Monthly Archives: July 2012

Self-Portraits & girls in odd places


Welcome to Rembrandt part 2! If you want to read part 1 it’s here.

So, as I said at the end of my other post I’m interested to learn a bit more about Rembrandt’s self-portraits. After this, there is one picture I’m specifically interested in: The girl in a Picture Frame

Lets do this in order.

Self Portraits

Rembrandt created over 90 self-portraits in his life in differing forms – in fully realised paintings, etchings and drawings. Many artists create self portraits but very few, if any, have come anywhere near this number. Apparently, why Rembrandt created such a large number of portraits of himself remains a mystery. In fact, it’s one of the greatest mysteries of art history!

There are a couple of theories flying around about why he did this.

Some Self Portraits

Until recently the most popular theories approached this question from a psychological point of view. It’s possible that these self portraits acted as self studies, a way of seeing himself both externally and internally. By studying his own figure he was able to look inside of himself and increase the knowledge of his own being. This train of thought is most notably applied to Rembrandt’s late portraits in which this internal dialogue is more noticeable. According to Jacob Rosenberg (Rembrandt expert) his later portraits show a shift from ‘outward description’ to a more self-analytical way of working.

The fact that he drew himself with a number of different expressions and emotions adds to this theory and suggests that by exploring himself and his own psyche, he was able to understand more about man in general.

A newer theory is a bit different to this, and focuses a bit more on his earlier portraits. Many of the portraits are studies of particular expressions and can act as a sort of catalogue of expressions which can then later be used in history painting or something. The reason Rembrandt used himself for these pictures though is unknown. It’s possible it could be that by using himself he didn’t need to pay anyone else or arrange modelling times. It could also be because these studies were very popular with the public of all classes. Meaning that by using himself he would ingrain his image on people’s mind, establishing himself as a celebrity.

Rembrandt and Saskia playing parts in The Prodigal Son

I’m not going to go too much more into this. I think though, it’s fair to say that the portraits act as a sort of visual diary of Rembrandt’s life. Some of the pictures that include himself also show his wife Saskia or Titus his son. Some of them, like the one below feature them playing roles in scenes (this might lend some gravity to the celebrity theory). Perhaps because I know the sad story of Rembrandt and his family I find these quite touching.

The Girl at the Window

So, I made a mistake in my last post, by saying I was particularly interested in the painting Girl in the Window. The painting I actually meant was Girl in a Picture Frame. The Girl in the Window is however fascinating in all her creepy, childlike, seductive glory so lets talk about her a bit anyway.

What I really like about this picture is how mysterious it is. There is a lot of contradiction here that makes it difficult to guess who she was or what she had to do with Old Van Rijn. For example, she looks young, with childlike features and innocence, and yet there is a knowing seductivity in her eyes and the way her hands subtly draw attention to her cleavage. Another thing, is that she leans leisurely over the window in, frankly, a unladylike manner.  I have read a few bits that describe her as a servant. Maybe this is true and goes towards her less-than-noble pose, however there’s jewellery in her hand, which she plays with coyly. Maybe it belonged to her mother? Maybe it’s a gift from her lover? The master of the house perhaps? My favourite contradiction though can be a bit more abstract. She seems to glow, giving off a sort of angelic light, but yet everything around her is dark. The passage behind her completely black even. I suppose this could be purely matter of fact – The light source comes from the bottom left of the picture and the unlit house behind her is dark…Or it could be more metaphorical, calling into question matters of angelic beauty in a world of ugliness. Or the liveliness of youth compared to the frailty of age (Rembrandt was almost 40 when he painted this). It be about anything – life and death – light and dark – Jedi vs Sith.

Now I’m just throwing ideas around. But, then this is what I love about art, it’s the possibility the spectator has to imagine and create him/herself the context of a work. Sometimes it’s fun to disregard everything you know about an artist and their political/social context and just let your mind run free. This is most defiantly the approach I’ll be taking with Sketch anyway!

The Girl in a Picture Frame AKA The Jewish Bride

This is without a doubt my favourite Rembrandt work. The reason I like it, similar to The Girl at the Window is down to the mystery of it, and the multitude of interpretations we can throw at it.

