It takes balls to show the best works first (museum etiquette dictates a sprinkling of masterpieces), so the National Gallery displays some hefty cojones by exhibiting probably the finest group of paintings anywhere in the world at the very start of this knockout show. It’s shockingly simple: four self-portrait canvases and a tiny etching by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, all made during the last 11 years of his life, hang, spotlit, side by side. Yet everything you could wish for in terms of Rembrandt’s genius and his humanity is displayed in front of you: the concentrated study, the prosaic made mysterious. He has an almost sculptural way of painting, building up the pigment to denote his bulbous nose, contrasting it with silky, babyish hair. He looks kind, sometimes comical, occasionally amused, but burdened. And with good reason.
Spanning the last 15 years of his life, from the 1650s until his death aged 63 in 1669, the show covers a particularly unhappy time for the artist; he fell out of fashion, went bankrupt (he even sold his wife’s tomb to make ends meet), his lover Hendrickje Stoffels (she of the casually hoiked-up undergarment in ‘A Woman Bathing in a Stream’) died of the plague, and his only son died a few years later. Cleverly, biographical details are confined to the handbook. In the galleries, it’s all about the paintings. Dark brown canvases are shown on dark brown (or grey) walls. Doorways are obscured, blocking sightlines into adjacent galleries. It all goes to amplify a sense of introspection, encouraging you to share in the intensity of Rembrandt’s vision (and his pain). Which isn’t to say that it’s all about angst (though there’s plenty of that too). Rembrandt does intimacy on a grand scale in ‘Portrait of a Couple as Isaac and Rebecca’ (1665), and subtle eroticism in ‘Bathsheba with King David’s Letter’ (1654).
And Rembrandt breaks all the rules, using his palette knife, traditionally reserved for mixing paint, to apply paint to canvas – trowelling it on, as his detractors said at the time. They had a point. But those curdled cream textures under nicotine-hued glazes are of a piece with the intense psychological atmosphere. Later, he expands his range by conjuring lustrous gold and ravaged skin with audacious swipes of his brush or finger, or scratching lines into the wet paint.
Speaking, again, of nerve. The National chose to open this show last week during the folderol of Frieze. Of course, they knew that some mostly small, mostly sombre paintings by someone very dead would end up being the most spectacular thing in town.