What’s in a Name: Raoul Middleman on John Singleton Copley
Painters on Paintings / December 2017
Copley wrote in a letter to Benjamin West in 1767—”In this Country, as you rightly observe, there is no example of art, except what is to (be) met with in a few prints indifferently executed, from which it is not possible to learn much”.
An American Sensibility / Harper’s Magazine / July 2000
From a presentation given December 2000 by the painter Raoul Middleman at a panel discussion on the meaning of American Art that was hosted by the National Academy of Design in New York City. Middleman is the Academy's president Colin a selection of his paintings was on display in May at M B Modern in New York City....
Rembrandt: The Night Watch
The most puzzling aspect of the “The Night Watch” is the figure of the small girl, the so-called mascot of the civic guard, located just left of center in the middleground of the painting. Taking another look, one must ask oneself: Is this that same girlish little girl — all endearing innocence with blue eyes and fair hair...
Courbet And The Modern Landscape
Ego is at the center of Courbet's paintings. Lurking behind every rock in a Courbet landscape is Courbet; the grottoes and rivulets all murmur with the flem-flecked quaver of his voice, the slow dumb yahoo of the brawling redneck from the boonies of the Jura Mountains...
El Greco Exhibition At The Metropolitan Museum Of Art 2003
Not only is El Greco's paint the freshest of anybody's (no network of fine cracks in the impastos, no shit load of corrections burdening the sensuality of the moment), but so unorthodox in its facture that it took three centuries for the paint of a Soutine to catch up with it; a paint — unfurling, empirical, saturated with corrosive color — traveling with racer-dip speed across the whole length of the canvas, up, down, and in every direction....
Thoughts On The Late Religious Portraits Of Rembrandt
Before going to this exhibition, my expectation, based on what I already knew about Rembrandt's life and work, was for an altogether different kind of painting. In my readings, I had gleaned that Rembrandt had tremendous appetites which he could not curb. His person, as well as his paintings, dealt in extremes. It was his custom, when working, to wipe his brushes on himself. There was always paint under his fingernails....
The Circles in Rembrandt's Kenwood House Self Portrait
Rembrandt's self portrait is a painting of near perfect pitch and pace. Done with a limited palette of earth tones, with a little vermillion thrown in for chromatic spice, it seems to slow time down. The bare wall of its background is incised with two enigmatic circles. A colossus of painterly aplomb, this painting is a major victory for the aging artist, who fills with undaunted heft the space between these two circles.....
What’s in a Name: Raoul Middleman on John Singleton Copley
“Beauty, they say, is only skin deep. Whew, ain’t that a relief.”
— William Michael Schindler, poet
DCopley wrote in a letter to Benjamin West in 1767—”In this Country, as you rightly observe, there is no example of art, except what is to (be) met with in a few prints indifferently executed, from which it is not possible to learn much”.
Copley was the first and maybe the best of American painters, in that he formulated the future of American art, a visual pragmatism before William James could come up with the idea in philosophy. With no museums about or otherwise references to any tradition of painting—indeed with absolutely nothing to inspire the nascent artist in the rowdy ruck of this primitive pre-revolutionary culture but a scant sampling of tavern limner art or icons of uptight puritan notables —how else to paint but to concentrate mercilessly on the singularity of high end realistic focus and finish, such as the glint on tabletops or eyeballs, rendered to an almighty faultless Metaphysical T; or myriad fabric folds dispersed in a clutter of architectural probity, all scored in blunt local color; or clutched hands whose fingernails and knuckles usurp the flow of grasping limbs.
Copley’s art is the triumph of the Missouri “Give me the facts, please”, the universality of banality culminating in a transcendental American artistic identity, extending all the way from John Singleton Copley to Thomas Eakins to Philip Pearlstein.
Take for example a portrait by Copley in The Baltimore Museum of Art of Lemuel Cox (1770): a pompous schmuck of Boston privilege, striking a pose full of narcissistic male ego, elbow akimbo, a lordly chin; this is an eighteenth century trust fund lad full of himself and all decked out in the finery of a patrician dark blue waistcoat. Notice how each exact button along his portly vest has precisely four perforated holes, into which are carefully stitched the golden threads attaching it to the cloth. You can count each tiny minuscule thread going into each of the four little holes with neat mathematical precision, as if he used a nostril hair for a brush. What madness of specificity! Much of American Art has this one prevailing dismal characteristic—a profound distrust of subjectivity, which sets vulnerable limits to its power of depiction.
There is a slim chance I have a genuine Copley hanging in my house. Controversy hovers about this painting concerning its authenticity. Inherited from my wife’s family, the question of whether it is truly a John Singleton Copley is still up for grabs: a youthful painting of Rebecca Boylston that my wife’s great granduncle, Laurence Minot, acquired. My wife remembers from her childhood this painting standing out among two genuine Monet’s and a terrific Tarbell interior with a beautiful New England woman discretely immersed in its tenebrous clime. Besides, on the back of this so-called Copley painting is an inscription proclaiming its author and provenance as genuine and that it had been for generations in the same family since probably its very inception.
In spite of the fact that this painting had previously been included in a major Copley Exhibition at The Boston Museum of Art, the world’s leading Copley expert had on two occasions the temerity to explicitly deny its authenticity, a fact that my father-in-law relished in that there was no necessity to insure it at a high premium. The Copley expert probably rejected the painting on the grounds of its lack of finish and inconsistency of style that doesn’t accord with the faultless technique and smug display of factual authority assumed to be the brand of the Copley Opus. According to the record, Rebecca Boylston was forty years old and unmarried the first time Copley painted her in 1767, a much older woman than portrayed in my Copley.
So whence comes this problematic portrait of a much younger Rebecca, a girl in her late teens or early twenties? Copley was born in 1738, and was starting to paint portraits by the time he was fifteen or sixteen, that is, in 1753 on, in which case Rebecca would be twenty six or thereabouts. Since any speculation about the past of so long ago is but a confabulated presumption, let’s entertain this unlikely series of events: suppose somehow this fledging artist, John Singleton Copley, a tobacconist’s son, got to know the wealthy Rebecca Boylston, high on the Boston hierarchal social ladder, well enough to ask her to sit for a portrait. And she somehow acquiesced. And say the adolescent Copley felt, in the twitch of his fingers holding the brush, a certain pubescent attraction on the occasion of painting this young beauty, enough to paint her likeness a bit younger or closer to his age, mildly distorting the distance of age to order to make her more companionable. Is that scenario credible enough for me to stubbornly persist in believing it to be a genuine Copley, albeit, a youthful work, — not merely a teenage attempt to learn his craft, but a budding predilection for the sensual?
The Copley painting now sits in my living room, not far from the TV, and I engage with it most lovingly in the evening between English murder mysteries. Whenever I encounter it, I can’t take my eyes off of its inexplicable charm and provocation, inexplicable because there is no facture of compelling brushwork, color or composition that can explain my endless fascination. Maybe it’s her dark eyes, their focus of ever-present engagement; they seem almost to flirt with me in a gaze of persistent innuendo. The forearm and hand fondling the black ribbon tied in a bow about her neck is stiffly painted, like a puppet’s accoutrement— it is somewhat amateurish and klutzy—yet the loose end of the ribbon itself ambles down her embonpoint to nestle about her modest cleavage. Her shoulders slope down the slender periphery of her body with the flex of feminine grace. A speckle of white fleurs insinuate the last reaches of her lithe silhouette.
