by Richard Rhodes, Editor of Canadian Art
The following text is from a talk given to the AGO Curators’ Circle
Art Gallery of Ontario, Monday February 22, 2010
Rembrandt gave us the modern face, the face in performance, alive with natural movement, like the furrowed crease of a brow in this image. In his etchings he gave us faces that erase the time gap between now and the 17th century. We connect on direct recognizable terms. Perhaps he is practicing a character in a painting. Or perhaps the process of looking in the mirror and scratching the image onto a plate is part of a dialogue with himself. The eyes look for resolution, a release from anger, or maybe it’s an answer they expect to find in the mirror.
Now jump ahead 18 years. This is Rembrandt’s last etched self-portrait; he is in his mid 40s, halfway between the curly-haired dramatic youth of the first portrait and the rumpled ruin that looks out from the last great self-portrait painting. He’s seen his wife die and two of his three children in infancy. His private life is a wreck and he is about to have his lover, the wet nurse of his surviving son, committed to a madhouse to make room for a younger woman. Bankruptcy is soon upon him. It’s a waiting face. There’s added weight around the shoulders and the point of view is pushed back so that there is space between him and the mirror. It’s a scrutinizing space that he closes with an edge of level defiance in his gaze, a tired defiance of himself.
We could go on and on here but the point is that Rembrandt’s etchings are available to our projections into them in ways that other 17th century art isn’t. This is his gift and it why we still look at him. We feel a human continuity, a recognition of subjects that were once alive the way we are alive. His paintings can get in the way of that immediacy. So much brown soup and staginess—and bible stories we don’t remember anymore or never knew in the first place. But the etchings escape this datedness. They have a freshness that never seems to abate.
I’m sure the AGO didn’t know when they asked me here tonight, but Rembrandt’s etchings played a big part in sealing my fate. For an eleven year-old in Winnipeg in the early 1960s an exhibition of Rembrandt etchings would not have been a big lure except for the fact that it was an excuse to go to the new mall at the other end of town and that it was attached to a personal appearance by the Hollywood horror movie actor Vincent Price, a three in one deal. Four in one if you counted the new bed for my younger brother. In any event, Vincent Price came to Winnipeg to show his art collection at Sears. In those progressive times Sears Roebuck had hired Price, who was a collector and an art student before he was an actor, to tour North America and pitch Sears’s new in-store art gallery which sold art selected by Price. If you type Vincent Price and Sears into Google Videos you can actually watch a sales staff promotional film, hosted by Price, for Sear’s Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art. I knew none of this at the time. It was just a Saturday, we were at the Mall, my parents were buying a bed and I got to see Vincent Price, who seemed very tall even though he was far away. He said a few words in a crowded room and shook a few hands.
I got in line with the people who moved along the walls in front of the pictures. Eventually I arrived at some black and white drawings that were about a story I knew. They weren’t drawings of course, they were etchings, variations on a crucifixion scene, with figure outlines better than any I had seen in a comic book and scratchy, angled, criss-cross lines that were capable of pulling light out of shadows. Eventually my mother came and found me. I went home and started on a cross-hatch mania that lasted the eight years between leaving Winnipeg to go back to Montreal for high school and then to Toronto for art school, where I spent much of my first two years in and out of the print shop with etching plates.
A few years ago I saw the same images again in a bigger show of Rembrandt’s etchings at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. It felt like coming home. This time though I was taken with how crowded they are. With how Rembrandt takes a bible story and turns it into a people story, a social story, a story about how the many are gathered and implicated in the changing grey tones of a falling spotlight. At the Morgan you could track this out in other images, like the way the dark shroud spreader here has a dominant role in the foreground along with the reaching hand that acts out the business of being alive in the near presence of the dead face of Christ. It’s a burial scene that speaks its religious content in a vernacular voice. It’s the same here with the interactive crowd and the distracted dog. It could almost be an illustration for a Dickens story—Or here—with the window gawkers and the democratized crowd of equally scaled figures, the bound Christ among them. This is a people’s bible with Piero della Francesca and Caravaggio in the background with precursor editions.
But let’s get back to those Rembrandt shadows and the life within, and how they are part of the nature of etching. Is there a medium that delivers better blacks? Seurat made a pretty good case for conte crayon on textured paper in his amazing silhouette drawings but the inked etching plate offers a special kind of constructed black, a black with history and time and duration built in. Here is a nativity scene made all the more potent with its engulfing black. Or this picture of an old man reading. The built shadows of a dark etching are alive. They are their own memento mori which is one the reasons why a number of artists with serious humanist intent have found their way to etching—like Goya, like Hopper, like Freud. Its blacks are an existential partner in their work, a tonal touchstone. I think one of the main reasons for this gravitation is that etching uniquely allows for the possibility to work with dark themes without being consumed by them. Rothko should have found etching. His paintings ended up eating him alive, which is one of their attractions for us.
