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The naughty step; Authorship

I don’t plan on doing this regularly, but I really do feel the time has come that some comment was made on one of the most ubiquitous, certainly one of the most annoying, ideas that are around these days. I happened to have been looking for something to watch the other day when my eye happened to rest on a program asking what would seem, on the face of it, to be a weighty question: How much of ‘salvator mundi’ did Leonardo Da Vinci really paint?

Now, you might think that a perfectly fair question. It might, indeed, seem odd for me to be complaining about this. After all, there’s precious little space devoted to actual art on our TV schedules these days, and people are watching programmes about art. That’s a good thing, surely? Well, yes and no. Yes, because we stand some chance of extracting ourselves from the mire of infantilisation that we seem to be lurching into if we take some interest in real works of art, and also no. No, because by perpetuating thoroughly antiquated notions of what art is and what it’s about, we only make the problem worse. My own tastes, I admit have been heavily informed by documentaries about artists. A love for, say, Rembrandt, is only deepened the more one knows about him.

But why, oh why, must we keep asking stupid questions? Why must we believe that every single stroke on Da Vinci’s canvasses was made by the great man himself? Does it change in any way the pleasure that we take in looking at his work? Does it fundamentally alter the nature of the image? No. Obviously not. Granted, it helps to have an appreciation of the technical possibilities that were available to an artist at the time, but the truth is that almost all art is made by and for groups of people. The only example of a work of art that genuinely was the work of one single person at one time that I can think of offhand is the Sistine chapel, and surely that proves the point? The fact that one artist is known to have painted the whole thing himself makes the Sistine chapel virtually unique. And yet, this cultural myth persists that the artist must be the sole author of his work. The truth is that personal involvement in every stage of the creation of a work of art is not, and has never been, the rule in the creation of a work of art in any age other than the most recent. It’s a peculiar cult of authenticity that developed around work of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and it continues to be used to denigrate and cheapen any work of which we are not ‘supposed’ to approve.

And why? Why does this question have any importance? The personal authorship of a work of art only has any significance in the mind of a person unable to appreciate it. It’s a way for the kind of cultural pygmy that our educational system all too often produces to be able to venture an opinion, however fatuous, on a work of art that he does not personally enjoy. “Oh, Picasso didn’t really paint that”. Well, neither did you, you fatuous imbecile.

If you like, I’ll tell you how much of Da Vinci’s painting was actually made by Da Vinci himself, and it’s an answer that should delight the kind of people who ask this sort of question; None of it. That’s right, none of it. Da Vinci’s paintings remain his work whether he painted it or not. Now does that change anything? Does that effect your opinion, you miserable little goblin? The attitude persists that repeating the images, or the methods, of another artist makes one an imitator. It doesn’t. The history of images is the history of appropriation. Picasso is said to have made a remark to the effect that inferior artists imitate, while great artists steal. That’s the point. Art belongs to everybody. Each generation, and each artist, has the absolute right to use an image, or a type of image, in a new way unique to their own time and their own practice. In reality, this sort of thing is a vehicle for the sort of box-ticking that enables one to accrue cultural brownie points in the era of the bucket list. It’s like those people who crowd in front of the Mona Lisa, camera in hand, and interpose a lens between them and it. Really? You’re going to travel all that distance to see a work of genius and then put your camera between you and it? Why? It seems to me you could just as well have stayed at home and done that. There are colour reproductions in books these days. The only reason to go and see it for yourself, in the flesh, is so that you can know for yourself what the image is really like. To interpose a lens between you and it is to render yourself a consumer of the image rather than a participant in the world of interpretation and appreciation that surrounds it.

