Dulwich Picture Gallery Pulls Off An Ambitious, Cinematic Rembrandt Exhibition

Rembrandt's Light, Dulwich Picture Gallery ★★★★☆

Dulwich Picture Gallery Pulls Off An Ambitious, Cinematic Rembrandt Exhibition Rembrandt's Light, Dulwich Picture Gallery 4
The beautifully lit denial of St Peter shows how Rembrandt mastered the capturing of light. © The Rijksmuseum

If Rembrandt were born in recent times, would he have been a cinematographer? That's the question posed in an exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, which offers an ambitious take on the painter extraordinaire.

Rembrandt was a master of capturing the contrast between light and dark, as can be seen in a painting where Peter is denying that he knows Christ, as Christ is led away by soldiers. Peter states his denial to a servant girl, her candle lighting up the space between them — symbolically illuminating the words that we can't see or hear, while all other characters fade into the surrounding darkness. It's a technique that continues to be used in films over 300 years, to draw our eyes to a particular character or moment.

Watch this scene spring to life as a spotlight rolls across it. Royal Collection Trust/ © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

The gallery has worked with noted cinematographer Peter Suschitzky (Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back) who added touches such as having paintings which depict night time displayed in a low lit room, which adds to the atmosphere — I find myself drawn towards the Holy Family sat around a fire on the Flight into Egypt, wanting to warm my hands by the spitting flames.

In contrast, the drawings in a setting akin to Rembrandt's studio are lit up so we can study the details in an environment replicating the daylight that would have naturally streamed into his work space. Having this similarity to the setting of one of Rembrandt's sketches is a lovely touch.

Another spectacular painting in this exhibition. Royal Collection Trust /© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

The most cinematic moment is a painting that's barely visible, until a slowly sweeping spotlight kisses it with light and the work comes alive. The light may be the spark but it's Rembrandt's painting that does all the work, with the bright sky behind the risen Christ drawing our attention to him as the central figure in the work. He both rises from the dead for us and the other characters in the work.

We're well aware that this cinematic take on Rembrandt is going to divide people, with the art history purists likely to be unhappy with the choice of typewriter font mimicking film scripts in the captions, and the dramatic lighting. However, I like the novel approach, and while it is a little gimmicky it doesn't take away from the power of the paintings themselves, while giving us another way to appreciate these masterpieces.

Rembrandt's Light is on at Dulwich Picture Gallery from 4 October 2019 to 2 February 2020. Tickets are £16.50 for adults and include entry to the permanent collection.

Last Updated 03 October 2019