By Raoul Middleman
Portrait of Hendrickje Stoffeis (as the Sorrowing Virgin)
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 naïf, 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 blather of unctuous paint. Inversely, God the Father would proceed to sire a whole population of cutesy, 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.
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