The girl is very sweet, with dark, welcoming eyes and a friendly face. She’s adorned with a fantastic hat and a wonderful and very noble red dress (Call out! – Does anyone know if there’s anything particular about her clothing? Is the dress some sort of traditional wear? Please let me know if you know + be the first to comment on Sketches, Scratches and Scattered Thoughts!) The background is left purposely vague – Are those clouds behind her? How high up is she? And then we notice her hands. Huh? What the…Yes, just like in The Ring, she is reaching out of the picture, resting her hands over the frame as if simply to show that she can. So now the questions begin: Is she in fact some dark embodiment of our fear that will kill us 7 days after we look at it? Or, is she the female equivalent of Neo, discontent with her humble existence inside this Matrix?

I read one theory which said this picture was just a way for Rembrandt to show off his skills in 3 dimensional illusion – but I think that’s a massive load of codswallop. I like to think it’s a piece about art taking on a life of its own, reaching beyond the picture frame into the mind. It might also, along with the numerous self-portraits have something to do with Rembrandt putting his own life into his work, giving his life for them, like Jesus with a paintbrush.

Whatever it is, this picture demonstrates a rather po-mo approach to the work. The fact that we are looking into a frame and the girl looks straight back out at us. But more than this, what we’re looking at, is a frame within a frame (I highly doubt that the frame in the picture being the same design as the actual frame is coincidence – it was a choice I’m sure), so actually this picture is sort of 2 levels deep. Like the bit in Inception when Joseph Gordon-Levitt is fighting on the walls and roof.

Well, it’s obvious at this point that I’ve been watching far too many American films and it’s all getting a bit silly. Either way, these pictures are fascinating and open to infinite interpretations, the way all good art ought to be. Do any of you have any ideas about these pictures? Perhaps some more flights of fancy or something a little more educated? Do let me know.

You might also notice me gently (or perhaps aggressively) prompting commenters. I’d like to discuss ideas with people, and actually in a while I’ll actually be posting some open questions about children’s literature which I’d love to discuss with people. So please do comment.

Right, The GB Men’s Handball is on in a few hours so I think I’ll go and prepare myself for it.



Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn


Lets talk about one of the most famous painters of all time.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606 – 1669) was a Dutch painter and etcher. He is often considered one of the best, most important painters in European history.

Rembrandt’s family was of average wealth, able to pay for Rembrandt’s education. Rembrandt though, like most of us, found education to be a tired affair. At the age of 14 he ditched school to do what we all wish we could ditch school for – painting. I once scived a day off school to draw comics with my buddy Alan. Unfortunately, I’m no Rembrandt and I didn’t turn out to be world famous after this little act of defiance. My mother didn’t know this until now – but I’m too old to be grounded now, so :p

In 1624 Rembrandt left for Amsterdam to study with Pieter Lastman (1583 – 1633). Lastman is another Dutch painter considered to be mostly awesome. He was famed for his historical paintings.

Lastman had another pupil called Jan Lievens. When Rembrandt moved back to his home town Leiden, he and Jan opened a workshop together and started work as independent artists.

Due to the Protestant Reformation, (a movement which looked to reform beliefs and practises in the Roman Catholic Church. Obviously this wasn’t the only goal of the reform as politicians used it as a way to deepen their authority.) the church stopped commissioning artists, so Rembrandt had to take private commissions. Most of his work at the time was on historical paintings. And thus fame begins.

The Abduction of Europa – 1632

Unlike many artists at the time, Rembrandt didn’t move to Italy to study art, instead he moved to Amsterdam. Here he moved in with a guy called Hendrick van Uylenburgh who became a good friend of Rembrandt. It was also pretty handy that van Uylenburgh turned out to be an art dealer, and he really helped launch Rembrandt’s career.

It was here that Rembrandt met the beautiful Saskia (does anyone else think Saskia is a sexy name?) Anyway, Saskia was the cousin of his landlord. Now I would have thought that was a recipe for disaster, and I personally wouldn’t touch anyone belonging to my landlord. Imagine the tension come rent day and I’m an out-of-work performance artist who spends his free time writing children’s books and blog posts… It seemed to work out for Saskia and Rembrandt though, who were happily married in 1634.

Portrait of Saskia with a Flower – 1641

And this is where it all starts getting a bit depressing, as often happens when reading life stories of famous people. Two years after they were married they had a baby, but it died after only weeks. They continued to try for children, and two more died. It wasn’t until 1961 until they had one that managed to fight its way into the world – and for his efforts he was appropriately named Titus.

The Artist’s Son Titus – 1657

During these years of emotional hardship before the birth of Titus, Rembrandt’s art went form strength to strength. All the biggest and most important families and organisations commissioned him and he become very rich. Only problem was he tended to piss away his fortune collecting artworks, as well as buying props, antiques and other tidbits for his paintings.

