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June 22 2012

Jenny Saville, Yoko Ono and Ai Weiwei – the week in art

Saville is out to show she's the feminist Freud, Ono divulges her hopes, book tips and snapshots, and Ai Weiwei is barred from his own court hearing – all in your weekly art dispatch

Exhibition of the week: Jenny Saville

Is this painter of pungent flesh a feminist Lucian Freud for the 21st century... or an overblown media phenomenon? Saville has a striking style, but critics have never agreed on the quality of her work. Big red blotches of pigment do not guarantee brilliance. Here is a chance to make up your mind about an artist who straddles fine art and pop culture.
· Modern Art Oxford, from 23 June until 16 September

Other exhibitions this week

Edvard Munch
One of the true giants of modern art brings a Scandinavian chill to the British summer.
· Tate Modern, London, from 28 June until 14 October

Diane Arbus
The extremes of pathos and mockery in this photographers' art epitomise the power of photography itself.
· Timothy Taylor gallery, London, from 26 June until 17 August

John Currin
Freaky paintings to amuse and appal.
· Sadie Coles HQ, London, until 18 August

Karla Black
Last chance to catch a show by this recent Turner nominee on her home turf.
· Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow, until 24 June

Masterpiece of the week

Rembrandt, Girl at a Window

Is she a servant, a courtesan? The gold chain around her neck suggests sensuality and is typical of the way Rembrandt glorified women. Whoever she is and whatever relationship – if any – she may have had with the painter, this young woman lives forever in his art.
· Dulwich Picture Gallery

Image of the week

What we learned this week

That Ai Weiwei grows ever more convinced of the need to stand up to Chinese authorities – after he is barred from his own hearing

What Yoko Ono's top book tips are, what her personal photo albums look like – and how she answered your questions

That the Stirling prize shortlist this year is chock full of austerity chic

Who Turner shortlister Luke Fowler has taken as his latest film subject

How Chris Ofili has found collaborating with the Royal Ballet – backdrops, bunions and all

And finally

Have you uploaded anything to the Guardian Art and design Flickr page yet?

Or shared any of your art with us?

Do you follow us on Twitter?

Or on Facebook?

Have you seen our Tumblr?

Have you signed up for the Art Weekly newsletter?


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March 29 2012

Rembrandt and the art of growing old gracefully

While other artists were coldly curious or, worse, cruel in their depiction of old age, Rembrandt relished the effects of time

Rembrandt painted old age with a nobility and power that no other artist has ever approached. The authentication of his picture The Old Rabbi at Woburn Abbey adds yet another marvel to the world's most sensitive gallery of ageing.

Renaissance artists were by turns reverent and coldly curious about the effects of age on a face. In 15th-century Florence, death masks of elderly patricians were kept by their families. In early 16th-century Venice, the painter Giorgione, who was to die young, made a disconcerting portrait of an old woman, who bears a banner that says "Col Tempo", or "with time". Giorgione seems to be mocking vanity, pointing out that even the most beautiful face will wrinkle and yellow with time.

It is not a heartening message. Leonardo da Vinci was crueller, mocking elderly faces as monstrous wrecks in his caricature drawings. It took Rembrandt to recognise the dignity and character of aged faces and to embrace the marks of time as beautiful, mysterious and rich.

His paintings of old faces neither flatter nor scrutinise, are neither in denial about nor repelled by age, but instead relish the effects of time. Rembandt is, above all, interested in the inner self, the mystery behind someone's eyes, and the distractions of youthful glamour just get in the way of that pursuit. An elderly face framed by a white ruff collar over black clothes allows him to see deeper.

Rembrandt's deepest study of ageing was a lifelong project: he watched himself grow old. His unrivalled and sustained self-portraiture shows how he himself changed with time. As he ages, he sees himself more intimately: he stops pretending to himself. To compare his Self-Portraits at the ages of 34 and 63 is to witness someone grow in suffering and sorrow and, perhaps, wisdom. At 34 he looks proud, at 63 he simply looks human.

