Comment: The Weasal

A visit to the Royal Academy ends in an unexpected purchase, while another trip leads to an intimate acquaintance with an old Dutchman
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The Independent Culture
It's been an arty sort of week. Last Monday, I whizzed along to the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition. Though it was only the first day that the show was open to the public, a remarkable number of works had already been sold at previews. Many of the multiple editions already boasted long millipedes of red dots along the bottom of their frames. In the case of the most popular prints, the red dots had become more of a serpent. Some 91 early birds had lashed out pounds 115 on At Anchor (a yachting study). A tasteful etching called Nude '98 (pounds 130) had acquired no fewer than 94 proprietorial measles spots.

But even such modest price-tags did not conjure my cheque-book from my pocket. Earlier this year, at the behest of Mrs Weasel, I laid out an eye-watering sum for a screen-print by Craigie Aitchison, an artist who specialises in the twin subjects of crucifixions and Bedlington terriers. Our example is one of the latter.

Much to my surprise, I came across this very work in the Summer Exhibition. Though Bedlington Terrier in Red appears only of modest size when hanging in the vast expanse of the Royal Academy, it dominates the dining-room of Weasel Villas. I should assure fellow purchasers (the work bore 10 red dots when I visited on Monday) that I now love it to bits. No, I'm not letting on about the cost. Suffice it to say that we could have had a week in the Seychelles for much the same amount.

So, I had decided that the Weasel family was not buying any more art. Being generous to a fault, however, I acquired a David Hockney poster of the Grand Canyon for Mrs W, who is a big fan of the exiled Bradfordian. The fact that, thanks to the excellent offer in this newspaper, the poster was free, is neither here nor there.

In the gallery devoted to multiple editions, I was engaged in an in-depth examination of La Sposa, a sultry marble nude (produced in an edition of two; one had already been sold for pounds 70,500 to an evidently well-heeled connoisseur of the female form), when I was tapped on the shoulder. Unbeknown to me, Mrs Weasel had decided to pop along to see the Summer Exhibition. In an effort to forestall any rash purchases, I rapidly handed over the Hockney. But my spouse was already pointing out a large etching by Eileen Cooper, another artist she has long admired. "Isn't it gorgeous? Do you like it?"

"Yes, very nice," I replied noncommittally. A change of tack appeared advisable in the face of this gust of enthusiasm. "What about that Allen Jones?"

"I'm glad you like it," she cut in. "I've just bought it."

Not quite the Seychelles this time, I'm pleased to say. More like a weekend in Venice.

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At a National Gallery press launch last Tuesday, the Channel 4 News anchorman Jon Snow and a female companion were to be found peering at a genial, if slightly gormless-looking young man. Under a cumulus of unkempt hair, the dozy youth might been a heavy-metal fan. "I wonder if he had adenoid problems?" the keen-eyed female observer remarked to Mr Snow.

As far as I know, history does not record whether Rembrandt van Rijn suffered from this nasopharyngeal malady, but he was certainly not excessively blessed with good looks. Partly, it is the very ordinariness of his appearance, so meticulously recorded over the decades, which makes the National Gallery's trawl of self-portraits such a powerful experience. Aside from a couple of attempts at fashionable hauteur, the face in the paintings could easily be sipping a pint in the local or assaying the cut-price offers in Asda.

In the video that accompanies the exhibition, all 70 images are compressed into a minute, like some kind of chronological flick-book. The artist's face starts broad and pudgy, then briefly narrows before burgeoning again. His moustache progressively bristles and wilts. With the passing of the years, dewlaps bulge and clefts deepen. Pouches multiply below his eyes and lines corrugate his forehead. His dark-gold curls tarnish to a grey frizz. His complexion puckers like the skin on a custard, while his nose (never small) steadily expands into a WC Fields bulb.

Seeing the paintings in the flesh (for once, the phrase is spot on) is a deeply moving experience. In the progressive maturing and eventual decay of this familiar Dutch face, we see ourselves. Of course, his technical mastery is amazing, whether using the handle of his brush to etch highlights in hair or depicting a turban with half a dozen brush-strokes.

It is reassuring that, for all his genius, Rembrandt was not infallible. To be precise, he had a bit of trouble doing legs. This emerges in a work from 1631 called Self-Portrait in Oriental Attire. It is his only full- length self-portrait and X-rays reveal that Rembrandt repeatedly painted the legs. They still can't have been right, because the artist adopted the somewhat extreme solution of introducing an elaborate poodle to cover them up. This docile-looking mutt was, in fact, used for hunting waterfowl. The exhibition catalogue delicately explains the animal's curious appearance: "For practical reasons, the furry rear of the animal was shaved clean."

Unlike most ballyhooed exhibitions, where you are only too willing to depart after an hour or so, you leave this show with great unwillingness. For hours afterwards, you feel deprived. But I was left unenlightened on a point that has puzzled me for years. It concerns Rembrandt's teeth. These are clearly visible in only two of the paintings. In Self-Portrait with Gorget and Beret (1629), his gnashers appear greyish and irregular. By the time he painted the grotesque Self-Portrait as Zeuxis (1662), they have worn to brown stumps. It remains a profound mystery why a pricey brand of "whitening toothpaste", imported from the United States at pounds 7.75 a tube, should choose to call itself "Rembrandt".

In last Thursday's edition of his Radio 4 programme In Our Time, Melvyn Bragg repeatedly said that it was 250 years since the execution of Charles I. In fact, the unfortunate monarch was downsized on 30 January 1649. Perhaps over-awed by Melv's recent elevation to the Lords, neither of his guests on the show, Bea Campbell and David Cannadine, chose to point out that he was a century out in his calculations.

This mistake is surprising because in his best-selling book about the great names of science, On Giants' Shoulders (Sceptre, pounds 7.99), Lord Bragg coyly confesses that "I greatly enjoyed maths at school and at one stage wanted to take it in the sixth form".

He goes on to lament his decision to drop science subjects in favour of the arts: "My lack of serious science training denied me entrance to... the most dazzling intellectual pleasure garden of the 20th century."

Still, judging by his inability to deduct 1,649 from 1,999, perhaps Lord Bragg made the wisest choice after all.

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