So, 1641 and all seems well, he is rich, famous, the year before he and his wife moved into a big house next to van Uylenburgh and they now had a son. But unfortunately all was not well. After Titus was born Saskia got ill and died in 1642.

Saskia Asleep In Bed

After a time, Rembrandt took a servant called Hendrickje Stoffels, with whom he fell in love. This caused a number of complications. One, was that he had already taken a common law wife who he’d promised to marry proper. She took him for court, but in hind sight probably wouldn’t do it again. Rembrandt had her sent to a house of correction. Secondly, the terms of Saskia’s will meant that if Rembrandt took on another wife he wouldn’t have access to her fortune. So, he couldn’t afford to marry Hendrickje.

After this, in 1650 there was a economic depression in Amsterdam and Rembrandt was in deep trouble. Six years later he managed to gain a ‘respectable form of bankruptcy which avoided imprisonment’. He lost all his cool stuff and had to move to a smaller, poorer area.

Depressingly Hendrickje died in 1663 from a long term illness, and just to rub salt in the wound Rembrandt had to sell Sasika’s tomb to make ends meet. In 1668 Titus left to marry a childhood buddy and then promptly died. Six months after his death his daughter was born who sweetly, was called Titia. A year later Rembrandt died himself and was buried with his son and his second love.

Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee

When it comes to technical art skills I think it’d be fair to describe Rembrandt as a genius. He learned from his teachers all there was to know about oil painting and then quickly began to experiment in new ways how to use it. He surpassed both his teachers very quickly and never stopped coming up with new innovations.

The area in which Rembrandt excelled was in his use of lighting effects. By experimenting with multiple layers of paint and varying levels of opacity he was able to discover new ways of creating realistic and deep works.

The Archangel leaving the Family of Tobias – 1637

There have been quite a few scientific analysis of his work in recent years that show some of the technical things Rembrandt did to guide the eye of the spectator and to give his paintings more detail and ‘life’. Apparently it has been proved that his art is composed in such a way that the eye is drawn to specific points and then encouraged to linger there, this way viewing his work has a calming effect on people. All this was achieved with complex paint mixtures using eggs, ground glass, chalk and other bits ‘n’ bobs. With experimental techniques such as scratching details in with sharp edges. And with a whole lot of other things I struggle to understand.

As you can probably see from some of the pictures above, Rembrandt pained a lot of portraits and a huge amount of self portraits. He left behind over 90 self portraits from different periods in his life, and I think it becomes possible (with a bit of imagination) to look beyond the pictures at the man. I always think he looks like he was a sad man.

Check out this site to find a complete collection of his works. I’m really interested in 2 things, one being his self-portraits and the other being a specific painting: The Girl at a Window. So I think I’ll do another post about Old Van Rijn based specifically on those 2 things next week.

Self portrait with Saskia

Two Dimensional Fruit


Still Life with Red Apples- Zrazhevsky-ArkadySo, I thought that I’d kick off the next string of blog posts with a subject I’m slightly perplexed by.

Still Life or Nature Morte (dead nature) in French, is a tradition in which a group of objects are copied as realistically as possible. The objects used are inanimate, so that they wont run away or eat your art supplies. Usually still life drawings tend to be made up of fruit, flowers, dead animals and nice things like that. The point is, that the artist is able to arrange a number of objects and spend a nice amount of time studying them in order to render their picture as accurately and realistically as required. This way an artist can study fine details – light, shadow and all manner of things. This is all very well and good, but my question is, why fruit bowls?

Now before I continue I must admit – I hate fruit bowl art. My humble opinion is that it is very boring. So I want to know why so many people bother with it, and why I’m made to admire it in galleries. Obviously this is my own very personal opinion.

It turns out that still life – and specifically, still fruit, dates back all the way to ancient Egypt. Here, we can already start to answer to my question ‘why fruit’. These very basic images were drawn on walls and in tombs. These objects were drawn as offerings to the gods and would go with the deceased on their journey into the afterlife. These offerings, included jewellery, meat and of course, fruit. From what I can tell these pictures weren’t intended to look real, just to be generally recognizable.Egyptian Still Life For more realistically rendered objects we can look to ancient Roman art. Many frescos have been uncovered in the towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii, both of which were destroyed very dramatically by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

Dr Who

If you are interested we can find a outstanding, historically accurate recount of the destruction of Pompeii in a Doctor Who Episode, appropriately titled The Fires of Pompeii.

