Paintings at an exhibition, seen briefly!

A fleeting visit yesterday, between meetings, to the National Museum in Stockholm and what do I find but an exhibition of paintings from Russia - from the Tretyakov and St. Petersburg - of those now deeply familiar artists from the late nineteenth century including my favourite Russian painting: The Little Fox by Mikhail Nesterov of a fox tamely emerging from the woods of northern Russia to greet three elderly monks, benignly enjoying each other's company sitting on a log. It is a beautiful painting of contemplative ease in which a glimmer of paradise is restored, now and here, in the renewed compact between nature and human.

There was, also, a parallel exhibition of Swedish painters of the same period and their exploration of the four seasons. Here they explore the natural landscape through a romantic and nationalist lens. The world of emigration and urbanization is abolished, and a simpler life extolled in a purifying nature. In contrast to Nesterov, it is a vision that is fundamentally secular. The dislocation, that is the modern world, is not healed through man's transformation within a created order that is transcendentally graced; but, our wounds are healed by a nature cleansed of our obscuring, problematic presence.

However, in my hurried progress, the painting that most deeply arrested me was a Rembrandt portrait of an old woman, displaying all the weathering of age, gnarled hands to the fore, signalling a life of toil well met, struggled with, surrendered to. It is a painting luminous with reality, illumined with compassion.

There is a moment in Patrick White's The Vivisector where his central artist character, Hurtle Duffield, realises that his life as an artist has been about offering people confrontations with the truth that, frankly, they would rather not accept! You get that feel with Rembrandt, his truthfulness is uncomfortable, and necessary, but you can imagine that the good burghers of the Netherlands found him a deeply ambivalent good.

It is no doubt a futile exercise to grade painters (except by subjective favouritism) yet it is irresistable - like discussing who was the greatest footballer while propped up against a bar - but I would wager my money on Rembrandt. Looking closely, if briefly, at this remarkable portrait, it relativised the gallery in its light. He is extraordinarily compelling.


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