REMBRANDT SELF-PORTRAITS (2019) – JELLYFISH (Williams, 2020) – BLACK SWAN GREEN (Mitchell, 2006)

This post is a collection of 3 shorter reviews of 3 very different books. For starters a new, lush Taschen collection of all known Rembrandt’s painted, etched & drawn self-portraits, in which I also offer a quick guide one what Rembrandt book you need to buy. Then there’s a recent, rare non-fiction book on jellyfish, and also here I’ll offer some pointers to other jellyfish books. To end, a short, but incomplete appraisal of Black Swan Green, David Mitchell’s semi-autobiographical account of his year as a 13-year-old, stammering teenager.

Rembrandt The Self-PortraitsREMBRANDT. THE SELF-PORTRAITS – Volker Manuth & Marieke de Winkel (2019)

How many Rembrandt books does one need? Depends on what you want. Rembrandt’s Paintings Revisited – A Complete Survey A Reprint of A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings VI by the leading expert Ernst van de Wetering comes close to being the best monograph on Rembrandt’s paintings, but it is rivaled by the large format Rembrandt. The Complete Paintings by Volker Manuth. The text isn’t necessarily better than the van de Wetering book, but lots of the reproductions are – both in size as in quality. But, some paintings only get a small reproduction – strange editorial choice. So I think the books are complementary, also because the Van de Wetering book is very insightful on how the authorship of Rembrandt paintings is established.

That brings us to this book – an offshoot of the Complete Paintings and its companion Rembrandt. Complete Drawings and Etchings by Peter Schatborn – both Taschen projects published in 2019. What you get is a lush packaging, with a lenticular print cover, and gold pages throughout the book. Its text is minimal. There’s an introduction of 6 pages that also features small reproductions of Rembrandt’s self-portraits within other paintings. A few lines accompany some of the actual, full-fledged self-portraits in the rest of the book – but not all, and there are no lines to any of the etchings & drawings. All of those lines are lifted from the much longer Complete edition entries.

So the focus on the book is obviously the art itself, and what we get each time is a reproduction of the print or painting on the left page, if possible in its original size, with some basic information, and a full blown, full page reproduction on the right page – often zooming in a bit, but always including the full face. This contrasting approach works really well, especially for the etchings, as seeing their original small format only makes them more mind-blowing.

The quality of the reproductions is outstanding, at the same level as the 2 Complete Taschen mammoths. A few of the paintings get a bit of a bigger (partial) reproduction than in the Complete edition, and most of the etchings/drawings. If you already have the Complete books, I’d say this book doesn’t offer a lot of additional value for the paintings, but it does for the etchings/drawings.

The works are presented chronologically, and the book ends with two 4-pages overviews of all the paintings and all the etchings/drawings next to each other, also chronologically but to scale, making a comparison on that front possible. There’s also a short bullet point Rembrandt biography (2 pages) and a very small selected bibliography.

It’s kinda cool to have all the self-portraits collected in a volume of its own, and seeing them chronologically works on an emotional level too. I guess that emotion is the main appeal of this book – aside from the large reproductions of the etchings/drawings, coupled with their original format.

All and all, if you’re a serious Rembrandt enthusiast, this is a very nice addition to your Rembrandt library. If you just want a Rembrandt book that’s not too expensive, this also does the trick: his portraits do show his mastery & his evolution.

If you want an overview that is complete and affordable, get the Van de Wetering for the paintings. Good, complete overviews of etchings and drawings aren’t easy to find, so the Complete Taschen is impossible to beat, even though it costs 150 euros. Full reviews of both of the Complete books are forthcoming, when I finish them fully.

Rembrandt The Self-Portraits inside etching

Rembrandt The Self-Portraits inside

Click for all my Rembrandt related reviews.

Jellyfish Peter WilliamsJELLYFISH – Peter Williams (2020)

Good books on jellyfish are hard to find – there hardly exist any. I’ve had the German Quallen by Thomas Heeger (2004) for years, and that really seems the most comprehensive scientific monograph on the subject: someone should translate that in English. I’m fascinated by the subject, so when I saw Williams’ book reviewed in The Economist I bought it instantly.