The still life pictures found here boast far greater detail and lifelike shading than those of the Egyptian illustrations. The Romans were obviously experimenting with new ways to visualise the objects in front of them. The picture below was uncovered at Herculaneum and is the earliest example of a still life work which attempts to describe the three dimensional nature of the source materials.

Still Life with Peaches

This sculpture uncovered in Pompeii shows that fruit was not the only thing of interest to the still life artists of the time.

As we can see from the example above (the peaches, not the Doctor), the artists of ancient Rome demonstrated a much deeper understanding of the objects, detailing the way they’re affected by light and by depicting them from different angles. Obviously, at this time Leonardo Da Vinci hadn’t shown us all how awesome linear perspective could be, and these paintings still look two dimensional in this manner.

I’m not sure exactly why they decided to draw fruit bowls in Herculaneum, but I think it was to do with the types of objects and foods that were available to the upper-classes. In this way, certain fruits may have been a sign of wealth, so fruit and other objects would have been an important part of society and thus, an interesting subject for painters.

After this, still life painting seems to have taken a backseat in Europe while painters focused much more on illustrating biblical scenes. Many still life ideas and motifs still existed (such as the accursed fruit bowl images) but they were put into larger images with wider contexts. The objects used also were selected for their spiritual or biblical connotations.

In the 1600’s still life took off again, especially in the Netherlands. Now I find this interesting, because this revival of still life showed a shift in the social consciousness of Flemish society from religious concerns to a more domestic way of thinking. Suddenly, as culture increased in Flemish society, people became more concerned with everyday life, which explains why seemingly mundane objects (fruit) became the subject of this art. These still life paintings still carried deeper meanings and ideas in them, but the religious content and symbolism was lowered to a more tolerable level.

During this time, still life went through a shift and became what is known as; Vanitas Still Life.
Vanitas refers to a passage in the Bible which goes like this:

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun?

This passage comes from Ecclesiastes Chapter One (verses 1 – 3); look it up in the King James Edition.

Basically, it’s saying that we all love stuff. But we can’t take stuff with us when we die, or as old Ecclesiastes puts it:

There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.

So, Vanitas still life had all the normal still life ideas (fruit, flowers etc) but also mixed in imagery which referenced mortality. Usually this was done quite subtly with, like, sculls.

Even though Vanitas art was very meaningful and slightly morbid, still life was still not considered as important as the religious art at the time. This was the case until a certain Paul Cézanne entered the scene. Cézanne (1839-1906) was a Frenchman and according to his website can be seen as the “bridge between late 19th century Impressionism and the early 20th century’s new line of artistic enquiry, Cubism.” Picasso once cited him as the father of modern art. So, pretty important really.

You can see his entire works on this website, and through them you’ll see that he’s a wonderful artist. There are biblical scenes, naked women, abductions, murders and more fruit than one can conceivably ingest. But why the fruit? It’s very pretty, but why? I can only presume he was following the legacy of still life before him, as well as simply using as a subject to perfect his art.

Anyway, after Cézanne we have the Cubists and their take on still life – and this I understand. An apple deconstructed and reassembled in abstracted form I can admire much more than an average apple.

And there we have it. Still life continues on and unfortunately so does fruit bowl art. But with a little bit of background I can appreciate where all this fruit bowl stuff comes from, why it was important to certain people at certain times. I can also appreciate skill of course. I think Cézanne’s drawings are masterful and very beautiful, but I still find them dull in terms of content. Perhaps the problem for me is that I prefer art depicting living things. People, landscapes etc, things in motion.

Nature Vivante rather than Nature Morte.

Better late than never – Istropolitana pictures



So this really is the final final post on Istropolitana. I’m just going to post a few pictures to give a taste and then I’m putting a full stop on Istropolitana. I’ll also try to shake off the more sort of diary style blog posts I’ve been doing. I’m going to try and concentrate more on writing some articles and bits.

Anyway, without further ado:

General shenanigans in Bratislava

Both full shows and demonstrations of training techniques took place on the outside

Our group

Bratislava seen from the cafe/tv station thing…

Bratislava seen from the castle.

Our venue: Astorka Korzo ´90

Its a real theatre…does this mean I’m now a real actor?

The first raised stage I’ve been on in years.

Pages from the Book of…

Wax Figures

“Staring guy” as described in our review.

“Sexy miss” as described in our review.

“To whom should I speak?”

“Do you know the way to my father’s shop?”