By Raoul Middleman
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.
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