Rembrandt is one of those rare artists like Michelangelo, Picasso and very few others who breaks the bounds and goes beyond all rivals in three different mediums. His achievements in the cold, dull realm of printmaking are perhaps the most astonishing of all. He found there ranges of tone so varied and extensive it is like colour, a world so full of shades you can’t feel there’s anything missing, and so to talk of black-and-white seems almost obtuse.
One of the earliest etchings in the little exhibition of his prints and drawings now at the British Museum, a large, showy Raising of Lazarus, made me wonder how he (or anyone else) could ever go beyond it. The lighting effects are so startling, the gestures though exaggerated so confident and so clearly set off from one another. A single action becomes a whole series of them. The later Rembrandt might cringe at the idea of making the main figure three times the size of the others, but we’re not having such thoughts now, caught up in marveling at the richness of light and dark tones jostling each other so energetically.
Ten years later he does the raising of Lazarus more quietly but with greater intensity, on a smaller plate with a reduced tonal range. Gestures are less dramatic, if they show up at all. Facial features are almost too small to pick out, but the tilts of the little figures’ heads are powerfully expressive instead, thrust forward, drawn back, lowered, turning aside—all these and more are employed in this small print. Christ isn’t even looking directly at Lazarus but slightly downward, pondering.* Has anyone ever done a human group with such attention to the varied states of everyone in it?
This is a modest example, yet yields so much, modest but radical in the allotment of space, bolder than the early Lazarus in its use of blank spaces—all the active figures are confined in the lower left-hand quadrant; Lazarus is almost pushed out of the picture. Two blank spaces run almost the whole length of the scene; it is one big grave.
We want to claim that Rembrandt outgrew his obtrusive early virtuosity, and he did leave behind the showy Baroque kind, but he never ceased some form of virtuoistic display, though, as Artaud said of van Gogh, he was by the end in a different region from normal human perception, a place where he didn’t perhaps expect anyone to follow, doubtless a strange way to talk about two of the most popular artists in the whole history of art.
Even in the more thoughtless Baroque phase Rembrandt is capable of great delicacy and quiet richness, as in this sensuous nude, given a mythological twist by the shadowy rapist lurching out of the shadow, Jupiter and Antiope. Rembrandt was prone to make jokes of classical subjects—who could ever guess that the embarrassed middle-aged nude dipping her feet in a pond was Diana at the bath? But Jupiter is hardly there in the present picture, an afterthought, Rembrandt’s way of acknowledging a vestigial embarrassment at catching his model asleep, after what activity, not before? Yet the figure is raised by the classical reference and her languor could not be bettered. In a way hard to explain, the idea of Jupiter gives us permission to savour a wonderfully lengthened moment.
Certain subjects recur in Rembrandt, one of them an encounter between a young man and an old one, like this father and his prodigal son no longer young. Why is this awkward meeting so beautiful, framed on one side by emptiness and on the other by unwanted bystanders kept at bay by narrow stairs which effectively confine them? There is no shortage of feeling, rather an excess, and the complex platform sets them off as on an altar. The space is like an allegory of their situation, which they have surmounted, at least for the present.
I have just realised that the lead figure on the right is carrying shoes and a coat, bringing them for the semi-naked prodigal, a dose of everyday reality, just what this artist revels in: in every twist of the father’s sleeve, in the creases in the stone steps, in three different arched openings, in headgear and shoes and every one of the endlessly varied lines cut by the graving tool.
Another young man holding a whole cohort of old ones entranced with his tales, like Christ among the doctors, but this time Joseph recounting his dreams to the other prisoners, a subject easier to give a comic twist, in part by clothing them all in Egyptian finery. It is an exercise in filling up space, and he does it most ingeniously, including a bedroom setting as in Genesis, a kitchen visible in a slit at the edge and a dog obliviously licking itself. Joseph is the brilliant invention of a novelist, a little businessman who is believable as the soon-to-be administrator of the whole Egyptian harvest.
I suppose this counts as a comic scene too, though making light of the fate of humanity in this present world seems shallow in the extreme, yet what result do you expect to follow from leaving the spiritual destination of the world to the sagacity of inexperienced newlyweds? Rembrandt is an unstoppable storyteller and Eve is one of his best inventions, her frailty signaled by letting the snake-dragon loom over her, by her bowed shoulders and a head drawn in like a tortoise, by her wonderfully trustful and mistrustful expression: she is used to listening to Adam yet she can’t accept what she is hearing. But it’s the vulnerability of those hips and knees, something that makes this an extremely lovable creature who can’t be blamed for what she has done. The couple are wonderfully lit in a big keyhole of light which is about to close in on them, and on the frolicking elephant, tiny in the distance.
Rembrandt did old men repeatedly, St Jerome most often. He also had a strange fondness for old stumps which he saw (or anyway showed) as sheltering diverse forms of life and as in that way sponsors of youth. The outlandish disproportion between the saint and his tree expresses a truth but also functions as a kind of camouflage: the wise man disappears in the undergrowth and his lion knows to do the same.
