The art in Dutch flesh and dirty toenails

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Rembrandt's Eyes by Simon Schama (Allen Lane £30)

Rembrandt's Eyes by Simon Schama (Allen Lane £30)

I personally don't much like Rembrandt: all those mucky browns and yellows, the rather cartoonish faces, the tedious Biblical subjects. I'd rather hang a Caravaggio or Bellini on my desert island. I'm not saying this to show off, but to praise, in a roundabout way, Simon Schama's lovely new book. It brings to mind three points: firstly, that it's quite possible to be a respectable human being and yet feel no personal affinity for many supposedly "great" painters - what art we love may ultimately be no more within our conscious control than what vegetables we go for. I never will like swedes (which, when cooked, have almost exactly the colour of the bedlinen in Rembrandt's Bathsheba, painted in 1654, now hanging in the Louvre). Secondly, the best works of art criticism can - nevertheless - teach us what there is to appreciate about artists who at first left us cold. They open our eyes to greatness; even if we can never feel this for ourselves, we will henceforth always know what is at play in the hearts of others. Rembrandt's Eyes is just such a work.

Simon Schama is a famous anomaly in his profession. He's the one historian that people have heard of, the historian for people who don't like history. His books are vividly written and sell in crate-loads. They have short sections, which usually begin with a novelistic, page-turning story, and are as beautifully illustrated and as glossy as copies of Vogue. He sports fashionable glasses, he makes TV programmes, he writes for The New Yorker, he wears suits that may come from Yohji Yamamoto. There are no cobwebs on him. He has therefore predictably been attacked by other historians as too casual with his facts, too broad in his interests, too flash (in short, if only they could dare to say it, as too successful). But not all the criticism has been unfair. His previous book, Landscape and Memory, was a mess. A history of our attitudes to landscape, it was a disappointing rag-bag of anecdotes that lacked structuring ideas. Like many historians, Schama has a problem with ideas, better at the local example than the broad synthesis. But with Rembrandt's Eyes, he has, as the cliché goes, found his subject - a perfect match for his talents and sympathies.

Rembrandt is a crowded, competitive and seemingly highly depressing area of scholarship. Lots of bald people, as vicious as they are bright, arguing over combs. Many cobwebs. The main subject of argument is Rembrandt's standing as an artist: how many of the paintings attributed to him are actually his? Was he a genius? Was he mediocre? Or was he just a fairly typical product of his age, lacking any great claim to originality? Rembrandt's reputation has shown extreme fluctuations: as a young man in Leyden and then Amsterdam in the 1630s and 40s, he was acclaimed as one of the greatest portraitists of the age, and rewarded lavishly by his patrons. Then, as tastes changed and Rembrandt's paintings went from clear and glossy to rough and dark, his star fell; he went bankrupt and became a laughing-stock in the Amsterdam art world. Soon after his death, his star rose again. He became known as the genius who had stood out against the tastes of the day in order to assert his unique vision - ignored by a world too stupid to understand. He was praised as, among others, the precursor of Turner, Van Gogh, Degas. That was more or less the story until shortly after the Second World War, when a Dutch historian called Jan Emmens wrote a biography of Rembrandt in which he sternly attacked this personal, "Romantic" glorification of the artist, and stressed how unoriginal Rembrandt had been and how much he owed to painters around him. Rembrandt's claims to greatness have been under scholarly attack ever since. As Schama sums up the situation: "Insofar as Rembrandt's painting is still thought distinctive, it is now fashionably reckoned to be the product of something else: his society, his culture, his religious confession... his teachers, his patrons, the nature of Amsterdam politics; the nature of the Dutch economy; the practices of his workshop; the literature of his day."

Predictably, Schama will have none of it. The goal of Rembrandt's Eyes is to recover for a new generation the notion of Rembrandt as one of the greatest, most innovative and most humane painters of all time. Schama encourages us to forget the pedantic academics and experience instead, without guilt, the "emotionally charged, intuitively visceral subjective reading for which modern commentators - not to mention unguarded museumgoers - are taken sternly to task by the academy as naively unhistorical". (This from the University Professor in Art History at Columbia University in New York, according to the back jacket.)