Well, the English pendant to Quallen this is not. At only 180 pages and only 96 illustrations, this feels like an opportunity gone wrong. Williams has written a very strange text: it fails to find focus, as this book tries to present a bird’s eye view on jellyfish as a phenomenon, both biological as cultural. We get some biology, but also quite a few pages on the history of jellyfish research, dating all the way back to the 16th century, and before to Aristotle & Pliny the Elder, plus some random ruminations on jellyfish in popular culture – with stuff like a movie still from Finding Nemo, a picture of a Roman mosaic of the mythological figure Medusa, contemporary glass art jellyfish, and a paragraph on Margaret Atwood using jellyfish as a metaphor. What’s worse: the biology and the cultural remarks are generally woven together, making for a disjointed reading experience.

One has to wonder what the target audience for this little book is: this is not exactly a popular science book: terms like ‘phylum’ or ‘strobilation’ are used without explanation, but the cultural ruminations are thin, and even a bit trite. On page 127 Williams talks about an eccentric Japanese professor doing songs about jellyfish in a funny costume, and on the next page the word ‘prion’ is used. In the end, all the culture stuff is just musings, variations on the fact that jellyfish are strange and fascinating and alien. They fail to be true cultural science: for instance, Williams claims jellyfish tend to be used more in poems than in prose – but this isn’t backed up by research.

The book is part of the Animal series by Reaktion books, and this broad view on the animal in question seems a bit of a template for a text that had to fit in under 200 pages. As a result, the biology side is a bit underdeveloped. Williams read through the scientific literature, and knows his stuff, so much is clear. He manages to provide quite a few interesting tidbits of information, and luckily, I did learn a few things. But sadly, he hardly digs deep, and things I would have liked a full page on only get a sentence or a short paragraph. It’s good as an introduction, but would hardly satisfy anyone with an academic interest in the matter – except maybe for the bibliography and the references.

There is a silver lining though: in that bibliography, I discovered a 2016 monograph on jellyfish I wasn’t aware of – Jellyfish: A Natural History by Lisa-ann Gershwin. I’ve ordered that, and I hope that will scratch my itch more thoroughly. (It did, my review is here.)

Black Swan Green

BLACK SWAN GREEN – David Mitchell (2006)

While I knew this was a semi-autobiographical novel about a 13-year old boy in the 80ies, and not really speculative fiction, I still expected something more. 2014’s The Bone Clocks blew me away – and not because of its speculative elements, but just because Mitchell wrote such a great, human book – judged by all kinds of parameters.

Black Swan Green is a bit too one-dimensional for me: one year in a boy’s life, trapped with his stammer, in the dissolving marriage of his parents, in the social world that is other kids in a small town. Been there, done that – so to say. It didn’t surprise me, it didn’t engage me and I didn’t learn anything, so I decided to jump ship at 50%. I cannot fault David Mitchell – the language is great, there are some excellent scenes, and the young protagonist’s voice is convincing, but this was not the book for me. I’m simply not into the subject matter, something I found out while reading.

If you do like books about teenagers: there’s a significant chance you’ll like this, a lot even.


22 responses to “REMBRANDT SELF-PORTRAITS (2019) – JELLYFISH (Williams, 2020) – BLACK SWAN GREEN (Mitchell, 2006)

  1. So you like jellyfish. That is a fascinating tidbit that I’ll probably never comment on again or remember! 😀

    Anything in particular about them that draws you to them?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Well, the short answer to that is that I think jellyfish are a perfect metaphor for us humans.

      The long answer goes something like this… I was struck by the alien nature of a bio-luminescent deep sea jellyfish I once saw in a nature documentary I saw in a movie theatre around the year 2000 – don’t remember the title of the documentary atm. That kind of kickstarted my fascination.

      I think they are such a great metaphor because they more or less don’t have agency, and are completely determined by their surroundings – like us, without free will. Add to that the fact that most jellyfish hardly have senses or a developed nervous system: no brain, no eyes, …, and the fact that they are translucent. Animal life stripped to its essence, so to say.

