Ferens Art Gallery

What does Rembrandt have to tell me?

It’s a glorious, sunny day- so what’s the first thing you want to do? Go to a gallery of course!

Gallery 4 in the Ferens warns you of low lighting, that you’ll have to allow your eyes to adjust to this dim light. This gallery lighting helps to give the same, intimate effect as looking into a sketchbook – it feels as if you are immersed in Rembrandt’s mind and private thoughts when looking at these prints. (Instead of those thoughts an artist would select and edit before placing in public view in the form of a painting – an illusion, but a persuasive one)

It feels like a sketchbook, etched and inked: there is a freshness and immediacy in the compositions and treatment of figures and things, in spite of the laborious process of gouging away at a plate.

There is always a human quality to Rembrandt’s work. His squat, cartoonish figures are on the verge of caricature – so different to the ideal of the Renaissance. (Tracey Emin’s rough figurative etchings and prints come to mind when looking at some partially-completed prints.) He brings an unflinching realism, even to the religious subjects: Dutch Protestant Pragmatism vs. Roman-Catholic Idealism? In spite of this humanising quality of Rembrandt, there remains an unavoidable chasm between us and the subject matter in lots of this work; the mythical and religious shorthand that long ago fell out of popular recognition.

The ink in these prints is the aspect that seems to link them most emphatically to now: solid, ‘sticky’, pure-black ink that, like all material, has a life outside of the purely descriptive. All life in these etchings threatens to recede into this waiting black. It is always there in the background as a separate presence.

This point is driven emphatically home in the last series of prints; as night, dark and death close in around the body of Christ over the course of two prints: one of Christ on the cross, (“The three crosses” fourth state) and another of the entombment. The second state of “The entombment”, the print chosen to ‘finish’ the show, reduces the figures within to slight things, flickering one last time in the meagre light, almost drowned in ink. The outstanding aspect of this last image is the harsh black rectangle it forms, like a Minimalist painting.

To me, these last prints are reminiscent of Turner’s and Titian’s late unfinished paintings, where the abstract and formal aspects come through – pushing subject matter out of the way and allowing us instead to wallow in the material, in the process.

When you step back out into the comparatively harsh glare of the rest of the gallery, you realise how gloomy it really was inside there. Inside was the dull electric hum of an empty gallery, and the far-off muffled sounds of people and movement. Then you come out into the street: and the shops, and the people, and the big screen is shouting at you, and you think “What can Rembrandt tell me about this?”

Art Graduate.Wannabe Artist/Writer/Bookmaker.