Schama’s study of Rembrandt’s later work is a call to arms for old duffers everywhere

It was when Schama moved on to a painting of one particular young woman that he was at his most compelling

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The Independent Culture

Rembrandt van Rijn was the original “selfie” obsessive, wasn’t he? Though Simon Schama never stooped to such modish observations in Schama on Rembrandt (Sat BBC2). In addition to accepting the commissions of wealthy patrons, the Dutch master chronicled his own life and career in a series of extraordinary and revealing self-portraits.

The selfie obsession is also interesting because the Rembrandt that Schama connects with was no insecure teen in search of an identity. This documentary, like the new show at the National Gallery, focused on Rembrandt’s later years, after his near-bankruptcy in 1656. This was a time when the polished, brightly coloured French style of painting was in demand, and Rembrandt had fallen out of favour with fashionable patrons. But, said Schama, even at 50, Rembrandt was not willing to accept “old duffer” status yet.

In fact, Schama’s reading of Rembrandt’s later work was a call to arms for old duffers everywhere. Watching the historian take a tour of the Rembrandt House Museum made his personal involvement obvious. Schama found the morning light in Rembrandt’s studio “really just unbelievably moving” and looking at the pots of paints he fondly recalled his own attempts to recreate 17th-century pigments, while writing Rembrandt’s Eyes.

If there was also an element of self-portraiture for Schama, it was only one layer of this fascinating programme. Schama admired Rembrandt’s spirited fightback in his Self-Portrait (1658), which was “a symphony of defiance” depicting “vast meaty hands which are either going to create a masterpiece or strangle critics”. Also in Self-Portrait with Two Circles (c1665-69), which shows “a truly great artist under attack” – the circles being Rembrandt’s Giotto-referencing proof of his own drawing skill.

What’s most exciting though is that Rembrandt’s late works don’t merely reveal the ageing artist’s struggle to be considered relevant, they prove that he really was still relevant – whether appreciated or not. It was when Schama moved on from the old men and began discussing Rembrandt’s paintings of one particular young woman that he was at his most compelling. The subject of the Rape of Lucretia is traditionally depicted with a female nude, at once moralising and eroticised. Rembrandt’s proto-feminist painting of a fully clothed, red-eyed, suicidal Lucretia expose that hypocrisy, just as he had exposed so many others.

There was a painterly feel too to Storyville: Russia’s Toughest Prison – the Condemned on BBC4 last night. Film-maker Nick Read has made a sublimely beautiful film about what must be the bleakest place on Earth: a maximum-security prison in the heart of a frozen forest larger than all Germany, seven hours’ drive from the nearest city. The 260 inmates here were all convicted murderers who had collectively killed nearly 800 people.

Law-abiding citizens have a fascination with the lives of incarcerated criminals, which is exploited by numerous cheaply made prison documentaries. This 80-minute film included much of what we’ve come to expect from porridge-sploitation – an explanation of prisoner hierarchy, extravagant tattoos, and Charles Bronsonesque exercise regimes – but like Werner Herzog’s On Death Row series, it was much, much more besides.

The prisoner’s matter-of-fact explanations of their ultra-violent crimes had a kind of austere poetry to them and the humour of the guards was as harsh as the minus-40-degree temperatures. “You know what saves us here?” mused one on patrol in the snow. “There’s no vodka.”