And, let’s be honest, all that this really does is to propagate the cult of authenticity that people like John Berger and Walter Benjamin have spent so long trying to deflate. I, personally, am of the opinion that it is well worth going to see these things for yourself. But the point is, you shouldn’t have to settle for just taking my word for it. Or anybody else’s that matter. So stop asking who really painted it. It doesn’t matter. It’s like those episodes of the antiques roadshow (for all that it’s a perfectly good TV program) where an object is supposed to be linked to such and such a historical figure, Napoleon Bonaparte or what have you, and suddenly the value of the object skyrockets due to its provenance. It’s cheap, and it’s culturally dishonest. The whole point of going to see real art is to find out what another person thinks and feels, to see this experience translated into physical form in as immediate and visual a way as possible. To try and experience, through the physical form of an object, an appreciation of the thoughts and feelings of others. To suppose that the identity of the person who made such and such a mark on the object is of crucial importance is to miss the point, and not only to miss the point but to miss out on a crucial part of the whole experience.

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Carmarthen school of art degree show 2019

Well, it’s that time of year again. Going to the degree show as an interested observer is a quite different experience once you’re definitely out of the art college, and this year’s show is a strong one. No offence, incidentally, is intended at all if you’re not in this post. I’m afraid that with a show this diverse, all that I can do is pick out a few personal favourites and try to create an impression of the show. The whole show has a wonderful, intuitive feel to it this year and you actually feel drawn around the exhibition by the way the whole thing has been hung. There is interest everywhere you go. Deborah Kerrigan’s work, a space created to show a series of short films, for instance, is a work of genuine power. The beat of the metronome in the background becomes a metaphor for the passage of time, I suppose. Each second is felt, and the flaring matches become powerful visual conceits. The welsh word is ‘trosiad’, one that I feel is apt; the visual elements of the piece become a powerful mirror for the action depicted in the film.

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The first thing that you see when you walk in the door are a series of garments and images from the fashion department. Don’t be too much of a hurry to walk on through, either, because these bodies of work are all well worth seeing. The garments that really leap out at me in this section of the show is Hazel Mezo’s cool, tasteful, chic creations. This part of the show is actually a delight. The emphasis is mostly on clothes that actually fit, and some of them are eminently wearable; Emily Williams and Frances Marvell’s elegant, sophisticated creations for example. The emphasis here is on streetwear, but on streetwear with brains. There is evidence here, too, of a very serious and sophisticated design process, in the form of the student’s images on the walls illustrating each stage of their creative process. Some of these are incredibly memorable images in their own right.

This year’s enormous sculpture is provided by Mark Dutton, in the form of a series of machined slices of tree trunk, carved using computer-guided equipment, each piece forming a slice of the original log. I mean no disrespect, incidentally, in describing these pieces as enormous sculpture. It’s always risky to make work on this scale- if it doesn’t work, you’re left with a serious problem. I do think it’s important to have sculpture in the same space as painting. The different visual tropes provide a structure to the exhibition, a depth which might otherwise not be present. In this work, especially, there is a sense of progression; each slice of the log presents a chronological sequence, and in this way the entire body of work becomes a series, something that has a definite theme. Not that this is all he does as an artist; in particular, the 3D printed objects that have been cast in metal have a definite aesthetic feel to them. Each object becomes a story in its own right, a history of its own creation. You can find him on the internet here: https://www.markduttonart.com/

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If Dutton’s sculpture is dramatic, what can I say about Nia Tyrrell’s painting? These, it has to be said, are enormous images. Energetic, exuberant gestures are made across works consisting of several panels, using all sorts of different kinds of paint. The overriding theme here is on an existential experience of landscape; the mixture of paints conveys a felt experience of the way the artist is a part of the landscape. What can I say? I’m a sucker for big paintings. And these are certainly big paintings. You can find her online here: https://www.niatyrrell.com/

 

On a smaller scale but no less eloquent are Alex Baitup’s foamy, oceanic ceramics. The objects on show come from various sources, but all are inspired by objects found on the seashore. The foamy, volcanic, glaze that’s used is particularly effective; the colours of the component parts of his pieces really do remind me of a welsh seaside, say, the one at Aberystwyth.

