Sunday, 25 January 2015

Two Lates - Rembrandt and Turner

I went to see two 'big' exhibitions in January - 'Late Rembrandt' at the National Gallery and 'Late Turner - Painting Set Free' at Tate Britain. The Turner exhibition closes this weekend so I popped along after work on Friday since Tate Britain is only 10 minutes from where I work - so why did it take me so long to go and leave it until the last few days?

I was lucky enough to get a ticket to a private members viewing of the 'Late Rembrandt' exhibition at the National Gallery. The Gallery had only opened it's membership scheme in the autumn last year and this was only it's second members evening and I was looking forward to going. But it didn't start well. Firstly, we were kept out in the cold in the street rather than being allowed into the foyer to buy a glass of wine while we waited. Secondly, the woman I handed my email ticket to didn't look at me or smile or act remotely welcoming while she crossed my name off the list and handed the ticket back to me, all without looking at me or speaking. Thirdly, the cloakroom staff were brusque in the extreme - 'move along move along'. The human element of the evening was a complete failure.

But then there's the art and that's what it's all about. The art, yes, the reason for being there in the first place. I've never been a big fan of Rembrandt and this was a great opportunity to be surrounded by his works and see what he's all about.

Sadly, this exhibition did nothing to change my mind about Rembrandt and it only reinforced my prejudices. Black on brown with another hint of brown and some deadly nightshade black with a hint of a white collar somewhere. Repeated again and again. Was colour illegal back then or something? Some finely marked faces with incredibly fine lines etched into them doesn't make a great painting for me when 90% of it is just swathes of black or brown.

I did like a few of the paintings, such as this one, 'Portrait of Catrina Hooghsaert' who was about aged 50 when this portrait was made despite looking like 70. I also liked the parrot on the left which doesn't show up at all in this picture (but it's there, honest). I also liked some of the drawings and etchings, like the lovely 'Recumbent Lion, facing right' in, I think, pen and ink - doesn't that mane just make you want to stroke it?

'Late Turner - Painting Set Free' has been the big exhibition at Tate Britain over the last few months and it's closing weekend was bound to be very busy so I popped along late on Friday afternoon. As with Rembrandt, I've never been a big fan of Turner and generally just glance at his paintings as I walk past them in galleries. As with the Rembrandt, it was an opportunity to be immersed in his works and see whether that would change my mind. And it did.

As expected, it was incredibly busy, especially the first couple of rooms, with people milling around, forgetting they're wearing back-packs and carrying big coats against the January weather (there was a huge queue at the cloakroom so I did the same and just carried my coat).

People listening to the audio guide and peering at the paintings, chatting quietly and gesturing at different paintings, and me just wandering round and glancing right and left like a magpie hunting for shiny things but nothing attracted my attention. And then a painting did, 'Dawn of Christianity' in an ornate frame. I'm not sure what attracted me to the painting but it was the first one I stopped at, waited for people to move on and then took a closer look, seeing the holy family on their trek into Egypt on the right bank and the serpent in the river to bottom left. I like the palm tree outlined against the clouds and the deep blue sky. There was something very harmonious and relaxing about the painting, with an element in intrigue as to what was going on.

Wandering deeper into the exhibition, and paying a bit more attention now, brought me to some grand panoramic scenes that made me yearn for some lightening flashes and wild glare from a John Martin 'end of the world' scene. No such drama from Mr Turner, but he brings his own kind of drama such as this lovely small watercolour (I think) titled 'Bamborough Castle' from 1837 (properly spelled Bamburgh).  The storm and the wild, mad waves with little boats bouncing around and the majestic castle on the headland… o yes, I want this one. It's made up of course, since the castle isn't that high above the sea and it's not based on any particular event but the drama and storytelling are marvellous.

Other paintings made me stop and look twice, like 'Undine Giving the Ring to Massaniello' and 'Mercury Sent to Admonish Aeneas', a few paintings here and there. A painting I crossed a room to look at was another small watercolour 'Lake of Zug' from his travels in the Swiss Alps. The blue on blue and the sun peeping out behind the mountains, the misty depth and people in the foreground. I just had to take a look and wonder what was going on.

Being surrounded on all sides by an artists' works can change your mind about them and see things to appreciate that you haven't thought about before. And this exhibition did just that for me. I'm not a convert or a fan, but perhaps I just don't know how to look at Turner's paintings? And that's part of the problem of only seeing the exhibition on it's closing weekend. If I'd gone a couple of months ago and felt this way then I could've read a book or two and gone back to see if I'd learned how to look and see. Unfortunately I can't do that and that's my own fault. But I'll certainly look at any Turner painting differently and maybe, just maybe, I'll see them in a new light.

I learned something at this exhibition. Thank you Tate Britain and, of course, Mr Joseph Mallord William Turner.

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