Would I still like this painting if I did not think it a Copley? The lure of this painting has a personal reach — indeed stares back at me — exceeding dispassionate connoisseurship. This ostensibly mild portrait of Miss Boylston has meddled with my fantasy life, become completely fetishised in my imagination, and has an attraction that far exceeds its aesthetic reckoning. Whether it’s a Copley or not is of little matter to me now.
An American Sensibility
During a recent stint I had as a visiting critic, a student put up a painting of a figure in a mastless boat at the mercy of the heaving sea under a brutish is sky – all rendered and labored gray strokes of grubby, clotted pigment. I venture to say that the painting was very reminiscent of Albert Pinkham Ryder. “Who?” the student inquired in a somewhat arrogant manner. Dumbfounded, I immediately polled the class of eleven students, only to find, to my utter dismay, that nine of them had never heard of Ryder. “Or maybe John Marin,” I volunteered, “especially the way the water is rendered.” The same look of lambent, uncomprehending blandness met my inquiry, my mad tutelary solicitation.
These were purportedly serious students, painting majors, seniors. I trotted out names of other, more contemporary American artist and hope that the samplings would be better recognized: Philip Evergood, Reginald Marsh, Arthur Dove. Nothing! I became frantic, randomly pulling names from a whole spectrum of art history: Guard, Ter Borsch, Cranach, Veronese, Boudin, Sassetta, Chase, Patinir, Sickert. Still not a glimmer of acknowledging intelligence. I felt that I had engaged in some bizarre exercise in pedantry. Could it be that the present generation of students is so caught up in the notion of making it in the current art world that their ambition can exploit only the shallowest aspects of the “scene”? No name earlier then Schnabel or Salle seems to filter through their dismal, pragmatic, careerist consciousness. It's like people who drop their friends when they can no longer be of use to them. “It's as if,” I exclaimed, “you were chemistry majors and didn't know who Lavoisier was!”
A tall, square-jawed, stubble-faced student broke through my harangue with a smut challenge: “What do we need to know all that shit for?”
“You're right,” I said. “And when you die I hope the world forgets you with the same ruthless dispatch.”
The last student said that his work was outside, set up in the parking lot. The class and I ambled out to the chosen site at the far end of a lot, where no cars were parked, along the concrete slab that abutted, after a drop, the Light Rail tracks. Here his paintings were lined up. My first impression was that they were utterly without merit. No color, no light or atmosphere, no energy or painterly fracture or surface interest–simply an endless row of dumb primitive designs, banal shapes that were unrelieved by any sign of temperament or informing intelligence. Upon scrutiny, all the images seem to been outlined in relief, a heavily embossed operative tubing, sloppily applied, which, the student explained, contained dynamite. We were asked to step back. From each painting trailed a slim cord that networked into a metal box, around which we all stood in a huddle. With one suave gesture the student push down on the handle that protruded from the top of the box to explode the whole batch. Each painting went up in a separate puff of smoke. Against the creamy hues of the late afternoon sky it was a spectacular sight.
When the dust settled the emerging paintings had a presence that in their tattered state far outdid whatever predictions one might have made about the outcome, even if one had known the procedure in advance. They were powerful effigies of desecration, fraught with meaning that went deep into the psyche, uncompromising statements that mingled terror and despair. That such a mediocre and substandard artistic fodder could be so transmuted into these compelling icons of modern angst was a great revelation to me. If there is such a thing as an “American sensibility” that incorporates waste and extravagance and obdurate macho ego, then perhaps it is the rude adolescent spirit of this young culture, untutored and unmindful of its history, which best implements its cultural élan by favoring such infantilistic and anachronistic displays of foul, misplaced energy. Or perhaps the nature of the American artistic sensibility inclines more to an engineering intelligence, proliferating a slew of monstrous, invidious inventions to counter and fend off the sheer, blank epic scale of what once was thought to be and infinitely expandable frontier. Escaping the past like pioneers crossing the prairie where the relentless wind barely ripples the buffalo grass, the best of our artists still shoot from the hip.
Harper’s Magazine / July 2000
From a presentation given last December by the painter Raoul Middleman at a panel discussion on the meaning of American Art that was hosted by the National Academy of Design in New York City. Middleman is the Academy's president Colin a selection of his paintings was on display in May at M B Modern in New York City.
Rembrandt: The Night Watch
The most puzzling aspect of the “The Night Watch” is the figure of the small girl, the so-called mascot of the civic guard, located just left of center in the middleground of the painting. Taking another look, one must ask oneself: Is this that same girlish little girl — all endearing innocence with blue eyes and fair hair — now more resembling an overblown infanta, flagrantly out of wack not only with the rest of the painting but with her own inherent self? The viewer is abruptly confronted with some sort of eerie makeshift incarnation, a transmogrified figure fully grown up now with incipient jowls —a matronly and yet somewhat puckish sprite possessing the body of a dwarfish woman. It boggles the mind that so highlighted a personage, this girl-woman compilation, should wind up right smack in the middle of this canvas. What was Rembrandt, a master illustrator of narrative content, in depicting such a disconcerting mismatched trope, up to?
This is not the only instance of glaring contradiction in the portrayal of this female presence. Note that she stands alone in an otherwise all male assembly: the only female amongst The Militia Company of District II. Yet her significance to the group is primal and ostensibly symbolic. Attached to her body are The Guild’s costly drinking horn and a dead fowl, the prominent claw of which is an emblem of the musketeers’ purpose and mission (its heraldic essence reduced to an egregiously banal stand-in — no eagle or otherwise noble fowl here — just an ordinary white chicken plucked from a local butcher shop, perhaps a last minute expedient on the part of Rembrandt to advance some transcendent meaning, such as the truism that the Marvelous could be imbedded in the Everyday). Or is there some kind of vulgar irony at play here, a certain Mennonite frugality, to downplay the pretentiousness of the discredited Guard, no longer employed in a military capacity other than as ‘Citizens in Arms’? Ambiguities seem to abound in this painting, enough to make any naïve take on its meaning troubling.
1642 was the year that Rembrandt Harmensz. Van Rijn completed the painting entitled “The Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Bonninct Cocq and Lieutenant Willem Van Rytenburch,” also known under the alias of “The Shooting Company” of these aforesaid gentlemen of note. “The Night Watch”, a populous appellation that has nothing to do with the history of its making, its original meaning or intent or purpose, but rather with its predominant mood of unrelenting lugubrious gravitas. So this popular title, although tacked on in the years after its completion, on some erroneous supposition that it’s all about a night patrol, yet nonetheless carries this notion to this very day, a conviction that seems most central to the painting’s cosmology. It is as though it had a subconscious will of its own that surfaced over the centuries, shifting its relevance to modify the entire mood of the painting, haunted as it now is by the diffuse inscrutability of a cosmic Night.
