By Raoul Middleman
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, and 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 ail 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 Stoffeis (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 an implication of malignancy, and has an edge like a cliffhangers. Deeply disturbing, these late lugubrious paintings situate man at a teleological dead-end.
The Apostle James the Major
The Virgin of Sorrows
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