By Raoul Middleman
Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer
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 ail 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 dome of his head an amalgam of inner radiance, the colors modeled in nameless hall 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.
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