1642 was, coincidentally, also the same year that Rembrandt’ wife, Saskia Van Uylenburgh , died of tuberculosis. This sad event happened on June 14, just short of her thirtiest birthday, barely a year after having given birth to Titus,. Her other three children had not made it much past childbirth. All this while Rembrandt was hard at work filling in his large canvas, 12 by 15 feet, with portraits at 100 guilders apiece. He had been involved for three years in a seemingly fruitless process of painting all these townies garbed in funny boots and hats, then scraping them out, and then repainting them in, one by one, again and again — seemingly in the effort to accommodate these 32 figures to a brand-new, earth-shaking, and mind-boggling concept of a group portrait, on the move, in a collegial action. But the more he futzed around with the painting, the more impossible it became. Could this endless revision and accommodation been a kind of acting out of a frustration with the way his life was going at home, with the unavailing futility of his being able to alter his fate that, at the most advanced summit of his career, was cursed with a dying wife?
Saskia, from an affluent Frisian family, was only twenty-nine years old when she died. This was just a year after Titus was born, her only surviving son. She was a strong woman of independent character and lots of attitude to boot. She married Rembrandt on 2 July 1634, just eight years before her demise. That she married him in spite of the objections of her patrician family, who believed him beneath her station, is proof of the stubborn independence of her nature. It was her money that allowed Rembrandt, a man of extravagant appetite, to live the high style, to collect all manner of bric-a-brac for props, to acquire a fancy studio and move to one of the most desirable addresses in Amsterdam, with a double stairway entrance and a view of the river Amstel. With conjugal majesty she was his major muse, his model. During the eight years they had together, she posed for so many spectacular portraits, such as her several personifications of Flora, the roman goddess of prostitution, in the full flowering of her ample pulchritude, or “The Return of the Prodigal Son” where she’s the perky doll-like wife propped bolt upright on her husband’s lap, her bold gaze the quintessential image of proud possessive poontang. Meanwhile she was busy at home dutifully having all those kids, four in all, three of whom died before she died. And as the most intimate threads in the fabric of their life together were unraveling, it is inconceivable that Rembrandt, whose artworks attest to the extraordinary reach of his empathy and compassion, could stave off thoughts of his dying wife from influencing the daily regime of painting the largest commission of his career. Being Rembrandt, he could not but help obsessing about this foul misstep of fortune. He could not prevent the malevolent weight of his private despair and sorrow from impinging on the practice of his craft in this his most important of public commissions.
So say that it is a highly probable conjecture that his wife Saskia was the subject for the girl/woman amalgam looming out of the space between the man loading gunpowder into the mussel of his musket and the dark repoussoir of the loose glove dangling off Captain Cocq’s hand. This image resembles Saskia in every way so many of the paintings of her do: a certain physiognomic snap and presumption in her look of entitlement (she seemed to like being looked at), her characteristic pearl earring lost in the strands of fluttering hair. All luminous effulgence, she is clearly the only one in the whole assembly of troopers that looks out from the confines of this funky yet colossal gathering — except for the solitary eye topped by a beret, representing most certainly Rembrandt himself, the artist- observer, lurking spookily way in the back among shifting shadows. Only the important difference to note here is that Saskia’s inside the total domain of the painting, looking out into the world with a pure omnipresent clarity; whereas hubby Van Rijn, a mere peripheral speck of curiosity, remains on the outside, fragmentary, alien, looking in. This double engagement of the gaze both joins them and separates them simultaneously, making the ubiquity of this ambivalent moment the real subject of the painting.
With such a poignant reciprocity of grief stamped eternally on this pageant of movement, how best to portray Saskia, how best to embody both the flush and wayward fervor of youth with the maturity of a decisive woman in charge of the domestic scene? Rembrandt’s solution was to collage both images together, each at a decisive but different stage of her life, into one dominant impossible confection. Initially unprepared for the sudden death of his wife, Rembrandt had perhaps not thought to include her in such a prominent position. Given the encroachment of all those dour militant personages, whatever was the original design for the painting now had to be altered to make room for her. The space was small, cramped, challenged; so he had to aggressively scrape out the surrounding figures from an earlier stage of the painting in order to fit her in. You can still see the ghostly remnants of former members of the militia, through all the ragged scrapes of the palette knife, on either side of her —a floating palimpsest of facial features in fractional outrage at having been so crudely and summarily banished from the scene.
If one can get past the present image of Saskia, so oddly compacted and problematic, she is all about painterly immediacy, immersed in a transcendent golden glow. Every vestige of tenebrous drama has been eliminated, as if a flash suddenly went off in the mental camera, or a phrase from one of Bach’s Sunday cantatas escaped the celestial bourne. Now all is sheer glory of melded intervals, like a pervasive sheen of sound extending forever the present moment. Pitched to such a high key of tonality, the various colors of her equipage are blended to a universal chroma, to one ecstatic note, ringing the way a tuning fork holds sway in the ionized air. Nothing else in the painting is like it. Or rather it’s the very nature of the rest of this painting’s pervasive gloomy presence, its saturnine aspect, its intrinsic melancholy of purpose, so to speak, to provide the foil that sets Saskia wholly apart, that makes her its inadvertent primary subject, its incarnation.
It was the English printmaker, Stanley William Hayter, who stumbled upon the fundamental truth that in all things graphic, things naturally move towards the right. In printing an etching or engraving, one naturally reverses the image, sometimes to the surprise of the artist’s intention. For example, take any old etching of Zeus’ abduction of Ganymede. In the beak of the dark eagle who is really Zeus in one of his many disguises, a reluctant cherubic baby is carried off aloft, bawling and urinating in dribbling fright. This reluctant pudge-pot of a baby could just as easily be seen, because of the reversal of the image, as descending from the heavens instead.
In the Night Watch Saskia seems to be headed against the tide of the militia’s marching out, in the opposing direction, from the left to right instead of from the drummer on the right to the left, strangely detached from and against the dominant current. One’s eye, which is used to scanning the event from left to right, now has to resist its natural tendency; the entire militia now seems to be headed the wrong way. At least that must have been the way it seemed to Rembrandt in all his grief: the world has no right to continue on after Saskia’s death, but it does so anyway, unfeeling, indifferent. This parade of militiamen all decked out with swords and bucklers, responding to beckoning drumbeat and wave of flag, becomes a surrogate for the World, no longer able to take the dear heart of his loving partner along with it. With pragmatic insistence, it rejects and mocks the depths of Rembrandt’s grieving by continuing to go in the wrong direction.. But by painting such a painting as this of a group of soldiers on the point of moving off, in such a way as to conflate his private world with the public, thereby converting a civic event into an authentic painting of mourning, Rembrandt manages to rescue Saskia from oblivion, to commemorate her having lived in one luminous embrace, suspended forever in the breach between past and future. This painting ends up being a transformative infraction of nature, where fiction triumphs over loss and death, and thus earns the right to be called by its mistaken title, “The Night Watch”.