And there is a strong sense of atmosphere in the work on show. I’m thinking particularly in terms of Janet Rowlands’ etchings and Suzie Ross’ action paintings. The process here is a repeatable one; the artist makes large etchings that use an unpredictable process of embossing. What I get from this is a sense that the artist is in fact empowered by the ability to celebrate the accidents that inevitably happen during the creative process. The artist is able to say ‘yes’. A word often used in connection with this process is the word ‘tychic’, a word used in the sense that an accident can be selected; that the artist has accepted the mark as the result of a creative process, in the same way that one would do with, say, an automatic drawing. This is why we go to art college in the first place after all; to find your voice and your own way of working, to broaden the horizons of one’s practice. And the bodies of work on show here all speak with a profoundly original voice. Arthur Ll. Thomas’ assemblage of drawers and cupboards, for example, really do convey a profound sense of atmosphere. I found myself staring at it thinking about the passage of time, and how in the end all that any of us will ever leave will be these drawers and cupboards filled with the debris of one’s life. Not to get too depressing on your or anything- I wouldn’t want you to think that this show is all work and no play. I particularly liked Ivor Shears’ enormous screen printed drag chute on the ceiling, and I wouldn’t want you to miss Kelly Richards’ work. They’re representational images, almost photorealist, but they have an intimacy and a certain sense of calm and stillness.

And the photography room is well worth seeing too. I’m thinking particularly in terms of James Aitken’s ‘postcards from bangcok’. It’s nice to see multiple screens used in an exhibition in a way that actually makes sense. The images convey a sense of habituation. They say something about the way in which people use the space of the city. The way that the images are composed, and particularly how they are framed, is particularly effective.

Some of these images are really quite powerful- I’m thinking in particular of Val Roberts’ time lapse photographs of owls, which show a living creature in that most magical of motions, flight.

And while you’re there, it’s well worth seeing the short film by Alex Butler, in which we see a series of images from the artist’s home town. It really is quite heartbreaking to watch this series of images, to see the thousands of footprints criss-crossing on the beach at the end of the day. Quite often, when one has let oneself in for viewing a piece of video art, one finds oneself frankly waiting for the whole thing to pan out. Not here. It’s just the right length, and it’s really quite emotional when the whole thing ends.

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There really is too much on show for me to hope to cover it all here. I especially wish that I could keep Siwan Medi Davies’ eloquent, immaculate little pieces of jewelry, and everybody should see Barbara Griffith’s wonderful set of images made with the tyres of a weelchair. There’s enough here to cater to anyone’s taste as well- I’m thinking particularly of a series of rather wonderful sculptural ceramics that remind me particularly of picasso’s later drawings. I recommend that you go and see it yourself. You have until the 9th of June to do so.

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Iago Pryddferch; Attorney at law

I happened to have been passing the time of day with a friend the other day. He happened to have been a lawyer as a younger man, and he was always willing to hold forth on the particulars of this case and that. His sole occupation, it seems to me, was the law, and isn’t it lucky when a chap’s hobby happens to be his profession? I happened to notice that he had in his possession a rather handsome blackthorn cane, marked with what seemed to be ancient and arcane symbols that seemed to have been crafted in a world far removed from this. This, you must admit, is rather the talking point, and something that requires some sort of explanation. I must have mentioned it in passing, because when I questioned him about it, he offered this explanation;

“You know, it’s funny you should happen to mention that, as I just happened to be listening to ‘loose ends’ on radio 4 the other day when Clive Anderson, of all people, happened to mention that he had had the honour of speaking alongside his holiness, the pope. Not only that, but he had been double-booked to take part in this debate as the principal legal advocate of a fellow of our acquaintance. “Now, as it happens”, my friend announced, “I happened to remember at that moment that I myself had in fact had the honour to speak alongside his holiness the pope. No, it’s true. You see there was this talking snake chap, speak of the devil, who had waived his right to legal representation, the silly billy. One should always avail oneself of legal representation, it’s a simple matter of common sense. Now, being a student of the law and all that, naturally I was greatly interested in this case. Supposedly, the case had to do with a defendant’s right to dig foundations on his own land. I thought that was rather rum, I mean a fellow has a right to dig on his own land, doesn’t he, even if the land in question is rock rather than sand? Now, I don’t much approve of this legal aid business, but I think it’s rather a poor show to have your legal representative appointed by, of all people, Eddie Stobart. One has a right to a fair say in these matters, does one not, and I’m always happy to take a case on ‘pro bono’, don’t you know. It seems this chap had waived his right to legal representation, claiming, of all things, that he was ‘quite well catered for’.

