By Raoul Middleman
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 — ail 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.
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