Courbet And The Modern Landscape
Ego is at the center of Courbet's paintings. Lurking behind every rock in a Courbet landscape is Courbet; the grottoes and rivulets all murmur with the flem-flecked quaver of his voice, the slow dumb yahoo of the brawling redneck from the boonies of the Jura Mountains.
Courbet is quoted as boasting: "I am painting, I am Nature, I am truth." Courbet's attitude smacks of the same infuriating arrogance and kitsch showmanship as one of those late night, scabrous TV wrestlers, say a Gorgeous George, or the ridiculous ilk thereof, all puff and bluster, who, having just doffed his silk embroidered cape, now prances and struts around the ring, multiflexing his pomaded muscle-bound and flab-encrusted body, in order to intimidate his redoubtable adversary: the landscape. When the referee isn't looking ( the referee being the arbiter of aesthetic probity, the rules of art, its conventions) our artist, the dastardly sneak, pulls out of the complex ringlets of his forelock and concupiscence of hair, a concealed palette knife. Egads, the flagrant cad; he's not going to fight fair! Brandishing this insidious instrument, he scrapes, scratches, smears; he wrestles the stubborn landscape to the ground, pins it to the canvas with the overwhelming heft of his supersonic body, and holds it there for the count, which is eternity. It's as if the cognitive act of painting, this struggle to delve beneath the preening vanity of appearances, to nail its basic essence to the canvas, this wrestling match with nature, eradicates superficialities, differences, reveals a truth so fundamental to each, that, at the exhausted center of both artist and nature, ego and world, at this very core of reality, there is a bitter sameness, this nonnegotiable weight that crushes the barricades of separation.
Courbet insisted that "to paint a land you have to know it", a protest against "vendutistes", painters who skimmed off the top of panoramic scenes from a touristic everywhere. The countryside near his native Ornans, the valleys and surrounding cliffs, stream beds and rocks were his true muse. An impatientist, he painted with a certain macho crudeness, slapping the paint on with palette knife, like a plasterer, or laying in the primal masses, like a layer of linoleum, in a hurry to get the effect of light, madly chasing it as it escapes his immediate grasp. Take for example the expressionistic swirl of impassioned brushwork in "The Gust of Wind", ca, 1865. It is a desperate volcanic deluge of paint where nature is in jeopardy, dangerously tilted, caught off balance between opposing systems of weather — storm and clearing.
But he also could slow the time down to a contemplative mode, achieve a subtlety of tone in his application of paint that would resonate chords of velvety elegance and chromatic delicacy. In the frontality of his strongest paintings — such as "Valley of the Loue, possibly near Mouthier-Haute-Pierre"; "Composed Landscape, Spring in the Rocks of Doubs"; or "Stream in the Jura Mountains (The Torrent)" — massive cliffs of flinty rock separate the sky from the dark interior, whose silence is interrupted by a meandering stream flushing over clunky boulders. No narrative sentiment, no strolling human encroachment spoil the utter blank indifference of the scene to bourgeois endearment. Tough and forbidding, the surface of the painting eschews decoration, cleverness, presumptive calculations of composition or pleasing color. It smacks a crusty monumental impact, imposing in its recalcitrance like a painting by Clyfford Still.
He painted on a black ground, his rocks and grottoes all issuing from glacial time, random sprigs of light punctuating the primal darkness of the forest interior with the raw disjunctive rhythm of a paranoidal nervous system. His series of sous-bois paintings, embodying the stream of the Puits Noir, are perhaps his most radical landscapes. Shafts of light that invade the dark forest interior have an unnerving twitch, like a jittery muscle, unpredictable. The distinctions between foreground and middle distance are in constant flux, as ambiguous scrims, shadowy demons betraying their assigned locations in a loosening flux, amalgamate with deep space, a space which is haunted by multiple shifts of sporadic light. Root and occluding mossy rock have a licentious life of their own, an almost obscene promiscuity that threatens the safety of personal space. The mood here has a galactic dimensionality, the other side of the bourne, where consciousness is challenged, where rationality and the discursive mind can't go. Or what's left of the mind when it has run out of alternatives. You can taste the encroachment, the ionized air of decay. You better watch your back if you want to get out alive.
Renoir thought of snow as the plague of nature, but in the winter paintings of the impressionists, snow's neutrality is so lovingly used mainly to showcase the most delicate blue shadows. It's basically a friendly substance that augments the chromatic charm of the painting in a myriad of refracted colors. Not so with Courbet, snow here is bitter and ubiquitous; a wintry blast compounds it into massive drifts of undifferentiated whiteness that obliterates retreat. Piled up accumulations of flake white paint are knifed onto the canvas with a blind, almost perfunctory insensitivity which corresponds to the pitiless storms of nature, its laden entrenchment on brook, bough and embankment. An impenetrable stillness dominates all, its concretions manifest in the ice crusted streams and the encasements of its frost bitten air.
More than the vicissitudes of the calendar year, the seasons in Courbet's art are a source for confrontation, harsh primitive juxtapositions; not just placid categories of summer and winter, but mighty cosmic constructs of black and white that seem to have a metaphysical reach and authority.
Courbet's seascapes are just the opposite of these primordial forest interiors, It's as if all the constrictions of tension and terror had suddenly evaporated into the expanding vapors of sea and sky, a glorious but fragile bubble of refracted light, imperiled by storms. The uncanny shift and melds of the horizon predicate an endless depth, a beyond whose shadow is cast on the tides.
Although it is said one is either a sea or mountain person — and essentially Courbet is a mountain person — nonetheless his great wave paintings reconcile the two. No, reconcile is too peaceful a word for what's going on here; these live antinomies don't make peace with alternatives. They are Courbet's triumph: the menace of the forest, of cliffs, water, mountains, coastal sky — the whole shebang about to crash onto the shores of consciousness. In the words of Cezanne,". . . its windswept foam, and its tide which appears to come from the depth of the ages, its tattered sky, and its pale bitterness. It hits you right in the stomach. You have to step back. The entire room feels the spray."
Baudelaire spoke of a wave as an infinite unfurling. It both creates itself and destroys itself simultaneously, its momentum suspended in the painting as one mountainous sea surge, extracted from time. In these paintings both being and becomingness, self and other, merge into one image, that, in the very act of destroying itself, erects its watery monument for a fictive moment's everlasting duration.
Perhaps what makes Courbet's landscapes modern is their erasure of narrative, their avoidance of illustrational sentiment — such as elephants schlepping over the alps,or sharks aswarm in the blood drenched waters of wrecked slave ships feeding on a mishmash of severed limbs, as in the paintings of Turner. Other than a few stray deer — cutout prototypes that return our gaze, the nervous eyes of the landscape — nothing mars the authority and central mood of these paintings. Their abstraction consists in their refusal to be mutated into meanings other than what they are. But the mood of these paintings is unequivocally sure, scored to the tempo of a deep and personal melancholy. Pure in resolve and relentless in action, these landscapes — so powerful the stamp of temperament upon them — could be considered as subjective appropriations; even as powerful self portraits, fierce ontologies of self transcending petty narcissism, the egregious self transmogrified into primal engagement with otherness. The ego, cut off from community, journeys out, pierces the deep wood and the wide shore to join the absolute as its lonely surrogate.