Well, I thought this was odd, after all a fellow should know where he stands in such matters, eh, what? But I’m always glad to take a case on pro bono, and it was in fact quite an interesting case. Something about a lady and an apple tree, or something of that nature, I never could be having with the specifics of these things, there’s no telling what a chap and his wife should choose to get up to in private…Now apparently, this talking snake chap had found himself in a spot of bother, legally speaking, goodness knows how these things get started, but apparently he found himself in need of an advocate. Apparently the plaintiff had said, on the subject of this case, ‘Slither your way out of this one, slimy’, in public, and I thought,’ that’s a bit off’. There’s no need to go insulting the other fellow, particularly when it’s really simply a case of property rights and the entitlement to dig a foundation. People really ought to be more sensible in such matters. I mean, people ought to be capable of resolving these matters like good neighbours, without recourse to the law, should they not? I really must say it’s a poor show when a fellow has to go to law about a thing like a shed. But no, the defendant as it happens was most gratified that I had agreed to take on the case, something about requiring an advocate, god knows how these things get started, I ask you it’s rather a rum show if a person cannot find a fellow to act for him when he’s before the law. After all, we all have a right to a fair trial, don’t we? Now it just so happens that this talking snake chap had been associated with a group of fellows who call themselves makers of magic wands, and he offered this thing here to me as a token of gratitude, you see. You see, from time to time one meets these disagreeable fellows calling themselves ‘water bailiffs’, or what have you, and all one really needs to do in these cases is to flourish one’s walking stick like this…’

And here my friend stood straight up and flourished his walking stick, which emitted a burst of fire, like a flamethrower. Great gouts of luminscent fire issued from the walking implement, and my friend Iago steadied himself against the tantalus before pronouncing thus;

“And the matter resolves itself. It really is too much when public servants take onto themselves the mantle of judge and jury. Oh, my dogs? Yes, I call the girl ‘Leonora’ and the boy is called ‘Alvarro’. They really are the most good-natured little doggies you can imagine… Yes, as it happens, it turns out this chap had rather an interest in dogs. Kept one, name of Cerberus, nine heads, you know… He really was most grateful that I had agreed to act for him in this matter, and he had the good manners to offer me some sort of recompense. You see, it seems the chap happened to have been, of all things, an attorney, when he was younger and played host, in his own house mark you, to a number of fellows who had served at the bench themselves when they were younger. Oh, this? Yes, I picked up this walking stick in the holy land. No, it is rather friendly there, if all you’re really interested in is contract law. Those fellows like to stand by precedent, and I have to respect that. No really, it really is most gratifying when a fellow is ready to see that he must abide by the letter of the law.”

It seems that my learned friend (parliamentary talk for “the slimy, corrupt bastard seated opposite me”) had had a number of dealings with this fellow, the talking snake, and had had cause to act for him on a number of occasions. My friend always described the talking serpent as a thorough gentleman, a chap always willing to see things from the other fellow’s point of view. It came from having been so often maligned himself, my friend speculated. It seems that over the course of many legal engagements, they had become close friends, and that the serpentine fellow had inquired one time as to what my friend desired in the nature of walking implements, and it just so happened that he had such a thing about his person. And so, my friend was the proud recipient of a walking stick crafted by a friend of the devil himself. It turns out that the talking snake chap was rather well connected, and able to grant an odd favour or two. My friend came to be the person whom the serpent asked for whenever he found himself in a spot of legal bother. From that day forward, he never lacked for a talking point, something to enliven conversation. A blackthorn cane that can shoot holy fire really is the sine qua non of  talking points, and really isn’t that the most thoughtful present for a chap to receive?

Thing of the week #5; ‘A.D.’ by Rebecca Warren

The only image I could find is here:

https://artmap.com/serpentine/exhibition/rebecca-warren-2009

I’m working on a ‘drawing after’. I’m having a hard job doing it, though.

