Chiaroscuro

Upon arriving at the Rembrandt exhibition at the National Gallery I realise that much of its content are familiar; I’d seen the drypoint engravings in an exhibition earlier in the year at the Cluj ethnographic museum. The contrast with the paintings is revealing though; in the engravings Rembrandt finds himself torn between realism and a more abstract style. Figures are often placed next to windows that are filled in with detail in one version before being swamped by light in another. In some of the scenes, different versions oscillate between being flooded with light and being plunged into darkness. The paintings show a typically Dutch love of surface detail in their depiction of cloth textures, feathers or jewellery with the paint is often applied in thick sculptural globs. While the foreground of his paintings is brightly lit, the background descends into murky gloom; the ame sort of chiaroscuro technique as Caravaggio but coloured in russets and browns. The subject matter in the exhibition varies wildly, from portraits (an entire room is filled with self-portraits), a solitary equestrian portrait, the group portrait of the syndics to scenes from mythology like martyred saints, Juno and Lucretia through to a gruesome anatomy lesson. In one case, two paintings of Saint Bartholomew are painted in a highly similar style but the subject is completely different; one an older man who looks like a contemporary of the painter, the other a younger bearded man more typically emblematic of such paintings.

The following week and there’s a similar exhibition at the Tate, dedicated to the later works of Turner this time. The subject matter of Turner’s paintings varies wildly from mythological scenes through to depictions of social and economic history like steam trains or the break-up of the Fighting Temeraire.  The same sort of tension between what would be called realism and impressionism emerges here as in Rembrandt’s work; for example, the cityscapes like Regulus depict much of the scene with the same sort of detail that John Martin or Gandy might have shown it, but much of it is also swamped out the light from the sun, dissolving that section into mist. Finally, I visit the Ashmolean for its William Blake exhibition. Its interesting to see Blake set in the context of printmaking and engraving, as with the contemporary drawings from the exhumation of Edward the First in Westminster Abbey or reproductions of works by Hogarth and Rubens. Amongst other things, I’m particularly struck by Blake’s engraving of Laocoön and his sons; with Blake’s credo written around it, it rather reminds me of contemporary works by Grayson Perry. The exhibition also dwells on Blake’s influence on Samuel Palmer and George Richmond. There’s also a smaller collection of work by Joseph Bueys; after that, I go for a walk around Oxford, having a look at the church of St Philip and St James and new Biochemistry Building.

 

 

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