El Greco Exhibition At The Metropolitan Museum Of Art 2003
Not only is El Greco's paint the freshest of anybody's (no network of fine cracks in the impastos, no shit load of corrections burdening the sensuality of the moment), but so unorthodox in its facture that it took three centuries for the paint of a Soutine to catch up with it; a paint — unfurling, empirical, saturated with corrosive color — traveling with racer-dip speed across the whole length of the canvas, up, down, and in every direction. El Greco, although a staunch Neoplatonist by conviction, nonetheless painted by the seat of his knickers. Anxiety and immediacy place him in spirit and temperament closer to the Abstract Expressionists than to any of his contemporaries.
El Greco was the quintessential outsider, and outsiders are the ones that jump start tradition. After Crete, where he was born and painted his early group of icons, he hightailed it to Italy, first to Venice as an undistinguished apprentice in Tintoretto's workshop, then to Rome as a languishing and unsuccessful upstart, only to migrate to Madrid where his bid for royal patronage from Philip II dismally failed. This gypsy of vertiginous displacement finally settled in Toledo, the provinces, where his art matured in all its wacky manifestations.
Is originality a bungling of convention? Or was El Greco too extraordinary a painter and too odd a person to conform to the staid format of Catholic iconography, as witness his numerous Annunciations that punctuate the show? The angel enters invariably from the viewers right instead of the sanctioned left. From now on, the basic entrance of God's emissary would come from the wings of his, El Greco's, imagination!
One room is devoted entirely to his one-shot portraits, painted even faster that Fragonard's. Notice the burning accuracy of their psychology: Here, a freudenized Cardinal in eyeglasses, staring out with leveling gaze, his cape gathered into the shape of an ominous bird of prey; there, a ruff-encircled head, served up on its red umber ground with an expression of disarming melancholy. Like a Paganini playing all positions on one string, this is a daring-do performance calculated to arrest the flight of sensation in midair.
Some misguided souls assert that El Greco was astigmatic. Better to assume the gothic attenuation of his personages is there to position them in two places at once, the heavenly and the terrestrial. You look up into their nostril holes and down at their clammy feet. His theater transforms these two concurrent fields of operation into one metaphor of simultaneous engagement.
In "The Resurrection", Christ arises out of the center of a circle of Roman soldiers who are newly apprised of he supernatural occurrence. Their bodies scatter in a whirlwind of disjuncted array, stretched out like so much salt water taffy; while the body of Christ suffers no such distortion. His is pure effulgence and harmony of proportion.
There is no evidence of the tomb from which Christ has arisen, nor any natural scenic background for a surround, save for an all-encompassing arch. The lack of cause or explanation serves to exalt the miraculous quality of the singular event.
In the midst of all this, a fugitive and discordant note: a forlorn soldier in the position of Durer's Melancholia, folder up into his elbow, like a carpenter's rule. In contrast to the body of Christ, which is all about a defiance of gravity, his is a leaden weight. The plume on his helmet does little to lift him from the preponderant negativity of his mood. Could this figure also function as a disconsolate and marginalized Hermes? Now that Christ has come, the world of pagan deities is over, finished. Who better to carry this message to the Gods than their forsaken, dysfunctional messenger, whose profound reluctance to do his job might be the main message of this painting? And who better to inform us of this instant of cosmic history than the maverick and prescient Greek from Crete, El Greco?
Thoughts On The Late Religious Portraits Of Rembrandt
Before going to this exhibition, my expectation, based on what I already knew about Rembrandt's life and work, was for an altogether different kind of painting. In my readings, I had gleaned that Rembrandt had tremendous appetites which he could not curb. His person, as well as his paintings, dealt in extremes. It was his custom, when working, to wipe his brushes on himself. There was always paint under his fingernails. You couldn't take him anywhere. The circular heft of his bodily corpulence, as illustrated in countless etchings, was just the visible edge of an inner, pathological embonpoint. A spendthrift, he squandered his first wife's money until he was on the dole, his bankruptcy managed by his second wife, Hendrickje, and his son, Titus. He went broke partially because of his mania for collecting bizarre or picturesque curiosities at sales on public auction. So I fully expected to see a plethora (maybe I was thinking too much about Rubens) of miscellaneous studio bric-a-brac: antique helmets and shields, halberds, daggers. sabers. cuirasses, musical instruments, old lace and copper pots or whatever else struck Rembrandt's fancy. Rembrandt loved to paint things that have outlived their use. (He outlived all his children and all his wives). Perhaps a frayed remnant dug out of the prop closet would appear in some corner of the painting to display all the richness of its rotted threads. Or he would exploit opportunities to catch the light, such as the vertiginous light that spills down the spiraling staircase to find an opalescent cache of jewels lingering in an open chest; or, if outdoors, the scrofulous bark of some old blasted oak. I fully expected his excessive nature and extravagant appetites to feed on all the neglected oddities of the external world, phenomenological surrogates, no doubt, for himself.
But no, to my bafflement, these late religious paintings weren't like this at all. In these paintings, there is no Jerusalem (not even, for that matter, Amsterdam), hardly any props, mostly just the same old oaken armchair, that pilloried encasement to hold Rembrandt's models still; — just a series of solitary figures compressed in a turgid nowhere space. The notion is totally reductionist and tautological — no clues that recognize the empirical world of nature, much less that of community.
Rembrandt conjures out of the floorboards of his studio the Holy Writ of the ancient Scriptures. He appropriates a round of scruffy models to represent the centralist apostles and evangelists of the Christian faith, largely impoverished Polish or German Jews who sought refuge in Amsterdam following the outbreak of the Thirty Years War (1619-1638). Once the "chosen" people, these outsiders stumble into Rembrandt's studio from the neighboring ghetto, the Jodenbreestraat. Surrounded by musty burlap screens that gobble the blatant glare of everyday light, these geezers of the ghetto fidget in the pose between ambiguous alternatives of self and other, center and margin, percept and precept — the nominalistic remnants of sacred happenstance.
If God were a painter, He'd be a primitive, a naif, along the lines of Grandma Moses. Since He'd see everything —past, present, future — all at once, there would be no perspective, foreshortening, overlaps, discovery, or fumbling afterthoughts. He would create by naming nascent life; just the opposite of what Rembrandt does. Rembrandt rather likes to forget the names of things. Up close, what affects to be a world of objective reality now seems to self-destruct into a blather of unctuous paint. Inversely, God the Father would proceed to sire a whole population of cutsey, brand-new, cookie cutter shapes that look as if they just stepped out of the Great Chain of Being, all identified as with precise little name tags. The emergent lucent surface would be flawlessly uniform and smooth; the colors, clean and unmodulated; the edges, everywhere co-present and clear-cut. Near and far would give the same reading, and neatness would prevail like the sculpted shrubs of Connecticut.