I first saw Rebecca Warren’s sculptures, in the flesh, at the serpentine gallery in London while I was most of the way through my art degree. To me then, as now, they were a revelation; her sculptural vocabulary is freely drawn, sumptuous and intense. There’s a terrific joy to the way the sculptures are drawn. This was exactly how I wanted sculptures to look at the time. I loved the way her sculptures were seemingly thrown together, but nevertheless drawn together into a coherent visual statement.

A.D. Is a direct quote from fragonard’s ‘the swing’. Warren uses quotations like this all over her work, somehow making these older images fresh and vibrant. The way she translates work from two dimensions into three with apparent ease is breathtaking. The quotations, it seems to me, are at once joyful and arch; we never know quite what she’s getting at. How does it change this image now that it’s being presented by a woman, the male spectators changed into half-formed clay scribbles? I’m not sure I know. But I love it. It’s both witty and frank.

What I love is the clay scribbling. I mean no disrespect by using that term. She uses clay in a three dimensional analogue to the way comic book artists sometimes ‘find’ their drawing by scribbling, building up and selecting the most pleasing or accurate way of delineating their subject, except that Warren leaves these images in their raw, messy state. It’s probably the most free, direct mode of modelling I have ever come across. There’s something linguistic, almost, in the way she twists the clay into shapes, as though she was getting at something behind the meaning of shape itself at the same time as forming her creations. It’s a raw, punky, visual idiom that conceals shades of meaning in ever sinuous bulge and depression of the clay. There’s a rawness about these images, something which you could call unfinished- but you’d be wrong. The artist has deliberately selected this look, and left the sculpture in this state. Take that gravity-defying shoe at the end of the central figure’s leg. It’s exactly ‘right’ where and how it is. The surface seethes with the pushes and pulls of the act of creating it. It’s both a quotation from art history and a portrait of a moment, frozen in time.

All of this- quotes from art history, figurative sculpture- could have been dreadfully sombre, but it’s saved from this partially by the treatment, but also by Warren’s cheerfully rude subject matter. It’s all offered with a lot of panache, and tends toward the explicit.

You have to look at it closely to really appreciate it, though. There are traces of colour, for instance, applied to the clay that indicate rather than describe the colour of the surface. The closer you get, the more there is to see- one of the hallmarks of really great sculpture, I find, is that it works at different distances. This one certainly does- the surface is built up of tubes, lumps and gestures of clay that seem to pulse with energy, and then from a distance we see a figure emerge.

I’ve heard it said that her work ‘doesn’t compare to the best of figurative sculpture’. I disagree. This sculpture, and the rest of her work, have enormous vigour and wit. The figuration is as lively and vibrant as anything else in art. She condenses the image into witty, assured gestures that stick in the mind like the movements of a dancer. The clay itself seems to dance. To me, they’re almost like the drawings of a Japanese master, not in the sense of the clarity that those images have, but in the way Warren appears to have achieved unity with the clay, in the way really great oriental painters describe as having ‘ink in their hearts’.

Captain Ric’s memorial bash at small world theatre

I managed to get a ticket to see this on Saturday, and it was a hell of a good time.

Small world theatre itself is a little gem of a building, just around the corner from the main venue of theatr Mwldan- a largeish octagonal space is enclosed by enormous wooden beams, and the rest of the theatre is built around these supports. I like partying in a good piece of architecture. That night, the bands were playing next to some cool op-art based visuals, all squares and chequerboards. There was a decent bar, serving real ale, vodka and lager.

The DJ sets at the beginning started off with some decent, unusual selections of old-fashioned ska, then moved on into something more punk. There’s actually a ska scene in this part of West Wales- Dapper cadavers, Tootin ska moon themselves, and others.

The support acts acquitted themselves well, and everybody got onto the dance floor. In the event, Nik Turner was a no-show, but his band gave a good performance with some fairly traditional-sounding jazz. The beer was flowing and the chalk outlines nearly stole the show. There was a definite energy to the whole proceeding, and the show I gather was sold out. That’s not so surprising, but there was still enough room in the venue to have a dance.

