About the 'Real' in 'Portraiture' Rembrandt van Rijn and the observer
“Rembrandt, Rubens, Titian, knew from the outset, with a sublime compromise, how to fuse the entirety of their personality with the flesh of their subject sitting before them, how to animate it with their passion while it resembled others, to glorify their dreams or their sadness. This, I cannot do, I want to be true, like Flaubert, tearing truth from the all, to place myself in the hands of shadows and lights….a decisive moment of all presence in the world” Paul Cezanne
I was speaking about Rembrandt, and the blossoming of his thoughts came as naturally as the vision of his canvases. I noticed the chaos of which the surface of his paintings are impregnated; this quasi pathological chaos, this topographical tumult reflects the spirit agitating the deeper sense the image is made of. Yet, here is not the seat of a pervasive pre-science or transience, in fact, the sense in sensorial terms, rather than sensual in this case, represents a real dimension where the artist has invoked the psychic reality of the subject. By psychic, I mean it is a journey leading us through a particular psychology to submerge us within subterranean layers, such as the languid rivers of Hades instead of a hazy spring on the banks of a fictional paradise.
The art of painting is also the art of evocation that defies descriptive analysis. How does one eye decompose what is already composed?
He unmasks, he mangles, he carves, he manipulates, he dismantles, and turns the rules of the game on their heads, a game by the bias of which we make passive conclusions, accessible, easy to absorb. These conclusions are of an ‘anaphilosophic’ nature, they simplify our understanding by reflecting the surface of the (art) object in an elegant and amiable manner. On this flat expanse of primary assimilation, we spread the theoretical lawns that only guide us towards a trivial satisfaction of the art.
But Rembrandt attacks the surface and by his physical impulse erases the code of the surface, so disarmed are we as we face what manifests itself like a storm, a tempest. Rembrandt, while we loose our footing as the waters rise, incapable to decipher the data, dissolves in the elements, as the subject begins to form in the depths. This depth that is nothing but our own imagination where Rembrandt has fomented a sort of rebellion, a countdown, as we invert ourselves, reversing history, what we believe we know. He paints, but more. Those who watch him and watch him in the act of painting, who unveil him as he abandons himself to their gaze are the artists of their testament.
Rembrandt’s portraits live beyond him, having never been buried in his social or artistic persona. In place of vulgar publicity, his portraits ironically imprinted themselves on the canvas of time, not as a heritage but as a living memory, the souvenir borne out of each subject, leaving Rembrandt alone, a witness waiting for news in the margin of the collective unconscious. He does not fix so much as liberates. Perhaps does he hope, in freeing Psyche, to find the erotic universe contained in some of his youthful works although his later paintings became infused with Apollonian ambiguity. What he kept for himself was a sublime ugliness, for he loved being seduced by Leviathan whom he exhorted from a lair of mercury to fathom this monster through a form of incestuous copulation, his soul ruptured and soldered at once in this embrace divine and visceral.
I found many texts on the Philosopher Henry Maldiney who analysed a predecessor, the Suisse psychiatrist Binswanger himself an innovator in the domain of existential psychology. He once wrote: “ Madness is a human possibility without which we would not be what we are (…) the essence of the sick man resides in the ‘potential being’ of presence. The term “Daseinsanalyse” of analysis of the presence marks out the manner in which Binswanger reflects on this presence of oneself to oneself in relation to the other, which is the condition of mutual comprehension, which, according to him means a partaking, an exchange of worlds between individuals, in this case, the patient and the doctor, although this could describe a relation between artist and subject…”In der welt sein” presence in and before the world of Heidegger, implying a mutual and quintessential resonance while retaining a differentiation without which this resonance would not be sustained and nourished. Maldiney continues by affirming how the apparition and the discernment of this presence within the human realm is “primarily an analysis of the spatial and temporal structures of existence” understood as “ space and time are the articulatory forms of existence”.
