My appreciation for Rembrandt is quite new and at this stage pretty uninformed. I’ve seen some reproductions of his work, and I can see in much of his work the touch of a master. There’s something truly beautiful and touching about this late self portrait. Even profound. Rembrandt painted an astonishing number of self portraits over his life, more than any other apparently, but, although his motivation is debated, it doesn’t seem that it was narcissism. See, as he grows older the self portraits develop beyond just depicting his external features to ‘the most penetrating self-analysis and self-contemplation…’ At least that’s what someone said here. And I see it. In his later work (which is the stuff I love most) Rembrandt has this amazing technique of painting the ethereal quality of light, and more than other masters of painting, I just feel he captures so much of the frail, tender humanness…of his own humanity, his inner self.
When I was studying contemporary art at uni I began to become interested in thinking about depicting the soul…and was heading in that direction when my degree ended and the daily grind dragged me away from it all…or at least, I let it drag me away. See, most depictions of the human figure in post modern art are all about the fragmentation of the self, they are portrayals of brokenness. Picasso was, I think, the first to really capture the sense of modern existential despair, but he wasn’t the last. Feeling isolated from yourself and others and society seems to be a fairly common experience. It certainly was mine through that time, and coming to grasp more deeply the promise in the Bible of a process of growing towards wholeness and restoration by trusting in Jesus Christ, I decided to pursue the artistic venture of depicting the wholeness of the human soul, united with and not divorced from the body, to convey what is profound and deeply valuable about human beings made in God’s image.
Anyway, I say all that mainly to get to the point that, looking at the searching self portraits and figures of Rembrandt – his own worldview steeped in that of the Bible – I think he beat me to it, and did it more beautifully and poignantly than I ever could. No need for tricks or weird depictions of the person. Just a richness and depth and sensitivity to the whole person. And I don’t mean to imply that that necessarily means an always cheery, shallowly sunny view of the world. Rembrandt had a hard life and his paintings do tend to portray him as, in the words of a friend of mine ‘a dour bugger’. Nor am I a stranger to the danger of an introvert becoming overly inward looking and navel gazing – it’s my natural tendency and I’ve experienced first hand the horror of letting it take hold. I always need to be intentional about getting out and into the world around me (and I think the extrovert carries in themselves the equal and opposite danger). But I love the rich subtlety of his humanity, as opposed to the cynical despair of the failed modernist dream in Picasso’s shattered visages, or post modernity’s ever skeptical deconstruction of the self without any real hope of a substance beyond the surface.
And that’s all I wanted to say. Thanks for listening.