Thursday, November 8, 2012

On Rembrandt and the Inward in Art

Odilon Redon, one of the great heroes of the mysterious in painting, thought of Rembrandt van Rijn as "the precursor of all deeply inward art." And this, I believe, rather than Rembrandt's considerable excellence of technical skill, is the secret of the master's enduring appeal.

The Currier Museum in Manchester, NH is currently showing prints and drawings in ink by Rembrdandt and other Dutch artists of the 1600s. 

The many prints by notable Old Masters invite admiration for the artists' facility with such an intractable medium as scratching into metal or stone. 

Indeed, the exhibition's curators invite viewers to marvel at the amazing level of detail by handing out magnifying glasses at the entrance. But, really it's the feeling in art that counts.

And it's Rembrandt's work, distinguished from the rest by its depth of thought and emotion, that actually matters.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait at a Window, 1648. Etching, drypoint, and burin.
Look at that brooding self-portrait, simply honest and full of emotion and humility. The figure's placement in a  shadowy interior while the daylight blazes outside could almost stand as a metaphor for the kind of inwardness that Redon said Rembrandt introduced to art. Most of the figures in the prints by the other artists in the show reference Biblical events or everyday cliches. But here, the figure stands for everyman; his humble self-presentation suggests the ordinary trials of the human condition. Works of art like this stop us in our day and can even change our lives.

A vision by Odilon Redon.

Above is a pastel by Odilon Redon that shows you what he meant by the inward in art. For him, the inward meant the world of dreams, fantasy, mystery, mysticism, and private revelations of both the unknown and the known. But the essential language is the same in both artists' work, even if everything being said is not.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Studies of the Head of Saskia and Others, 1636.
Rembrandt was an artist of his own inwardness but also that of others. These portrait studies accomplish what the majority of artists prior to Rembrandt's period rarely attempted: they pass beyond depicting physical likeness to convey the inner spirit of unidealized, ordinary individuals captured in moments of reflection.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Bust of an Oriental in a Turban, abt. 1633.
Ink on paper.

Lest we neglect Rembrandt's technical powers, look at the pen and ink drawing of a man wearing a turban above. The reproduction doesn't really show it, but there's an astonishing disparity between the amount of feeling and content Rembrandt gets across and the sheer "economy of means" with which he does it. In a few clearly rapid marks and lines, Rembrandt gives us all the information we need to read volumes into the man's life and identity. This is not just a colorfully "different" character type in 17th century Holland, it's a solid human being with a history of dreams, defeats, triumphs, and desires.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Woman Bathing Her Feet at a Brook, 1658
This etching emphasizes Rembrandt's rejection of traditional idealization in western art. The woman here reads not as a type (a Venus, let's say, or a Mary Magdalene), but as a real person, with thick legs and a less than "perfect" body. The pose, elemental setting, and the very human subject matter elevate this work to the universality of poetry, even as it attests to Rembrandt's dedication to really seeing the subjects of his art.

Rembrandt van Rijn, One-Hundred Guilder Print, 1647.
Etching, drypoint, and burin.
The above print is the most fully elaborated of the Rembrandts on display, the one that most resembles his more complex and masterful oil paintings. It depicts Jesus bringing comfort and redemption to the sick and the poor. It has an essentially mystical quality, brought on by the deep chiaroscuro, where rays of light seem to be thrown off from the glowing foreground figures into the shadowy deeps and stony textures beyond. Redon would have loved the supernatural quality of this.

Robert Vickrey, Old Clown, 1957. Tempera on gessoed Masonite.
On my way out of the museum I was stopped by the painting above. There's actually a Roualt in the Currier that depicts clowns also, and the placard on that painting explains how the artist saw the circus as a metaphor for human life, with each of us, like clowns, possessing a public mask that we show each other daily and a truer inner self that's rarely seen. In a much softer way, the above painting by Robert Vickrey expresses an essential human dignity intensified by its proximity to the "superficial" levity associated with the archetype of the clown. The figure's downcast eyes and indeterminate expression emphasize the man's inner world, clearly the result of a life of varied experience - joys suggested by indelible laugh lines and sorrows attested by furrowed brow, clenched jaw, and lips shriveled and pursed. Here, some 300 years later, is the same compassion and insight into humanity that Rembrandt taught the world to love.

Edgar Degas, Repetition au Foyer de la Danse, 1882.
But lest we conclude that art is only concerned with profound human feeling, there are several Impressionist works on display that have recently been obtained on loan. It was with relief and a lightened heart, I admit, that I stumbled onto the charming Degas above, proving once again how much of the life and joy of art depends upon embracing color and deign rather than on brooding statements about humanity. The same truth springs from the breezy, light-filled Sisley below, which the Currier's curators have done well to hang next to the Degas.

Alfred Sisley, Un Noyer dans la Prairie de Thomery, 1880

Such contrasts remind one that art is various, its means diverse, and its compass practically boundless. 

Anyone can develop technical ability; it takes technical ability plus a cultivated inner life to produce important art. But even that isn't enough; as Redon noted it's a far more mysterious affair in the end. "No-one makes the art that they want to," he wrote. The work evolves on its own, "according to its own laws."

So there you have it: it just is, and that's that. "Art is a flower which blossoms freely, to the exclusion of all rules," Redon said. "In my view, it leaves in sad disarray the microscopic analyses of the 'aestheticians' who seek to explain it."



  1. I was dumbstruck by the Vickrey painting when I went to see the Rembrandts, too. Obviously, I need to become more familiar with Odilon Redon -- another artist whose name is confusing by itself! (like Odd Nerdrum!)

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