (1644)

In 1644's The Woman Taken in Adultery Rembrandt devoted a good two-thirds of his canvas to blurry yet imposing architectural detail to create a sense of humanity being dwarfed both by the places they find themselves in as well as the emotional situations they find themselves in.

With the portrait of his younger (by 20 years) lover Hendrickje Stoffels, Rembrandt is zooming in again. Stoffels had initially moved in to Rembrandt's house as a maid and nurse to Rembrandt's son Titus but that relationship got an upgrade fairly quickly. Hendrickje had to appear before the church council for 'living in sin' with Rembrandt and had to admit she had 'committed the acts of a whore with Rembrandt the painter' which got her banned from receiving communion. A non-punishment for a non-crime if ever there was one.


Rembrandt - Portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels (1654-1656)

There's a perfectly understandable intimacy to Rembrandt's depiction of Stoffels that's completely, equally understandably, missing from Rubens' 1627 portrait of Ludovicus Nonnius. Love and lust are replaced with respect and admiration and rightly so, Nonnius was the one of the first ever physicians to recognise the importance of a healthy diet and, to highlight his greatness, Rubens has included (to the left of Nonnius) a bust of Hippocrates, the outstanding Greek physician often referred to as the 'Father of Modern Medicine'.

There are swans, magpies, sheep and all manner of flora and fauna in Rubens' A Shepherd with his Flock in a Woody Landscape. It lightens the tone of an otherwise shadowy exhibition but it serves more as a preamble to the first of Rubens' large historical/allegorical canvases. Minerva Protects Pax from Mars is a riot of colour, satyrs, and breast milk. It was presented to Charles I by Rubens when he was in London negotiating a peace treaty between England and Spain.



Rubens - Portrait of Ludovicus Nonnius (c.1627)


Rubens - A Shepherd with his Flock in a Woody Landscape (1615-1622)


Rubens - Minerva Protects Pax from Mars (Peace & War) (1629-1630)


Rembrandt - A Woman Bathing in a Stream (Hendrickje Stoffels?) (1654)

Even with the acknowledged influence of Rubens, Rembrandt, for the most part, kept things insular and personal. If it's not Hendrickje Stoffels tantalisingly lifting her smock to paddle in the shallows it's a very good likeness. It was painted the year that Stoffels gave birth to their daughter Cornelia.

Rembrandt never got to see Cornelia become an adult as fifteen years later he was dead, buried in an unknown grave in Amsterdam's Westerkerk. The self-portrait, below, was painted in the last year of his life and you can see in his face, a resignedness, a kind of world-weariness. It almost looks as if he felt it was time to go.


Rembrandt - Self-Portrait at the Age of 63 (1669)


Rubens - Belshazzar's Feast (1636-1638)


Rembrandt - An Elderly Man as St Paul (c.1659)

The elderly man Rembrandt painted in the guise of St Paul looks equally tired, pensive to the point of exhaustion. It's a far cry from his painting, more than two decades earlier, of his wife Saskia von Uylenburgh (in the guise of Flora, the Roman goddess of spring, there was a huge taste at the time for rustic imagery and themes). Saskia's father was a top lawyer, burgomaster, and one of the founders of the University of Franeker, and an artist was seen as socially no match for her yet it was Rembrandt's family that refused to attend the wedding.

Three of their children (all of them except Titus) died soon after birth and Saskia herself succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of just 29. When Rembrandt fell in love with Stoffels he was unable to marry her because that would've meant sacrificing Saskia's inheritance, it'd been left to Titus but Rembrandt had been given permission to use it should he find himself in penury - which he did. In fact the straits he found himself in were so dire he sold Saskia's grave. Further tragedy struck Rembrandt when Stoffels, too, died prematurely. She was in her mid-thirties when she became one of the many thousands in Amsterdam to fall victim to the Black Death.

No wonder Rembrandt's paintings were so dark but when feeling sorry for him try to remember that between Saskia and Hendrickje he took another lover. Geertje Dircx was hired as a wetnurse for Titus but, true to form, became amorously involved with the painter. The relationship broke up acrimoniously and led to a lengthy court case for 'breach of promise' (a euphemism for seduction under the promise (unfulfilled) to marry) in which she claimed maintenance from Rembrandt. Rembrandt was none too happy about this and had her sent to a house of correction for unstable behaviour.


Rembrandt - Saskia von Uylenburgh in Arcadian Costume (1635)


Rubens - Samson and Delilah (1609-1610)

As Rembrandt's life, and work, became darker Rubens' work remained infused with the light of southern Europe. From Italy where he'd travelled, and been inspired by Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto, to Madrid where he was based between 1628 and 1629. Like Rembrandt, though, he was fond of a younger woman. In 1630, at the age of 53 Rubens married Helene Fourment, the sixteen year old daughter of an Antwerp silk merchant. His first wife, Isabella Brant - a mere fourteen years his junior, had died four years earlier.

Rubens painted portraits of Fourment but there's none in this show. Instead we have Belshazzar's Feast which tells the story, from the Old Testament's Book of Daniel, of God writing 'God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it. Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting' in Hebrew thus prophesying the downfall of Belshazzar, the co-regent of Babylon who died when Babylon fell to the Persians in 539BC.

Samson and Delilah is better still. The skilful use of chiaroscuro nods to a knowledge of Rubens' near contemporary Caravaggio and, perhaps, of the geographically closer Utrecht Caravaggists. Samson, a Hebrew fighting against the Philistines, has fallen in love with Delilah who has been bribed by said Philistines. He's fallen asleep on Delilah's lap and, having told her the secret of his strength, his uncut hair, she oversees a young man taking the scissors to it. The room is mostly lit by a candle held by an old woman to Delilah's left which casts the Philistine soldiers to the right of the painting into a semi-darkness Rembrandt would've approved of. The painting is rich, almost too rich, with symbolism. Witness the statue of Cupid with his mouth, rather than his eyes, bound, and the hair snipper crossing his hands in a sign of betrayal.

One historical theme Rubens turned to time and again was The Judgement of Paris. The fleshy buttocks of the goddesses have surely done more than anything else to bequeath us the adjective Rubenesque. It's a celebration of earthy carnality for sure but Rubens seems to enjoy having it both ways, using the picture as some kind of morality tale as well. Paris judges a beauty contest but after being unable to decide which of the three goddesses was the most beautiful clothed decides they'll need to strip off to convince him further, yeah - right! This makes randy old Paris choose Venus because of her more overt sexuality and, in choosing sexiness over true beauty, somehow, confusingly, becomes a factor in the start of the Trojan War. The story's confusing, and many different versions are told obfuscating it further, but the painting is accomplished, iconic, and luxuriously devoted to the pleasures of both paint and human flesh.

You can see why Rubens was such a big hitter at the time but, to our more modern eyes and sensibilities, it's easy to understand why we now place more stock in Rembrandt's intense gaze and almost psychological profiling of his sitters. Two artists that are really quite different but genuinely, to the credit of the curators, complement each other. I came away with a better understanding, and a deeper appreciation, of both of them.



Rubens - The Judgement of Paris (1632-1635)