Saturday, November 21, 2009
The Magic of Skin and Light, Rembrandt's Hands and Faces
Rembrandt’s exquisite self-portraits are as enigmatic and mysterious as the eyes that follow us before the Syndics. In another room of the Rijksmuseum is an early Self-Portrait (1628) we have seen many times before in reproduction. As always, it’s the light that enchants me, frustrates me and seduces me. My fascination with this inexplicable beam of light does not begin and end with the way it illuminates the skin on the face on which it falls. The light itself is so clear, so defined, so lucid, and no matter how close I stand to the canvas, the answer to the same question of how Rembrandt does this, how he makes light from paint continues to elude me. It is a mystery that I cannot see in the painting itself. I move backwards and forwards and still I cannot see anything other than the photographic image of the light falling on this heavenly, porcelain like skin.
Skin and light, together, are the reason I go again and again to see Rembrandt’s portraits. As much as I love Jeremiah (1630) and the Philosopher in Meditation for example, it’s the portraits that have me in amazement every single time. And always, it’s the very old and the very young who have the most beautiful skin, transparent, heavenly, perfect, in the light. Even the hand of the Old Woman Reading (1631) which is also in the Rijkesmuseum, is not only lifelike, but when skin and paint as light come together on her weary wise fingers, the result is so photographically dreamy that portrait photographers might experience pangs of envy at the ability to replicate the perfection of the human body in an image. And this, painted 200 years before such technology was dreamed of.
I wonder why no one has called on Rembrandt’s hands and faces to dispute theorists such as Belà Balazs’ claim that the cinema, for the first time, like no other medium before it, sees the emotions written on the face, and we could extend this to the gestures of the hand. The cinema may have the capacity to reveal to us in close up the internal drama of emotions as they are written on the human face, but surely painting, in the hands of Rembrandt, clearly has the capacity to do just that and more. Like the film camera in particular, paint on Rembrandt’s canvases not only depicts human emotions as they are created through the marriage of light and skin, but this too is the place at which we are invited to connect to these people. Where paint as light and skin coexist on Rembrandt’s canvases, no matter the identity of the sitter, we are beckoned and seduced into their emotional world. It doesn’t matter if the person is old and the skin wrinkled or if it is the flawless, porcelain skin of youth, we cannot help but adore these faces and hands.
It is true that when eyes come into the equation, and the brushstrokes become looser, often as Rembrandt matures as a painter, like the Self-Portrait as the Apostle St Paul (1661), the serenade is more complicated. Figures such as the artist in the said portrait always look at us and simultaneously, they reflect on their own inner melancholy. It is no longer the skin that is so delicately rendered, but the inner life made external, once again, inexplicably through brushstrokes we cannot always discern.
I always come away, at a loss to explain how Rembrandt does what he does, how he makes these figures so replete with a perspicacity and emotional complexity. And then, seducing me into their subjective world, as if I am somehow held responsible for its existence. I know Rembrandt always experimented with paint: he dries it out, adds more oil, applies flecks of gold dust to create light, he adds it, removes it. As a painter who never really made sketches, we know that all of his thinking is done in paint. But still, this doesn’t help me explain anything. In the end, my inability to explain and analyze Rembrandt’s paintings is probably for the best: it means I continue to be seduced by these sumptuous images.