To be sure, Rembrandt is an artist to grow old with.


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March 27 2012

Rembrandt's painting The Old Rabbi authenticated as one of pair

Identification by leading expert on 17th century Dutch masters will add millions to artwork last publicly exhibited in 1950

Left high on a library wall for more than half a century, the portrait of a rheumy-eyed old man initially seemed no different from the misattributed old masters hanging beside it.

But after more than half a century of being overlooked, it has been authenticated as a genuine and outstanding work by Rembrandt.

And the identification – by the world's leading expert on the 17th century Dutch master – will make a multimillion pound difference to its price tag.

The painting, known as The Old Rabbi, has rarely been seen by the public since it was last exhibited in 1950. Since then it has hung in the private apartments of Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire, family home of the dukes of Bedford.

Although there is no suggestion it will now head for the auction rooms, the price difference between a genuine Rembrandt and even the best work by his studio is in the order of millions. In 2009, a world record was set for his work when a half-length portrait of a young man sold for £20m at Christie's.

"We were all so excited at the expert verdict – the Duke was absolutely cock-a-hoop," said Abbey curator Chris Gravett, who had noticed the evident quality of the painting during his nine years working for the duke, and had become increasingly intrigued by it. This was despite competition from a collection that includes 10 paintings by Van Dyck, 12 by Reynolds, three Gainsboroughs, and a room virtually wallpapered with 24 Canalettos bought by the 4th Duke on the Grand Tour in the 18th century.

The detective work by Ernst van de Wetering, a Dutch art historian and chair of the Amsterdam-based Rembrandt Research Project, has also restored the reputation of another suspect painting – a portrait of the artist's wife Saskia owned by the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin.

Van de Wetering, who spent a long day at Woburn poring over the panel, now believes the two pictures are a pair, linked by details of costume, pose and jewellery – particularly the rings on their beautifully contrasted hands. The young woman's smooth flesh is markedly different from the tissue-paper-like crinkles of the old man's skin.

He believes the pictures represent the biblical story of the exiled Ruth who married the kindly but much older Boaz.

Both appear to be painted on mahogany panels from the same packing case which originally held sugar from the West Indies. The Berlin painting is dated 1643, but Van de Wetering believes the slightly later date on the Woburn painting was added after the painting was completed.

Gravett has contacted the Berlin museum, and hopes one day the two paintings can be displayed side by side.

Authenticating Rembrandts is notoriously tricky, and many paintings in national and private collections have been in and out of favour. Frequently hard up and on occasions bankrupt, Rembrandt took on alarming quantities of work, was helped by his pupils and studio assistants and sometimes overpainted earlier works.

Since its brief outing to an exhibition of treasures from Woburn Abbey at the Royal Academy in 1950, where its authenticity was questioned, The Old Rabbi has hung high up in the private library among a group of paintings which have turned out not to be what previous dukes of Bedford had hoped, including a "not Van Dyck", a "not Hogarth", and two others not by Rembrandt.

Although there is no reference to The Old Rabbi in the family archives before a mention of it being cleaned in 1791, Gravett believes it was probably acquired with the two "not Rembrandts" in the 1740s.

It will now be taken down and displayed at head height, as the star exhibit among the display of gold and silver in Woburn Abbey's vaults when the house reopens to the public next weekend.


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August 17 2011

Stolen Rembrandt drawing found in church

Sketch by Dutch painter worth £152,000 recovered 25 miles away from Los Angeles hotel where it was being exhibited

A Rembrandt drawing stolen from a hotel in the Los Angeles area has been recovered at a church in nearby Encino.

Owners of the drawing, known as The Judgment, verified that the recovered pen-and-ink artwork valued at $250,000 (£152,000) and measuring 28cm x 41cm (11in x 16in) was the original that had vanished from an exhibit on Saturday night, said Steve Whitmore, spokesman for the Los Angeles county police department.

An anonymous tipoff led investigators to the church on Monday, and experts from the Linearis Institute, which owns the drawing, verified its authenticity, he said.

