Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Tag Archives: Rembrandt

Repentance and re-painting

Flipping through the Yale UP and National Gallery’s weighty 1991 Rembrandt: the Master & his Workshop (local Oxfam, 99p), I was struck by this, by Ernst van de Wetering, on Rembrandt’s “liberal use of the repentir, or alteration made while painting”:

Nowadays we tend to regard the repentir as the record of a highly individual process, by which the artist revises and improves as he searches for the perfect form, as if regretting his earlier solution. The terms repentir and pentimento are in fact derived from words meaning “repentance”, and in Germany they even spoke of the Reuezug or “stroke of repentance”. There are at least a few pentimenti in any painter’s oeuvre. Titian, though, made countless modifications to his work, and evidently did so without feeling the slightest bit contrite, for traces of the rejected passages are often still visible, and in many cases must have been so in his own day as well.

Repentir: the Arnolfini hand

I’ve long appreciated that “repentance” simply means, quite literally, a re-think, rather than the guilt-fuelled self-pummelling my evangelical upbringing once made of it, but the idea of the artist’s pentimento or correction as an image of the practice of repentance hadn’t occurred to me.

The altering mark is not, in my experience, a matter of self-rebuke, but one approximation of many – another movement a little closer, at least for now, towards the reality of the image. The charcoal adjusts itself towards the conception for which it strives. What is abandoned in the alteration may be left visible, not as bravado, not merely as a sign of confidence but as an act of confession; the nail wounds are still present on the truly shameless hands of the resurrected and perfected Christ. “Confession” in its original sense means acknowledgement, while stigmata are merely “marks”.

The same day, I browsed the latest National Trust magazine and came across a little item on the members’ page that seemed somehow connected; it features Rachel, Rebekah and Sarah, teenage triplets who from the age of 13 have painted single landscapes as a trio:

We painted on one canvas together and did it three times as fast as we would have individually because we could swap when one of us got tired … Rachel is really good at plants and foliage, Sarah is best at skies and Rebekah prefers architecture. So we work out what we each want to do before we start and come up with a plan that plays to our strengths and combines our styles. It can be annoying if someone changes something that one of us has worked on in a certain way, but we always work through it.

The National Trust triplets: Trinitarian

How excellent! Without wishing to deny the individualities of the girls in any way, it’s hard to conceive of a better icon of the creating Trinity, or a better illustration of a process of collective or communitarian repentance, as each member of the godhead, while maintaining her specialism, thoughtfully modifies the strokes of another as they “work through it”.

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Kurt thoughts: Britters in Schwitain

From notes made on my way round the Schwitters in Britain show at Tate Britain:

Constant tensions between colour and texture, forms and references.

Colour – So much brown! But the landscapes and portraits too, even in the skin tones, appear predominantly brown. Seems regressive – the dull cubist palette of Picasso & Braque. But his colour cheers up a bit once he is released from the internment camp!

Forms – Constructivist? How much chance? What laws do his compositions obey? Any?

References (found material) – Social & personal history. He claimed to sit light to the original significances of found material and of elements of text. But it clearly wasn’t so. (An abundance of bus tickets indicates a prevalence of buses. In London, judging by the collages, he ate an awful lot of Liquorice Allsorts. He does not appear to have eaten Kendal Mint Cake during the Lake District period.)

Untitled, 1942

Untitled, 1942 (Note Liquorice Allsorts)

[Thought: a philatelist notices an extremely rare stamp glued into a Schwitters collage … Thought: British Counter-intelligence analyses his British collages, suspecting them to be coded messages.]

In the collages the upside-down elements (writing, images) are sometimes quite dominant. Did Schwitters work both/all ways up until the final resolution?

His process? Tension between congruences and incongruences. Exercises in daring. Relentless oddness. Defies Ben Nicholson’s tastefulness. Nicholson called Schwitters “an ass and a bore”. (Nicholson could be, in Sven Berlin’s words, “a cold, spiteful little sod”.)

The later paintings and small sculptures move towards a more lyrical, clean, hard edged colourfulness, lose their grubbiness, even take on a strange hint of style. But this threat of taste is always carefully recuperated by some element or small fragment of anti-taste. Allure, then deflection. A sideways step.

Lovely Portrait, 1942

Schwitters, ‘Lovely Portrait,’ 1942

Schwitters, portrait of george Johnston, 1946

Schwitters, portrait of George Johnston, 1946

Asger Jorn, 'The avant-garde doesn't give up painting,' 1962

Asger Jorn, ‘The avant-garde doesn’t give up painting,’ 1962

In Untitled (Lovely Portrait), 1942, Schwitters paints over an existing Victorian portrait, leaving only the face from the original. See Asger Jorn’s interventions (“defigurations”). But unlike Jorn, Schwitters did not disrespect the original, given that he was a conventional portraitist himself. See also Joyce Cary’s Gully Jimson (The Horse’s Mouth) buying an old Rembrandt to paint over in place of a new canvas. Also, Duchamp’s “anti-readymade” notion of using a Rembrandt as an ironing board – though that works only as an idea, not as an object. The portrait painted over by Schwitters as an anti-readymade?

[Thought: in 1943 in London Schwitters was in contact with Jankel Adler. Adler was in close contact with Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde. They could have seen Schwitters’s work on show alongside Adler’s in 1944. Could Schwitters have met the Two Roberts? If so, they may hardly have understood each other.]

Despite the two new works in this show (elaborate, self-indulgent, ignorable) commissioned to honour the “Lake District legacy” of Schwitters, there is no such legacy. One wet Lakeland weekend some years ago, I failed to find any trace of his time in Ambleside. (Though recently the Armitt Collection has started to pull things together.)

Before I viewed this show, I thought that I understood Schwitters’s work. Now I find that I don’t. But I like it all the more for that.