      They’re evolutionary also probably the oldest animals – so all animal life stems from their early ancestors – either jellyfish or sponges, scientists are still debating that. (I’m not sure about your stance on evolution by the way, I suddenly realize. Not that I would judge you if you don’t believe in it.)

      What’s also interesting is the fact that the word jellyfish actually refers to animals belonging to 2 completely different phylums: Cnidaria and Ctenophora. For comparision: insects and all mamals belong to different phylums. It’s actually even a bit more complex, but that will do for now. They are a really diverse group of animals, bordering the incredible.

      My fascination even went so far that I named my second poetry collection (never published, obviously) ‘Bathyctena Chuni’, the name of that jellyfish from that documentary.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I should have known free will played a part 😀

        And you write poetry. That is actually quite surprising. You’re not planning on turning your blog into a poetry slam blog are you? Please don’t do that if you’re thinking of doing that…

        Liked by 1 person

        • I haven’t written poetry for a few years, and even then it only was sporadically. I guess it’s been over ten years ago since I was really serious about it, and wrote more than sporadically. So there’s no chance this blog will turn into a poetry slam blog. I wrote in Dutch btw, so the online audience would be limited.
          If I may ask: why do you think that’s surprising? I’m surprised it’s surprising 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

          • Because while you and I differ on the science of evolution, you’ll always struck me as a rational and level headed fellow. All the time.
            Poetry doesn’t fit that mold I created for you 😀

            Liked by 1 person

            • That’s interesting. I guess rational people can write poetry too. I don’t think there’s that much of a contradiction.

              When I studied literary science, I actually specialized in postmodern Flemish poetry. While that may seen a bit of a daft topic, it’s actually a great gateway, as it ties into all kinds of philosophical debates: mainly the nature of representation, but also ethics, politics, epistemology, etc;. Especially representation is a hot topic, that also needs semantics, brain science, theory of mind, etc.

              I guess I’ve always written – I wrote short stories in high school, 15-20 years ago it was poetry, today it’s this blog. I don’t feel the need the write poetry anymore, as I don’t have the feeling I want to communicate something that way, and I don’t feel I can contribute much to the genre – it’s mainly a dead anyway too, so…

              Liked by 1 person

              • I think almost every young man writes some poetry, but not enough to have an unpublished book’s worth. That is what I found surprising.

                But it is good to know. Because now I can refer to you as Fluffy McFluffkins. And if you think there is a correlation, you’re wrong!


                (sorry, it’s been a long day of work but I’m out now and feeling rather euphoric)

                Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks – I’m a Rembrandt fan but haven’t read anything in a long time – probably since the Schama book years ago. I doubt I’ll have time for either of these. It’s wonderful knowing they’re out there though. I also enjoyed Black Swan Green long ago. (oh my I seem to be getting old myself. – heh.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t read the Schama book. It has been on my radar once, but now I think there’s maybe not that much to learn from it since I read so much else about a Rembrandt, and as it’s over 20 years old, some of the research might be dated as well, I don’t know. I’m also wondering how much of it is conjecture, as it’s an attempt at an historical biography based on limited sources. Might still end up reading it though, as I liked the lenghty interview with Simon Schama I once saw on Dutch television in 2000 in the fantastic series Of Beauty And Consolation. It’s on YouTube here:

      The entire series is on YouTube and worth anybody’s time, 26 long interviews with George Steiner, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Edward Witten, Steven Jay Gould, Yehudi Menuhin, Wole Soyinka, Dubravka Ugrešic, John Coetzee, Leon Lederman, TatjanaTolstaja, Freeman Dyson, Elizabeth Loftus, Gary Lynch, Martha Nussbaum, Richard Rorty, Roger Scruton, Germaine Greer, Catherine Bott, Leon Lederman, Richard Dufallo, Rutger Kopland, Simon Schama, Rudi Fuchs, György Konrád, Karel Appel and Jane Goodall.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The Schama on Rembrandt includes big beautiful glossy pictures (I got the hard copy when ti first came out) along with an abundance of historical context. . I doubt there’s anything about Rembrandt himself or his work you haven’t read in those other brooks.

