We’re tempted to think of light being used in the visual arts as a new thing, a product of photography along with technology, the internet and – arguably – occasional gimmickry.
This exhibition, at Dulwich Picture Gallery, is a revelation of its recognition by the legendary master of classical painting.
Rembrandt died in 1669 after achieving a prodigious output, not only of work but also as an art teacher. So it would be an easy option to have a standard blockbuster show to commemorate the 350th anniversary of his death.
Instead, what we have here is a demonstration of the different ways he used light to reinforce the meanings of his pictures.
Taking inspiration for subject-matter from sources ranging from the Bible to everyday life, he used light to, well, enlighten the viewer. For instance, his The Denial of St. Peter (1660) shows light drawing our attention to key aspects of this event so making the picture a form of living theatre, almost like a series of close-ups in a film to give force to the narrative.
Woman with the Arrow (c.1661), showing a posed artist’s model, uses light and shadow to give us the feel of his studio. And his Portrait of an Old Warrior (1650s) employs light and dark to magnify its subject reflecting on his once (youthful) and present (ageing) life.
But this exhibition isn’t just away of showing the technical skill of Rembrandt in using light to expand on meaning. It’s also a reminder that artistic tradition is not just a source of comfort or an object of criticism.
Approached constructively, we find that there is always something new to be learnt from it. It can talk to us now, afresh.
Photo: Gavriil Papadiotis