In this new context, unwinding the perspective of the visionary portraitist Rembrandt undoubtedly was, gains a more pertinent significance. He anointed himself as doctor of personalities, below the scalpel of his counter-colour, chiaroscuro used like a surgical retractor. He lived, in the instant of painting, the life of he/she whom he looked into from all possible angles, as in a vortex where forms are dislocated, thus absorbing a meaning beyond language, beyond the intellect.
There is no political motivation, no didactic intention, it is neither a cultural movement nor a promotional exercise, at least no longer, after his youthful years of apprenticeship, after the adventure of romantic tones, of the foreshortening mannerist experiments, of satirical dramas, or of the celestial momentum of the Baroque era. He denudes himself, and there in the obscurity of the moralising ignorance of his time , Rembrandt creates a silence where the voices of shadows impregnated with weight emerge in a light he carves like Rodin, as if instead of a brush, he had held a mallet and a chisel, that light, so vivid, so warm, gold extracted from raw stone, that flows in its entirety into the impenetrable pool of the darkness of space. That space, we can no longer doubt it, breathes profoundly between sleep and wakefulness. In his paint brush, flesh lives and awaits incarnation, and blood flows inside his quasi monochromatic colour. He commits a Eucharistic act as he invents a skin in which his subject is slowly incorporated, thus insinuating itself in the chemistry of his ‘mettre en visage’, bringing the face into realisation.
To come back to the “potential being of presence”, (quasi existence), the existential lunacy of the human mind, Rembrandt does not help us. He is not a philosopher, or at least, not in the linguistic sense. His philosophy manifests itself through depth and form. In the rotunda of their alchemical conjunction, he throws chunks of earth, dry or damp, darkened earth, red hot earth, as he tears out sulphur from the lump, saltpetre sinks beneath, while mercury struggles, submerged by Venus’s dusts, as she stands still, walled in by soldiers of lead. It is in such a tomb Vulcan himself kneads the white heated sword of his inspiration. He pierces his own heart and on the tip of his lance, his ontological genealogy enters that of the void, before touching the alien continent that appears before us, more than four hundred years later, a mirror of the self, and Rembrandt too perhaps, in the glow of a candle, in the irregularity of a wall, an invisible law commanding a parallel world, a world the gaze of which is no longer his. Rembrandt becomes the subject, the inverted side of himself, like a new moon, he stares at the sun and we cannot see him. We perceive his imprint but he is absent. The eyes that look upon us emanate from the mind that once scrutinised him, because he spread himself out like a tight rope between the past and the future. Inside, he placed the ‘patient’, not in a mortuary, but rather in a decompression chamber, that let the oxygen rise ever so slowly to reach us suddenly.
When it is said “ Insanity is a human possibility without which he would not be who he is” , Rembrandt demonstrates this as an artist, in his condition of creator, but also by the bias of his portraits, independently of his will. What folly then pushes us to continually return to those faces that do not speak, that do not move, that do not sleep? They fascinate us as they had once fascinated Rembrandt. What remains of them if not this folly bridging the gap between us, like a fateful entanglement? The string linking their image to Rembrandt is intemporal and de-spatialised. These portraits are like windows where glowing intermittent and interminable spectres project themselves, sticking to the glass like frost and we search for clues to uncover their origin, which is nothing but an unknown environment, product of our own mind, and the certitude of our mortality.
Such is the paradox, the certainty of the unknown. By the hand of Rembrandt death is incarnated. These faces live beyond the terror of annihilation. Rembrandt will not bow, he has no need to rip reality from the cradle of matter. It is not him as a personality we sense before or behind these portraits. Yet his life resides here, melting in and in opposition to the existence of the other , even if that other is no one but himself, his image incessantly destroyed and recreated within this emotional comprehension where ideals become futile and ideas become superfluous. Here is thus the proof philosophers of Alchemy had obsessively pursued, to escape their grasp continuously, for it is truly what observes us now, essence beyond existence.
Translated from the french by Pascal Ancel Bartholdi
Copyright © Pascal Ancel Bartholdi 2014