Tootin ska moon themselves play high-energy, fast-paced two tone ska. From beginning to end, the whole thing resembles the classic band madness, but with a local vibe to them and if anything more of a traditional ska feel to them. They have a lightness that comes from years of listening to old ska records.The overall audio texture of the band works well, and the trumpet and saxophone really make the whole thing sing. The band interact really well, taking cues from each other perfectly, just like jazz musicians would. It’s hard to tell how much of this is improvised and how much is rehearsed, but ultimately it doesn’t make much of a difference- the whole thing seems tight and confident. It’s also nice to see a band with a double bass, giving the whole proceeding a classic touch. The sound is full of flourishes and riffs, but there’s a definite pulse, driving the whole thing forward. They played for about an hour, and at the end we just kept getting more songs.

It’s all energetic good fun. Anybody who went to see them in the parrot a few years ago would be pleased to see them again. They’ve actually got better, if anything. Those with a taste for classic ska would have been just as gratified as those who are new to the scene. There’s a good natured feel to the whole thing, despite or because of the occasional drug reference- the travelling fanbase would have been gratified to hear ‘acid and ecstasy’ getting another outing. It’s all pretty innocent and joyful, with none of the nastiness that sometimes goes with these things.

Sam, The guy with the trumpet, who played in the chalk outlines too, wore a T-shirt with the words ‘make boncath great again’, satirical since Boncath is a bend in the road in Pembrokeshire. A nice bend in the road, but hardly the USA. It’s great little touches like this that make the band work so well. There’s an ironic, jovial edge to the band that’s a lot of fun. These guys quite often borrow and swap members, which gives the whole scene an enjoyable, community feel.

They’re on facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/492708494573129/


The tiniest pepper

Another one from the imaginary town.

Once upon a time, in the depths of a crowded seed tray, there was a tiny little pepper plant. She was very small, and her leaves were all bedraggled. The biggest pepper sucked away all the water she needed from the soil, and the prettiest pepper crowded her out with her big bold leaves. All the other peppers laughed at her and teased.

But when it came time for potting up, the gardener saw her at last, after he’d potted up all the other peppers. He said ‘go on then, sunshine, I’ll give you your chance’, and put her in a little pot that was just right for her, with a little space and sunshine and the water she so badly needed, in a sunny little conservatory behind the gardener’s garage.

The next three weeks were hard work for the tiniest pepper though. She dug deep into the soil with her roots, she strained her little stem hard up and she scrimped and saved to put all the energy she could into her little flowerbuds.

One day, a big bumble bee came to her. He looked rough and tough from all that hard living outdooors. He said “Hello love, come to take your nectar”.

“I’m sorry” said the tiniest pepper, “But I don’t know you. What nectar do you need?”

“The nectar in yer lovely flowers, darling” and the tiniest pepper looked down at herself, and saw that after all that hard work she was covered not only in green, bountiful leaves but with beautiful little white flowers.

The weeks after the big rough bumble bee came were harder still. But now with her leaves and flowers she felt emboldened and, yes, empowered, and unlike certain ducklings I could mention, growing her fruits was actually a life skill in a way that turning into a swan simply wasn’t. She also realised that her value was not limited by her attractiveness. She put real force and passion into her new little fruits, and finally they were there- little, powerful, tasty chilli peppers! She had been a different variety from the other peppers all along!

The gardener was overjoyed. He’d always wanted to try growin his own chilis to put into the experimental chilli barbeque sauce he was trying to make. He harvested her fruits every day and rubbed his hands in joy. He felt like he could kiss the tiniest pepper, and she beamed.

All the other peppers were suddenly so proud of her, even after all that bullying they’d committed when she was still the tiniest pepper.

“I was behind you all along” said the biggest pepper with her shiny green fruits.

“Yay for you, darling sweetie” said the prettiest pepper, though truth to be told her fruits were a little yellow in colour.

All the other peppers praised her to the skies, though some of them had the decency to be just a little ashamed at all the nasty things they’d said when they were all growing in the crowded seed tray.

And so, despite the fact that a pepper plant won’t survive long into the winter, they all lived happily ever after for the rest of their short, exploited lives.