    I watched the interview and Schama writes kind of like he talks – lots of digressions.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Cool that you watched it! I don’t remember that much of it, it’s 20 years ago, only that I liked it back then. The Richard Rorty interview is a personal favorite, I’ve watched that countless of times.


  4. Oh man, your Rembrandt book collection looks absolutely gorgeous. I was always fond of those Taschen publications, but the cost is staggering – especially with postage and packaging to NZ…
    Curious what you’re writing about jellyfish vs sponges as animal ancestors – I was under the impression it was sponges, but admittedly I haven’t been paying attention to this topic for a while.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve never considered the logistics of books in NZ. You do have bookshops I guess. Don’t they have Taschen? Or if they don’t stock that, can’t you order it via a brick&mortar bookshop? Or do they cost more in a bookshop too? And is that the same for regular books too then? And other imported consumer goods?

      Yes, could very well be sponges. I don’t know anymore than the fact that the debate is not settled – at least, that’s what Williams wrote, and he seems to have read through the literature.

      Liked by 1 person

      • TBH, I’ve never seen a Taschen here in a bookshop – only rarely in a library. And because NZ’s an island and Taschen is European and its books are heavy, it costs more here both to buy and to ship it here. I’ll check US Amazon and Book depository, my usual sources 😉

        Interesting! I’ll take a peek into it. Thanks!

        Liked by 1 person

        • I naively thought Taschen was so big it would be distributed around the world.

          Lately I’m using bookdepository too. There’s a good local online shop for books and about everything else here in Belgium/Netherlands that has managed to establish itself before Amazon got here, so I use that mainly, but I’ve noticed bookdepository often has better prices, as they don’t have track&trace.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Taschen is big, no doubt, but NZ’s population is small and there isn’t much demand for what many view essentially as giant coffee-table picture books 😉
            I’ll take a look at bookdepository – they have free shipping and good prices and though I like to buy books from marketplace, some sellers simply don’t ship to NZ

            Liked by 1 person

            • Btw, Taschen also publishes in more of less regular formats. But those two complete Rembrandts are really big: 29 x 39.5 x 8.5 cm and 8 kilograms each.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Ooof! 😀
                Btw, Is Rembrandt your favorite painter?


              • If I have to name one, I guess so. Van Gogh is a contender as well. Picasso maybe. Mainly because they impacted painting so much formally. I’m surprised myself that I’m dishing out such classic and even clichéd names – there’s so many good comporary painters but the older I get, the more I apriciate the masters. On a purely emotional level I guess Bruegel, or possibly Rembrandt. So I guess Rembrandt yes, because he touches both emotional as technical buttons. Then again, what Van Gogh did in just ten years borders on the incredible, and Picasso’s impact on art in general, well, that’s probably even bigger. And also Bruegel shouldn’t be underestimated formally.

                Liked by 1 person

              • I’m totally with you on Van Gogh, he’s my favorite. Bruegel and Rembrandt and Caravaggio and da Vinci are in my painting Pantheon as well. Goya’s Black Paintings, della Francesco frescos had a great impact too, and there’s incredible artistic vision and bravery in them for me. Picasso is a tough case; I agree his impact was enormous, though arguably not bigger than da Vinci’s, but somehow his later paintings just don’t speak to me on an aesthetic and emotional level.

                Liked by 1 person

              • I think Picasso’s contributions away from representation in art are maybe more important than refinements in better representation, but the birth of abstract art is muddled and complicated so it’s hard to say who’s more important. It doesn’t really matter either.
                I haven’t seen enough Goya I guess to say something about him, and likewise on most Italian art – except that I agree on Caravaggio, although I think Rembrandt is more interesting formally: his use of paint is far more varied – and that’s ultimately what’s it about for me, and why Van Gogh might be the greatest of all.

                Liked by 1 person

              • I admire Caravaggio’s ability to transmit deep emotions through such limited formal means; and his use of shadow is on par with Rembrandt, I think. Rembrandt has a more intellectual feel to me, I guess. Goya’s Black Paintings, especially his Saturn Devouring His Children, is an absolute masterpiece, one of very few such powerful and inspired paintings. But in terms of artistic individuality, a fully own way of perception and creation, Van Gogh might indeed be unparalleled.


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