Rembrandt the Humanist is excluded from this haven of conspicuous perfection, exiled to downtown Amsterdam, a bourgeois Batavia. ( No doubt he was kicked out of this Eden for having too much Content). All his paintings —tenebrously grubby, flawed, intermittently focused, raw — are about age and decay, the Sacred reduced to the Profane. Vulgarity is not necessarily a consequence of coarse subject matter; instead, it can just as likely be the intolerable proximity of the human being depicted, who has the audacity to invade your personal space, unwashed, smelling of garlic or cabbage. You don't get body odors from the aristocratic Velasquez or the classical Corot. Their people stand at a discrete distance, cool as cucumbers. But Rembrandt's people are in-your-face, garbed in funky hand-me-downs, exuding, unpurged. The hot tumescent glazes in conjunction with the labored buildup of caked white lead pigment impart to Rembrandt's late canvases an oleaginous sweat and lather, a rough hewn crassness that could easily gross out any number of prissy esthetes. The shaky lineup of these scabrous portraits of Old and New Testament notables are all embedded in a surround of a deep engulfing darkness, as if an irremediable and desolate aloneness conflicts the very notion of redemption.
It was Rembrandt's good fortune to be influenced by Caravaggio, especially his notion of Chiaroscuro, that dramatic intermesh of light and shade. It enabled him to entify the bias of his genius. Rembrandt pushes this modus operandi until it rips across the weave of canvas with the suddenness of a thunderclap through ionized air. The fierceness of this condensed light thwacks the sullen expanse of darkness. In one brutal irrevocable flash, it beholds a tremulous moment of actuality. No one is better at this than Rembrandt; it is his special gift, vision or intonement, that which makes a Rembrandt Rembrandt. In that fraught aura of thickening paint and rending light, he discovers the most difficult of modern truths — man's isolation within time and space.
Cut off from his divine place in the universe, with no safety net, and scarcely balanced above the void on the swaying metaphysical high wire of his reckless will and daring-do, his acrobatic plight is a solitary teetering on the brink of anonymity and despair. Why else all those countless self portraits, but to give cartesian sequence to the continuity of one's identity in time? There is a reason why nobody painted so many self portraits before. One go was usually enough, for the underlying self remained the same. In the gnostic writings of the early Church founding Fathers, man's place was permanently lodged in the Tree of Porphyra, half way between light and darkness, singularity and diversity, good and evil. From birth to death, there was no divide between continuity and duration. Man was the central witness to the Cosmos. But once this warranty on the impregnability of self ran out, as it did in the seventeenth century, the ego was left dangling. Self portraiture now becomes an existential probe, a Sisyphusian reenactment, a temporary rescue from the hiatus, a painterly cogito that corroborates one's existence in time — no pampered vanity or narcissism here; rather, an endless succession of masks, a wall of ghosts against the dispersing illusion of self, a face-off against annihilation!
A good example of the kind of concentration and focus that Rembrandt brings to his self portraits can be found In an adjacent gallery. It is dated 1659, so it is a late Rembrandt, that is part of the Andrew W. Mellon Collection of the Washington's National Gallery. The portrait confronts the viewer with a disarming simplicity; the flounce of hair escaping the velvet beret is scratched out with the reverse end of the brush; the eyes are dark and penetrating; the nose, a fusspot of little squiggly brush marks. But it is the forehead that is most miraculous to behold. It projects a concept of volumetricity that makes attempts by other artists look contrived, mannered, and flat. Examined up close, it is impossible to tell how Rembrandt achieved such a persuasive effect. It looks like a mishmash of grayed-out color. Perhaps it is the almost negligible highlight of a raw umber mixed with white — if, indeed, it is a highlight — that makes it snap into shape, authoritative and solid, when one steps back a mere ten feet. Going to the surface of the painting again to bear out the insight about this tiny highlight, one can barely find it; it's virtually evaporated into the amorphous ruck of daubs. It is as though the painting were alive, and changing.
With the advent of Protestantism, there was a revival of studies of the Old Testament. Rembrandt was sympathetic to the Mennonite community's basic belief centering on man's spiritual life in response to direct engagement with biblical texts. Take, for instance, Rembrandt's "Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul", dated 1661, from the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Now that the archetypical world of Theistic Ideality — as portrayed, for example, by that young Florentine Whiz, Raphael — is gone, past and finished; the only way Rembrandt can genuinely relate to the Apostle is to use himself as the model, his way of exploring the great mystery of incarnation and human limitation. The sheepish expression, with its large bulbous nose and tufts of temple hair protruding clown-like out from beneath the refulgent cap, could easily be nudged into the portrait of some odd old Bozo. All you gotta do is rouge them cheeks and it becomes a convincing simulacrum of lunacy. The raised eyebrows over the imploring look smack of a certain quizzicality, perhaps even a hint, around the mouth, of sarcasm or comicality. Could it be that this painting, on some subliminal level, acknowledges the absurdity and sheer hutzpah of the painter acting as stand-in for the Saint?
Say that there are two arguments for human existence: one, that it only exists on this planet Earth and nowhere else in the universe; the other, that there are a myriad of worlds out there where similar contingencies of circumstance prevail to allow for its parallel formation. The first of these alternatives places an enormous responsibility on man's shoulders for the success of the enterprise; the second, lets mankind off the hook somewhat.
In Rembrandt's painting, "The Sacrifice of Isaac", from The Hermitage ( this painting is not part of the exhibition, but important nonetheless in order to understand Rembrandt's state of mind), note the variety of ways hands are depicted, how precisely the hands themselves act out different roles in the biblical drama, become protagonists. The hand of Abraham brutally covers the entirety of Isaac's face, thus obliterating the obstacle of identity as his son. Now the Archangel's right hand grabs the wrist of Abraham , staying the intent. The knife, brandishing the most beautiful of ornamental handles in all of oil painting, falls forever through the air. The sacrifice of Isaac, who is Abraham's future, is thereby aborted. The admonishing left hand of the Archangel comes up empty. The Archangel looks pointedly at Abraham, his message unequivocal: "From now on, Abraham, you are on your own!"
Clearly Rembrandt favors the first argument for human existence. Because God no longer acts in History, mankind alone is accountable for his actions. The universe of seventeenth century Holland is human-centered and not God-centered. The humanistic road of Descartes and Spinoza, if traveled the whole way, seems to lead to a solipsistic cul-de-sac. Instead of being metaphors for redemption, the plangent luminousness — those pools of immanent flare that enclose Rembrandt's late portraits — could just as easily function as isolating and inflictive spotlights that underscore the abandonment of man in a universe that is either a joke or a mistake, and that the island of his ponderous ego is maybe all that there is.
The 1657 "Apostle Paul", from the Widener Collection, has recently been cleaned. The sharp rectangle of light that appeared in the upper right hand corner, representing the high up window of the prison cell, has been taken out. No doubt it was thought to be a later addition. This deletion improves the painting, however; its deep melancholy all the more poignant for being less specific. The window was just some cheap illustrational flimflam to explain how the light from the outside world got there through the barred recesses of the Apostle's prison cell. Now that his incarceration is generalized, the Apostle Paul's Dark Night of the Soul takes place in the deepest dungeon, with no worldly connection but the sword and the pen. The book is the intermediary between the two; the ostensible message being that the pen is, in the spiritual sense, mightier than the sword. On the other hand, given Saint Paul's martyrdom, the dominion of the sword — its blade bluntly stuck upright in the tabletop, a murderous pillar prognosticating its dire futurity — has the last word. His head is heavy and the expression, weary, as he ponders what to write in the Epistle before him. The hand that holds the quill is overcome by a profound languor.