What we forget in looking is that the darkest of etchings is paradoxically the lightest of drawings. The tones happen in reverse like a photographic negative. As the needle carves into the dark ground, the brightness of the metal plate shines through. The more lines, the more shine. The artist may be working towards the pitch black of night in a lowly stable but the drawing itself begins to possess the brightness of a star, the one that’s nowhere to be seen in Rembrandt’s etching. In its preparation, the etching arrives at light, which is a gloriously lovely metaphor for the criticality and contrariness that is part of the humanist paradigm.
Even light-toned etchings have a special whiteness, due partly to the spaciousness that resides in the needlepoint greys and partly to the imprint of the plate that gives the surface dimensionality and a doubled sense of touch—hand touched with the thickening and thinning lines of the drawing, plate touched with a precisely defined surface that carries an imprint at its edge. Just look at a corner of this small etching. Compare the white of the paper to the stained white of the surface area. These are whites of different kinds, the inner one invites the imagination; the outer one belongs in the practical realm of size, care and value. The inner white communicates with semantic value, symbolic value. It is not just paper. In another remarkable print in the gallery Rembrandt runs through a full gamut of darks and lights in a single, unfinished print. Brenda Rix tells me that these unfinished exercises were prized by collectors and served as calling cards of the artist’s expertise.
What’s arresting now though is the proximity we see to Picasso’s Minotaur etchings from the 1930s that link to the style of his neoclassical drawings of the late teens and 1920s. The lines are heavier, the cross-hatching looser, but in both prints the white unfinished space communicates a kind of innocence, a detachment in character from the greys of naturally rendered light—it is a detachment or separation from the norms of passing time, in other words, from history. The result is that Rembrandt’s white female figure belongs to a different world, She seems like a visitation, a night ghost. In the Picasso there is the same disjunction. The two figures—one and half actually—are cocooned inside the contours of sex, a world that is on the cusp, when the woman awakes, of turning into a confrontation with brute power, horror and myth.
One of the interesting aspects of the show downstairs in the gallery is to watch Lucian Freud turns this whiteness around. There are all kinds of affinities in the themes that Rembrandt and Freud address and the show is laid out in terms of these connections. But what I come away with are the differences between them, the shifts in attitude and sensibility that make Freud so clearly contemporary in way the Rembrandt can never be.
In fact, in a way that even Freud’s compatriots are not. Here is a Frank Auerbach etching. There are times when I think that Auerbach, a fellow London School artist, is a more significant painter than Freud but in his etching his nervous, unstopping, finding line circles a point of view that gives us a heroic subject and a spirit of sympathetic altruism. Not Freud. His own self-portrait revels in wreckage—look at the mouth—and hides the eyes to deny us the direct contact that Rembrandt was so insistent on. We are left, in this case, with dirty whites and blocked interiority. Let’s remember that this is Sigmund Freud’s grandson, and his work has an aspect of family rebellion that downgrades notions of psyche in favour of sociology.
There’s a whole series of portraits in the show that are tight-fisted with individuality. The portraits carry names but Freud’s patchy drawing style wins out every time to subsume the person into a broken look. A mood of off-hours casualness gets us beyond a passport photo into a studied nearness where the perception of flesh takes precedence over personal narrative. His subjects are all immediacy. They have no story to tell. They are just aging within conventional appearances, bearing their bone structure and style adoptions under a hard contrasty light that seems to bounce off their skin with the forensic clarity of camera flash. This rendering adds a level of duress to all of the faces and raises an interesting tension where normality comes with a blanket of anxiety. He must have been a familiar with Diane Arbus.
In other faces, Freud exercises subtle domination with points of view aimed down onto his subjects. Sometimes they are actually reclining, other times just subtly lowered within the picture frame. But the result is a slightly slack air of an entropic decline. When he switches to landscape it’s the same. Here he is having fun with reference to a mighty Constable English Oak; here it’s an impressionist view, only angled down into a maze of garden foliage; here the spiky coarseness of a thistle turns monumental.
One of the most compelling contrasts in the exhibition comes with these two etchings, which are near reversals of one another: a front view, a back view, a Freud, a Rembrandt. Here’s where you see the turn around in the white. Freud’s white reads as glare. It bounces back, it’s isolating, it adds enough uneasiness to wonder about the woman’s comfort with her pregnancy, or the human warmth of the world she finds herself in. In the Rembrandt the white sheet is an invitation to the woman. It is a draw to soft light and a gentle sleep; it’s a magnet that pulls us in, not Freud’s push away.
The difference between the etchings represents a change in vision, a change in subjectivity. It charts the passage from a confident humanist vision in the 17th century to a skeptical, ruined humanism at the end of the 20th. Freud is a poet of lostness and isolation, and of a dark shift in imaginative light. His etched whites entertain a prospect of obliteration. In symbolic terms they might as well be black and he makes us carry that contradiction in our heads as we look. This is the interiority that’s otherwise missing in his work. He makes images that have a dead-endedness to them. This opaqueness, arrives and ends at flesh and its glare registers as a harsh wisdom. It’s a light and a world that Rembrandt never knew.
The images downstairs are richly engaging on these terms. We see two artists, far apart, brought close by a show that concentrates on what they share in their attachment to the human story.