Schama directs us to a number of areas of Rembrandt's work. Firstly, the portraits. As everyone knows, Rembrandt painted himself continually, dozens of studies every year for 40 years. The Romantic view is that this was Rembrandt's celebration of himself as a unique, creative being. The modern, cynical view is that it was sheer egoism. Schama's view - modern in its own way - is that the portraits arose from an insecurity about his identity. Rembrandt kept painting himself to find out who he was. The reason for the multiplication of his self-image was not, Schama insists, a "relentless, almost monomaniacal assertion of the artistic ego, but something like the exact opposite". He compares Rembrandt and attitude to self-portraiture with that of Rubens. Rubens - the arrogant, confident artist - made only four self-portraits of himself, and in all of them, he looks the same. They are, in Schama's words, "documents of how little damage the passage of time affected the echte Rubens". Whereas Rembrandt didn't know who he was - and in this sense, qualifies as the echte modern hero.

Schama also re-evaluates Rembrandt's attitude to women. Rembrandt has often been criticised for the coarseness of his female figures. Schama argues that he should be praised as one of the only artists in the Western tradition to show us un-idealised, real women - and attacks as prissy those art historians (he relishes singling out Kenneth Clark) who have missed the point: "It's precisely Rembrandt's resistance to visualising his models as art objects which has so irritated and bewildered Rembrandt's critics. [According to these critics]... the real problem is Rembrandt's inability to keep the high realm of art and the low realm of physically felt life properly separate, as the books of painterly decorum required." But Schama relishes Rembrandt's inclusion of the physically felt, and talks at length and beautifully about the famous Susanna and the Elders and the less famous etchings of Hendrickje Stoffels of 1658: "Rembrandt is quite knowingly disrupting art's authority to make those bodies its representational property. Instead of being the passive vehicles of art's great makeover (from a working girl ... to a goddess ...), Rembrandt restores to these women their bodily reality ... ultimately what obsesses him is ... the awkwardness of the fit between Amsterdam flesh and Biblical heroine."

Schama most loves Rembrandt for his appreciation of frailty and fallibility. He detects this in, among other things, Rembrandt's manner of painting knots in wood, creases in paper, lines and scabs in skin, dirty toenails. He was, says Schama, "powerfully drawn to ruin; the poetry of imperfection. He enjoyed tracing the marks left by the bite of worldly experience: the pits and pocks, the red-rimmed eyes and scabby skin". None of his figures, even Biblical ones, are flawless. Schama compares Rembrandt's David with Michelangelo's and notes that Rembrandt's David "is a nervous adolescent strumming his harp for a paranoid king".

Rembrandt's tendency to deidealise became ever more marked and was partly why his patrons fell out with him at the end of his life. Amsterdam burghers, though sympathetic to austere scenes, drew the line at dirty toenails. Schama does not and - like those unfashionable pre-war art historians - reserves his greatest sympathy for the late Rembrandt, the painter of rough yellows and browns, creases and lumps.

In the most moving and revealing passage at the very end of his book, Schama defines the essence of what has drawn him to his subject: "For Rembrandt, imperfections are the norm of humanity. Which is why he will always speak across the centuries to those for whom art might be something other than the quest for ideal forms; to the unnumbered legions of damaged humanity who recognise, instinctively and with gratitude, Rembrandt's vision of our fallen race, with all its flaws and infirmities squarely on view, as a proper subject for picturing."

This is a Rembrandt very much for our time - critics will argue, perhaps a bit too conveniently, too slickly for our time; with his sympathy for women, his unstable identity, his messy personal life, his love of children, his ambition, his attraction to imperfection. And yet, given that no account of the life of an artist is ever complete, that it will always represent choices, throwing the light in one corner and not another, then Schama's biography stands as an extremely coherent, satisfying work; a thesis about Rembrandt with which one may disagree, but which must command respect for the love and intelligence that inspired it.