Silence and listening are what Rembrandt's paintings are about, a postponement of resolution, an ecumenical waiting, in this case for revelation, the word of God. In this painting he puts the ear center stage (check the diagonals). But the cloak with all its sumptuous folds, beginning at the shoulder and continuing all the way down and including the hand holding the quill pen, describe, with the help of a little imagination, some humungous ear. The entirety of this canvas is given over to one vast galactic orifice, a shell held to the void. In this instance, Rembrandt uses theology as metaphor for painting, the stations of his development as a painter. Just as the Apostle Paul is poised, listening for the word of God, so Rembrandt is listening for a new order of painting, a new language whose syntax will change forever the way reality is perceived. The brushwork, in this painting, is desperate and unruly, nervy with sporadic leaps across the whole gestalt of form. Like Jazz, the score doesn't exist apriori, so the artist must improvise. For the classical musician, the notation is already there, but the jazz musician has no such luxury; he must jump the beat.
The painting of Saint Bavo seems to have been painted over an old painting of quarreling figures about a rearing horse, dimly seen. For a prop, it features a jessed falcon, which looks more like a stuffed chicken, on his gloved hand. It seems that this painting was done with a total involvement with the subject, and so little regard for anything else, such as composition. The whole makeshift caboodle looks as if it were quickly thrown over the recycled canvas; wherever it landed, was okay. That's not to say it's not great. It is great, like a modern painting, projecting all the thrill of its existential pizzazz.
The late paintings of Rembrandt authorize contradiction as a methodology. In the 1661 portrait of the Apostle Bartholomew, Rembrandt opposes the soft resiliency of flesh to the cold implacability of metal. In one corner of the painting he has Bartholomew's hand clutching a knife, the glint of its steely metal contrasts by correspondence to the nervous gray flesh of his other hand clutching his throat, alluding to the Saint's ultimate sacrifice by being flayed alive for spreading the gospel in Armenia and destroying the images of the heathen gods. Here, as is often the case with Rembrandt's iconography, there is a morbid, if not cannibalic, emphasis on cruelty. For such a one as Rembrandt, sequestered from, and yet desirous of the Divine principle, the machinery of cruelty — the vicious chastisement for pietistic commitment — is perhaps ontological proof (better this than nothing) of the Other's existence, which legitimates the constraints of religious compulsion.
Rembrandt doesn't moralize, doesn't judge things as he paints them; he just looks with a nagging intensity. His merciless gaze zooms in, disclosing baggy folds of skin under the eyes, pockmarked cheeks, and sagging jowls — all this he relishes with an unflinching passion for observation. The mere act of looking devours the platitudes, shallowness and clichés of orthodox seeing. Like an acid it attacks the smooth conventions of depiction, makes a place, in this evilly compounded, flawed world, for imperfection. Illustration need not be barred from ambitious painting. It's a way out of the art-for-art's sake constrictions and decorative enclosures, an open door. In an early allegorical painting from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, entitled "Bellona", Rembrandt's wife, Saskia, assumes the male guise of Perseus, while he, Rembrandt, that of a snarling female, the Medusa, portrayed in the shield Saskia bears. Here both private and public issues are addressed simultaneously. In the domestic arena, by switching the gender roles, it is Saskia who wears the pants in the von Ryn household. In the more widespread world of Greek myth, however, those who looked upon the head of the Medusa, with its slathered coil of phallic snakes, were instantly turned to stone, thus rendered impotent. (In the iconography of the Renaissance, the Medusa served as an image of the public, which the artist was cautioned not to regard with too much deference). Perseus manages to defeat the Medusa by using his shield in combat as a mirror so that direct eye contact is avoided. Freud had it that the child, upon seeing his naked prickless mother, deals with the dreadful shock of it all by averting his eyes to the floor, thereby forming a foot or shoe fetish. Both ancient and modern psychology had it the same way: the trauma of unassimilable fact is dodged by strategies of indirection. The act of looking is indeed dangerous; it risks exposing prohibited aspects of self. It is befitting that Rembrandt, the artist, should impersonate the Medusa. He alone has permission to look, to puncture the conventional surface of things and penetrate deep into the venomous darkness; but with the proviso that he make something solid out of the fluidity of the world.
Rembrandt proceeds inductively, painting disjuncted fragments— an ear lobe here, a nostril hair there. In the profiled image of The Apostle James the Major, the praying hands of bristling fingers and gnarly knuckles give the impression that Rembrandt had been looking at Soutine. Edges are lost, then found again, trembling and alive. Circumscribing forms are broken, jittery; yet somehow command an absolute authority. The daring ridge of lemony light, that illumines the pamphlet the Monk (Saint Francis?) is reading makes the rest look like it was painted by Ad Reinhardt, all indecipherable swaths of dark. Nondescript colors, such as in his portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels (as the Sorrowing Virgin), suddenly assume the richness of the full chromatic scale, and then mysteriously disappear among the shadowy veils. All this attention to Man's wrinkles and veins and flaps of flesh — for what, unless to juxtapose the grand vacancy, the boundless penumbra encircling all? Mankind has been reduced to a rueful autism. In "The Virgin of Sorrows", the headdress of her gothic mantle suggests a sinister bat. It seems a certain apprehension and repugnance has been mixed into the paint, complexing the sentiment of soulfulness. The painting is thereby transmogrified into a implication of malignancy, and has an edge like a cliffhangers. Deeply disturbing, these late lugubrious paintings situate man at a teleological dead-end.
Rembrandt is not like Hals, who is all present tense and immediate delight, where everything sits on the surface, with no second thoughts about highlight, halftone, shadow. Rather the facture of Rembrandt's painted surface absorbs everything that he does. He is constantly fussing with the paint. It's like trudging through a swamp; the color sinks in, which, in turn, leads to endless revision, so that the layers of paint thicken to a murky sludge. The traces of the struggle against time's vanishing presence, disappear into the quagmire. The many paths of doubt alternating with faith crisscross at meaningless forks and subdivide. Rembrandt loses his way; the painting becomes a niggling palimpsest of failed attempts, a history of cancellations, a form of prayer.
It might be helpful to compare this exhibition of religious portraits with a painting, "Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer", from The Metropolitan Museum of Art. This painting comes out of a whole different context, the heathen cradle of our civilization, and features the exchange between two of the most celebrated cultural monarchs of the classical world.
