Wednesday, January 7, 2009

About Face

Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait, Aged 51
The Ellesmere Self-Portrait
National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh.
In 1657, the year Rembrandt painted this self-portrait, he had gone bankrupt and his possessions, including his art collection, were auctioned. The canvas has been trimmed on the top and right sides, as if reality were closing in—or to make the painting less important-looking? In the picture, Rembrandt stands stripped of all ornament; even the light seems more miserly than usual.
But if Vermeer is the master of light, Rembrandt is the shadow master. What little light falls from above manages to illuminate all his blemishes and wrinkles. Still, the face strikes me as painfully beautiful. The lack of adornment helps one see that flesh is exquisitely complex. His skin seems at once enduring and delicate, rough and vulnerable. He seems to look out at us with hope and fear. His face marks time like an open watch, but more eloquently—on the human face, traces of the past are not erased.
Rembrandt’s brush dipped in black fate still illuminates love and pride behind shy modesty. The canvases hanging around this painting seem petty, busy and silly in comparison. Rembrandt seems to look out from a deep, dark box, as if gazing through a vat of inky water. He feels miraculously present yet sadly trapped in the past.
I sense in Rembrandt as in Van Gogh a wonder at the strangeness of having a face. At fifty, Rembrandt still seems surprised at being seen—and at what he sees in his mirror and canvases. How there is flesh from which come words. How our faces see and are meant to be seen, carved by millennia of scrutiny and desire so that they may give and receive.