The best of all his renderings of his favourite saint puts Jerome in a wide landscape, not in flat Holland but precipitous Italy. It’s the gentlest, richest vision, of a long serpentine ridge with the lion standing, curved, on the turning point where it swoops downward, man and beast, stillness and movement, action and contemplation, yet of course the lion doesn’t move either, just expresses movement with the swerve of his body. The saint vanishes or hovers like a mirage, conveying that there aren’t any saints or lions in Italy, except if you think there are, or while you think there are.
The highlight of the exhibition was the pairing of different stages of the same print which showed how flexible or molten Rembrandt’s idea of his subjects became, increasingly as he got older. The most startling transformation was performed on one of his largest prints, a rendering of the Crucifixion known as The Three Crosses which began as Rembrandt’s most complex crowd scene, with the turmoil of two dozen figures forming a hollow circle around the three crosses, something like Bruegel’s in Vienna, but seen from much nearer. At first it was done in drypoint, a technique Rembrandt increasingly favoured, which creates powerful but blurry effects because the this tool works more like a gouger than a sharp pen. So there’s something rich but impressionistic about the rendering of figures, and he concentrates on the architecture of the scene, controlled by strong lighting which makes an apse-like structure that incorporates all the figures into a single vertical space, with an effect murky and tumultuous at once.
Then Rembrandt went to work on it, erasing some elements, like one of the two prominent figures in the foreground running away, and adding others, like the tall figure on horseback wearing a strange three tier-headdress like something out of Uccello. The right-hand thief has become a black smudge and the dense right-hand group a blur. Strangest of all he has added strong diagonal scorings leading out of the picture toward both lower corners, matching the rays coming down from above in the top half of the picture, so that now you have a single explosion caused by the crucifixion, as if there’s been a great discharge of energy, an electrical phenomenon we would say if that were not pure anachronism in the age of Rembrandt.
Now a universal darkness has fallen on the whole scene except for a couple of weird flickers to the left of Christ. The air has been sucked out of the world along with the light, leaving it flattened and shrunken by the diagonal forces pulling downward, a space unreal, visionary, as if we’ve retreated into a mental realm, hugging the suffering depicted to ourselves more intimately.
Darkness had always had a strong aesthetic appeal for Rembrandt, particularly in prints. Colour disappears as darkness falls, and he liked pushing to the moments when less and less is visible, sometimes almost as a prank, to see how little he could get away with showing and still have a picture, but more often with serious purpose, to find out how much you could take away or occlude and still keep the whole surface tense with the expectation of meaning, which might need to be searched for, but was there to be found. Earlier, darkness might just signal experiment; later, solemnity appears more often. In the year after The Three Crosses a smaller Descent from the Cross by torchlight appears, in which the body of Christ occurs twice, once as a crumpled corpse, and again as a blank sheet. His shroud waiting for him on a stretcher at the bottom of the picture has such a strong presence it’s as if there are two of him, or two moments both present in the single image, which there’s an old instinct (familiar in many medieval narratives) to include within one frame.
The sheet is so characterful, contains such subtlety of outline and feature, that it seems a depiction of a collected, resolved and tranquil state of mind, like a washing away of all the kinks and twists of everyday human character—to become a blank sheet again, a certain ideal conception of what happens to the individual at death. The prominence given to this empty container is preternaturally strong and purposeful–at the front and bottom of the space, yet canted away from strict horizontal, a relaxed, not a rigid disposition, one of the most beautiful details in all of Rembrandt. After all the toil and trouble, peace; after hideous cruelty, a slate wiped clean.There’s a further, more resolved stage of the same process in the revised plate of the Entombment from the same year. Revision here has consisted of removing much detail by darkening it, while allowing faint suggestions of the main spatial divisions to remain, not quite consistently, to give a grand general sense of the entire space while narrowing the focus to a few of the figures formerly visible (in earlier stages of this print) and only to selected fragments of those who remain. The details that are left have become more precious: they are all that there is: expressions simplified are more solemn, surrounded by gloom they sink deeper into the viewer’s consciousness. Christ is the least evident of all of them—can that be right? Earlier it was even possible to overlook him, not now. In some technical sense the scene is lit by a candle which we cannot see, but that is an explanation we think of afterwards. Our first impression is that Christ’s limp body emits a strange glow, unnaturally intense like a firefly, the only point of light in the night sky, which is to say that in death he compels us more than ever. You can describe this effect to make it sound simple, and so it appears, but what it is still more, is focused, and wonderfully so, and it arises from Rembrandt’s understanding of human responses, and of the play of light and its absence, which is all brought to bear on a small stretch of inked paper, most overwhelming in those parts where nothing is there, no ink, just paper, the very instant when the artist’s absent hand is felt most of all.
*Other impressions of the small Lazarus change Christ’s expression, which becomes less meditative.
The print of the late Descent from the Cross by torchlight shown here is a counterproof, in which the blank of the shroud is paler but stronger.
Rembrandt: thinking on paper at the British Museum until 4 August 2019