Aristotle's gold chain is painted with a heavy insistence, its materiality bespeaks the philosopher's commitment to the pragmatics of this all too solid world, his tutelage of Alexander the Great, the world conqueror. Meanwhile his right arm reaches out past a stack of musty tomes to the bust of Homer, the blind poet, all introversion and innuendo, the domeÑ of his head an amalgam of inner radiance, the colors modeled in nameless half tones. (Note that, in this scenario, it's not Homer, the living breathing fleshy mire of the man, who is depicted, but rather an icon — the sculpted bust of Homer, an artistic stand-in for.his blind soul which, for all its shivering tactility, remains forever transparent ). In a colossal reversal of roles, Aristotle's gesture is that of a blind man reaching out to the blind for enlightenment, the lurch and reach of his embrace identifying by touch. In this case it is Homer who is the seer, and, Aristotle, the sightless; the painting representing an ongoing dialog between the visible and the invisible: the material world versus the spiritual world — the triumph of Poetry over History.
Here we have Rembrandt's powerful answer to the Archangel. If there is to be any hope of emancipation, transcendence, or catharsis for the entrapped self in this world, it is through the medium of the artist, whose fictions have the power to break through the barricades and hardships of the bleakest night of the soul to something resembling salvation and a human truth.
The Circles in Rembrandt's Kenwood House Self Portrait
Rembrandt's self portrait is a painting of near perfect pitch and pace. Done with a limited palette of earth tones, with a little vermillion thrown in for chromatic spice, it seems to slow time down. The bare wall of its background is incised with two enigmatic circles. A colossus of painterly aplomb, this painting is a major victory for the aging artist, who fills with undaunted heft the space between these two circles. It is precisely the overwhelming gravity of this epicenter, the bold triangular structure of his eminence plunked down right smack in the middle of such classical austerity that make this image so unforgettable.
It has been over forty years, on a trip to the outskirts of London, since I first saw this painting. I especially wanted to see this particular painting because, of all the self portraits that Rembrandt had painted that I knew about, this one didn't profess a murky background, rather it was fresher and less overworked, illuminated in a surround of flaxen light.
The Kenwood House was temporarily closed at the time for reparations or installment, but a friend of mine who had clout managed to have the museum opened up. Incandescent lights came on and there it was, looming in the dank interior. Although painted by Rembrandt almost four centuries ago, the incredible majestic presence of the artist hovered there — not solely as a fictive thing of paint — but as if it were a real person standing before me.
I have just made another trip to see this painting, recently on loan to the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. The effect the painting had on me seems to have deepened and become more personal, maybe because in the intervening years, I too have painted many self portraits. I see in Rembrandt an uncanny engagement with the same painterly problems I have, such as how to get the expression of the mouth right or the color of a jowly cheek or the flounce of grey hair about the ears. I stand up close to this painting to puzzle out its technical infrastructure, in order to advance my command of the language of form and content.
I have read much scholarly speculation on the function of these two mysterious circles inscribed on the wall behind Rembrandt's self portrait, from the free hand circle of Giotto to the reference to maps of the world, old and new. It now strikes me that the centers of both circles occur outside the canvas, whereas the portrait, the round‐shouldered bulk of the master himself, his large roundish head at the apex of a clearly pyramidal structure, dominates the center of the canvas with a riveting gaze.
How did Rembrandt, who was not of the same conceptual hard-edged temperament as a Ellsworth Kelly or Kenneth Noland, draw these circles? Did he draw it freehand or, by using his elbow as a fulcrum, swing his forearm as a radius? Or did he cheat by tracing around a pizza?
And what did Rembrandt have in mind when he put these circles in the background? What is the what of these Os? I've never seen a wall with circles like that in Dutch painting. Are they simply random slack decoration to fill the negative space, a lark to confuse or some cockamamie pretense to profundity? Do they function as a series of metaphorical hangers in his wardrobe, in place to drape and store his vast opus of portraiture? Or are they there to give substance to the wall, to provide linear contrast to the preponderance of the artist's flaunted presence?
Or could it be that the artist is simply a conduit, a sibyllic medium who, unbeknownst to himself, is privy to a whole reservoir of residual images? What is taken for originality is merely recycling the detritus of an inherited culture. In which case, the half circles lingering in the background behind Rembrandt could be the leftover metaphysical Platonic structures of Universals that have somehow loosened from the sphere of antiquity and now transpire into currency.
The perfect circle, in all its intrinsic ideality, cannot be drawn, cannot exist anywhere as a concrete entity. This qualifies it as being a Universal, ergo, it exits outside time and space; whereas what actually is referenced in the background of this painting are not Universals at all but flawed duplicates of The Circle, templates that approximate the concept, with perfectibility as its only prospect of Being.
Hence the domain of the painter, the world in which his imagination and creative elan takes charge, is one of imperfection. In such a system of perspective as the renaissance embraced, it was the eye of the artist that made this all too imperfect world pivot dead center. (You can even tell whether the artist was sitting or standing when he painted a painting by the location of the horizon line, with overlapping planes fanning out left and right from the plumb line of his nose.) Man was the center of his circle from which was predicated the power and reach of his humanity.
A painting by Rembrandt is by definition a nominalistic conceit existing only in a single and original occasion, a one of a kind manufacture of pigment and oil and brushstroke, defiantly empirical. As such it is the very antithesis of a Universal. Say then that this portrait of Rembrandt is a miracle of existential singularity. Its particularity supplants the wobbly premise of its background of circles by establishing a whole new bright center for its own cosmos: the individual, front and center, winning out over the axiomatic.
The Tree of Porphyry was a philosophic scheme prevalent during the middle ages. It was a kind of pyramided logo that featured plurality and darkness and evil at its base and God and light and the good at its peak, with Man wedged between the two extremes. If we can see this Kenwood House Self Portrait as a similar triangular structure with its dark base moving progressively lighter as it reaches its peak in the preternatural luminous cap crowning the brow of Rembrandt; then Man now is extricated from his mediating position, replacing God as the culmination of ontological priorities. The universe of the seventeenth century is Man centered, not God centered.
Rembrandt is preeminently a painter of self-portraits. He has painted hundreds, many of which are garbed in various theatrical guises, such as his identification of himself as the apostle Paul or as Zeuxis who died laughing while painting an ugly woman. But here he paints himself as himself, dressed in plain studio attire, brush and maulstick in hand.
Observe how the white linen cap defines the curve of the forehead by a series of quick tangents rather than some fatuous apriori assumption of roundness, so that opticality, the sheer act of looking, the loss and found of edge and focus, the endlessly shifting light merging with shadow, creates an illusion of actual weight, volume and the drama of chiaroscuro. And presto: an invention, at once avant-garde and atavistic, of a wholly new concept of modernity, where form is discoverable in time, as a consequence of process.
Engaged in the very act of perceptual painting, alone with no profusion of anecdotal tell‐tale bric‐a‐brac about, only Self facing Self, forever mirroring, and silence as his sole witness — the artist now erases all phenomenological divide between the subjective and the objective; inner and outer realities link up, and the world comes round full circle again.
One can never get to the heart of a great painting. Nonetheless one is obliged to make a stab at it, if only to vent one's admiration. So attention to such a marvel of painting as The Kenwood Self Portrait is a form of praise. While its endless circuitry of conjectured life remains eternally opaque and immune to meddlesome analysis, it is precisely the failure of such critical ploys as these to penetrate the finality of the painting's transcendent Being that ensure the continuous enthrallment of its mysterious presence.