There are no suspects in custody, and authorities are not commenting on how the drawing ended up at the church about 25 miles from Los Angeles. They also are not confirming the name of the church.

The drawing was in "a building on the church grounds, not in the sanctuary", Whitmore said. It wasn't hanging on a wall or otherwise displayed, he said.

"We got an anonymous tip because there was so much news coverage," Whitmore told Reuters. "That really was the turning point. The news coverage led people to call us and say, 'Hey, I've seen this, and this is where I've seen it.' We responded, and they were right. There it was."

The drawing by the 17th-century Dutch artist disappeared on Saturday night from an exhibit at the Ritz-Carlton in Marina del Rey.

The theft happened while the curator was being distracted by a person who "appeared to be buying something, and that required the attention of the curator", Whitmore said. "As the curator turned away from the exhibit momentarily and then turned back, he saw that the Rembrandt was gone."

Hi-tech specialists are scouring hotel security video, and authorities may release a sketch or stills of the suspects later this week or next week, Whitmore said.


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August 16 2011

The real-life power of Rembrandt

A mere sketch by Rembrandt made worldwide headlines this week when it was stolen. Why? Because of the artist's unrivalled, universal ability to touch our hearts

It's interesting that a stolen Rembrandt became world news this week. A drawing by the 17th-century Dutch artist was taken from a hotel in California, but has since been recovered by Los Angeles police. The reports spread rapidly even though, as art thefts go, this one fails the usual media test – the work of art in question is valued at only $250,000 (£153,000). If a mere sketch by Rembrandt with an almost sane-sounding price tag on it creates such a stir, it can only mean one thing. His charisma is truly universal.

No wonder, for Rembrandt is one of the world's supreme artists. Thieves know this. Tragically, the theft this week conforms to a pattern: Rembrandt is a name that sounds glamorous to the criminal fraternity. The most upsetting and still unsolved art theft of recent times was the taking of his painting Storm on the Sea of Galilee from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990. The theft of this drawing mattered, too. Rembrandt's drawings rival those of Leonardo da Vinci for inventiveness and vitality.

Across all the media in which he worked – oil painting, drawing and printmaking – Rembrandt has an unrivalled ability to touch our hearts. He cuts through the surface effects of art to go straight to inner truths. He makes atheists conscious of their souls.

Paintings were bought by a broad cross -section of the mercantile society of 17th-century Holland. Not by the poor, but by a large and diverse crowd of merchants. Artists grew up like tulips, and what their down-to-earth audience wanted was down-to-earth depictions of real life: mesmerising lifelike pictures of flowers or food. Rembrandt offered the most primitive art pleasure of all – uncannily convincing portraits.

But Rembrandt's portraits go beyond mere verisimilitude. They seem to start inside, to capture something invisible – the self, soul, personality, call it what you will. Rembrandt's people are there with you in the room, alive and looking back. It is unsettling.

While other Dutch artists either deliberately shed or did not know the earlier styles and ideas of Renaissance Italy, Rembrandt's ambition makes him confront and build on the example of masters such as Titian. His Self-Portrait at the Age of 34 in London's National Gallery is modelled on Titian's A Man with a Quilted Sleeve, which happens to have ended up in the same museum.

Another group of Dutch painters went to Rome (which Rembrandt did not) and brought the intense light effects of Caravaggio north. But in Rembrandt's paintings, the dramatic light and dark of Caravaggio mixes with the softer styles of Titian and Giorgione to create shimmering atmospheres of gold and brown, bronze and black.

Two things are crucial to his genius, then. He shares and takes to its extreme the simple, everyday Dutch affection for real life. His portraits give what his clients wanted – a true depiction – but make this a sublime quest. Secondly, he mixes a deep knowledge of the history of painting into his palette, consciously extending the achievements of Italian artists. Out of these currents of the earthy and the elevated comes an achievement that leaves most art far behind.

These are just tentative thoughts about the genius of Rembrandt. In the end, it exceeds what anyone says about it.


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