‘Rembrandt’s spirit is too strong for Shell!’


It’s such a dispiriting moment, when you see the creeping hand of commodification land on something you love, which has kept you company over the years and been a source of inspiration, and of comfort in dark times. It was like this when Bowie licensed ‘Heroes’ to various corporations with a terrible, careless disregard for the many people for whom it meant so much. And now Rembrandt. Here is a painter whose gentle, compassionate grasp of the human condition has made him the artist I take solace in more than any other. And now the National Gallery and Shell have attempted to corrupt his beautiful soul, but…

Rembrandt's spirit NG 16-10-14

…that was the luggage tag I wrote, one of many tied with red or yellow ribbon to a pillar outside the gallery as part of a gathering that was part-vigil, part-performance and part-protest, on the night of the Rembrandt – the Late Works exhibition’s private view. This was how they looked after we’d departed:

NG ribbons and tagsNG vigil

Earlier, there were testimonies from people and movements resisting Shell on the various international front lines:

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I was there with my guitar, in order to assist the reawakening of several Shell Out Sounds  (SOS) showstoppers(!), and was playing the chords to ‘Hallelujah‘ as various of the gathered stepped forward to say why they had come. As each came to a close, we sang ‘Hallelujah, we see through ya’, and while I was concerned that playing those plaintive chords might seem to be ‘directing’ things towards sentiment, I think the chorus was actually very moving, the more so for repetition. And of course it was great to have Alex Etchart alongside, this time mostly adding beautifully-judged harmonies, (as well as taking the odd picture; thanks  to him for this one: Alex tweet NG Rembrandt

…but perhaps we should have been singing ‘Earthalujah’, not to avoid copyright infringement, but to show our soul connection to the ever-wondrous Reverend Billy & the Stop Shopping Choir, whose presence seemed to be with us as we move hesitantly but improvisationally towards a Brit version of what they do. Leading up to this calm, powerful ending, we had been a little more raucous, singing other SOS songs:


(Photo: Peter Marshall)

…making up new ones to the slogan that was shouted, (‘Art for people, not for profit!) and to a nifty cardboard sign that read ‘Don’t let Shell rebrand Rembrandt!’, and then layering ‘Find the cost of freedom’ over the top. The collective mind seems to work swiftly and elegantly in these situations, allowing lovely musical collisions to bubble up out of nowhere, and then disappear from memory just as quickly. There was also a re-run of the nicely-judged and well-sung (by others – I was hovering at the back of the chorus) Faustus rewrite that we had performed at the show’s press view two days previously:

Rembrandt press view visit Kristian Buus NG musical theatre

A righteous flurry of activity, then, in an attempt to make best use of this opportunity the National Gallery has given us to speak truth of Shell, and to amplify distant voices, as well as to make harmonious use of our own. There are good rumbles of energy and support for a long-term group using music in this sort of way, (how much more extraordinary might our gathering had been with a miniature afrobeat orchestra, or a good-sized string quartet, after all?) I dream of a wildly musical weekly vigil from now until the exhibition closes on January 15th 2015, since even though ‘Rembrandt’s spirit is too strong for Shell’, even he could use a helping hand. I know my own and others’ commitments and whereabouts make that a challenge…but how about it? PS. Here’s Rikki’s film of our 21st century Faustian update: https://vimeo.com/108959342

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