‘The Late’ shows

Edward Lucie-Smith considers the phenomenon of ‘The Late Style’ in relation to Rembrandt and Turner

The new Rembrandt show at the National Gallery in London (until January 18th) is clearly meant to challenge the enormous success the same institution enjoyed with its recent exhibition devoted to Leonardo da Vinci. It is a populist homage to one of the undoubted giants of Western European visual culture.

Instead of trying to embrace the whole man, or at any rate the whole artist, as the Leonardo exhibition did, it focuses on a very specific period of the artist’s life – his last decade and a half, roughly speaking from the time he went bankrupt in 1656 to his death in October 1669, aged 63 (his self-portrait at that age is illustrated here).

The show has a very particular context, perhaps the result of happenstance. London is currently playing host to another major exhibition devoted to a great master from the past – a painter as well known, and as much of a universal culture hero, as Rembrandt himself.

This, at Tate Britain, is devoted to the British landscape painter, J.M.W. Turner. Entitled ‘Late Turner – Painting Set Free’ (until January 25th) it focuses on the productions of Turner’s final years, from 1835, when the artist was 40, to his death in 1851, aged 76. Turner began his final phase at an earlier age than Rembrandt, and lasted somewhat longer.

The idea of the ‘late style’, as a very special, magical phase in the evolution of the work of a great artist, is a comparatively modern invention. To the credit of the organizers, the catalogue of the Rembrandt exhibition is careful to spell this out. As Jonathan Bikker and Gregor J.M. Weber write in an essay entitled ‘Explaining Late Rembrandt’: “At the beginning of the twentieth century the search for specific rules governing the evolution of styles gave rise to a mythology of the aged artistic genius, driven to produce outstanding works in the face of his approaching death.” They add to this: “The concept of ‘Alterstil’ (old age style) emerged to account for late-life creativity…According to the authors who coined the term, the characteristics that defined Alterstil… were a tendency towards abstraction and formal simplicity, combined with greater depth in the subjective and intellectual content. The assumption was that these characteristics can be identified in all art forms and eras.”

With these two exhibitions, as also with the release in Britain of Mike Leigh’s much lauded new film Mr. Turner, one is therefore dealing with a new phase in the evolution of a myth not as yet formulated in either of the two artists’ own lifetimes. The myth, endorsed by the two museums concerned as instruments of official culture, inevitably affects our own reactions to what is shown.

One of its effects is to bring the works we are looking at closer to our own contemporary sensibilities. We are certainly not seeing them in the same way as that of the audiences to which they were originally addressed. We are, instead, being presented within a framework where that can confidently be regarded as the productions of genius. It must be immediately noted that the idea of the ‘genius’ – artistic, musical or literary – was itself not fully evolved until, at its earliest, the later years of the 18th century, the period of the Sturm und Drang. There is considerable evidence that Rembrandt’s contemporaries, were often puzzled, or made to feel uneasy, by the stylistic evolution that both artists underwent in the concluding phases of their respective careers.

The Rembrandt show, held in the cramped basement spaces of the National Gallery’s modern extension, suffers from curatorial overkill. A good selection of paintings from Rembrandt’s last fifteen years is on view, among them a number of acknowledged masterpieces, such as the Jewish Bride from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which may also be a marital double portrait, and the huge (though still cut down) Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis borrowed from Stockholm.

There is also an array of self-portraits, which do much to explain why Rembrandt is today regarded as an ‘honorary contemporary’, in a fashion denied to other major painters of the same epoch, such as Rubens. We seem to be offered direct access to the artist’s innermost thoughts and feelings.

The impact of the show is nevertheless diminished by the fact that the general effect is so cluttered. The paintings are accompanied by a mass of late period drawings and prints, impossible to examine in any detail in the thronging crowd of spectators. One longs to be able to stand back and take an unobstructed look at the major items.

The Late Turner show at Tate Britain occupies more spacious quarters and is much more logically hung. The artist’s magically vaporous late landscape paintings have long been revered as the very pinnacle of British achievement in the visual arts, and it is an enormous pleasure to see them so generously presented. The catalogue leaves one no doubt, however, about the negative reactions of many of the artist’s contemporaries. His two Venetian scenes dated 1846, Going to the Ball and Returning from the Ball, were exhibited more or less pre-sold at the Royal Academy – Turner was of course a member, an Academician in the strict sense of that term. Yet the buyers pulled out, after unfavourable reactions in the press. The paintings remained unsold, and formed part of the artist’s estate when he died.

Turner emerges not merely as a visionary, but as someone who had a sophisticated awareness of the processes of change in the Britain of the first half of the 19th century. The celebrated Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844) is a good example. The catalogue note on the painting appositely remarks that: “Nature’s sublimity is controlled and condensed by the new industrial paradigm, when water is transformed by heat to produce motive power.”

Nevertheless, as the exhibition is at some pains to establish, Turner’s art also had deep roots in the classic landscape painting of the past, in particular in the work of Claude and Poussin. There are frequent references to mythological themes, and to be fully understood what he did often needs to be seen within the intellectual framework of an old-fashioned classical education. To force Turner into a totally different mould, as the forerunner of Abstract Expressionism – the prophet of splish, splosh and splash – doesn’t really make sense.

The fact is that both shows need to be examined with a degree of caution. They propagate an idea, that of the predestined superiority of the Alterstil, as this has been elaborated during the past hundred years or so, which would have been entirely unfamiliar to the two great artists concerned, and also to their contemporaries. The curators concerned offer warnings and qualifications, but the actual titles given to both exhibitions make it plain that the concept lives on. The invitation is to make Rembrandt and Turner over in our own present-day image. For me, that doesn’t work. We need to look at them on their own terms.