 

Thing of the week #4; Rembrandt’s bust of an old man.

rembrandt old man

Rembrandt’s bust of an old man. Isn’t public domain awesome?

This week, we’re doing Rembrandt. In particular a grisaiile (‘monochrome’) painting on paper and panel from 1633, two years after he arrived in Amsterdam. This painting just encapsulates a lot of what I know about rembrandt, and it combines the best of his early work with the promise of the wonders to come. It’s monochrome, yes, but it’s not grave. And you really do have to see this one in colour- the colour of the medium used adds an important dimension that the best monochrome work and drawings always have. I’ve made this comment before about Da Vinci’s drawings, and it’s no less applicable here.

The composition, at first, seems like simplicity itself. Generally speaking, in the art of portraiture, an artist declines to excite and delight through composition and resorts instead to the physicality of paint and an attempt to master character- in the spirit of Kokoshchka’s ‘X-ray eyes’. It’s a bust of an old man. Busts are an established trope. It has been said- by the aforementioned Italian master in one of his sketchbooks- that the first ever drawing was a bust of a man, probably a reference to Egyptian silhouette painting. Whether that’s true or not- and I have grave doubts in this regard- this established trope becomes something quite other in the hands of Rembrandt Van Rijn. There’s a twist to the body and a slant to the head, as if there were some stored power in the pose. And this is an old man- not a thrusting young buck like Rembrandt himself was at the time, but a powerful and established presence, like the religious figures of slightly later works.

The paint handling is chunky. There are big wavy lines of paint. There’s a certain looseness and power, usually, to the way Rembrandt makes his marks. It’s reminiscent of a faster-painted Titian. Probably nobody in history has been a better mark maker, from the chunky paint here to the flat finish of his society portraits. I think he’s at his absolute best, though, with looser handlings like this, more reminiscent of the brilliant draughtsmanship of his etchings. Here, the paint is the character- the paint is a trace of the brush that has assured power, in keeping with the brooding countenance of the subject. Rembrandt was a wizard with paint, and he invented and used all sorts of tricks that have either entered the lexicon or remain applicable, really, only to him. There is a painting, for instance, where he actually re-attached a dry flake of paint to the canvas with more paint. This isn’t as experimental as that, but it has delicious hints of what Rembrandt is capable of when armed with colour. Already by this point he’d developed techniques such as scratching at the paint with the handle of the brush. It’s been said- by Robert Beverley Hale- that to really draw a good line drawing, one has to have a mastery of line and colour. This is the case here, and the bon mot works in reverse as well. Etchings by Rembrandt have served as models for students for several centuries now, and if you want to draw what you see, and what you feel, it’s a good idea to get a good-quality book full of them. I did.

We know the story of Rembrandt by now- the art superstar who entered a decline and fall. But there’s much more to it than that. For me, Rembrandt only increased in artistic power as he aged, but the kind of painting he ended up doing was out of step with the taste of the time, by a measure of a few hundred years. Not only did he anticipate developments in painting by a couple of centuries or so, and changes in taste, such as the kind of art he bought (Drawings by Dürer, various exotica) too, but I feel confident in predicting that he will continue to anticipate artistic events in our future as well. Sometimes a man sees so well into the present that he can immerse himself in the future. The slaughtered ox, for example, anticipates Chardin but also German expressionism. That’s no accident. For me, Rembrandt was a truly northern, Dutch soul. He was influenced by renaissance paintings, yes, but like Bach (whose music shows pan-European influences without ever having left Germany) he made them his own and transmitted them to the lands north of the Alps in an altered way.

I suppose in a way it’s like developing a taste for bitter food and drink. You begin by appreciating something slightly bitter, and then as you go on you end up enjoying more and more bitter beer to the extent that you are now drinking something that most people around you find disgusting. And I say this as a man with a fondness for German Rauchbeer. Except that a taste for art probably has more far-reaching consequences than a taste for beer, although I have my doubts on that score. Rembrandt died in obscurity, misunderstood and overlooked, having lost most of everything he ever cared about. But he left us his work, and for that I am forever thankful.

Incidentally, there’s a series on Rembrandt on BBC4 at the moment. It’s good.