Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Rembrandt at Work

Long Day’s Journey Into Night is unquestionably the greatest autobiographical play of all time. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and David Copperfield are two of the great autobiographical novels and Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait from l663-63 recently on view in the Rembrandt at Work: the Great Self-Portrait from Kenwood House show at the Met is, one could argue, one of the great works of painterly self-scrutiny. We know in the case of the O’Neill, for example, that the Aristotelian unities of space, time and action were essential to the playwright’s ability to turn the raw matter of life experience into a masterpiece. But what accounts for Rembrandt’s virtuosity in the painting under discussion? The casual viewer is first engaged by painter’s piercing eyes. The curators comment that while the earlier portraits and etchings (some of which are on display in another recent Met exhibit, Rembrandt and Degas: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), enabled Rembrandt to display his  “inventiveness and emulation” of huge talents like Durer, Raphael and Titian, “in contrast the later self-portraits (ca. 1650-69) seem more straightforward: the aging artist is seen in work clothes, in everyday attire with a beret or linen studio cap, and in some cases, as here, a palette, brushes, and maulstick.” It’s disconcerting to compare Rembrandt’s early etchings from the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man show to the almost impressionistic nature of the Kenwood House painting. It’s almost as if Rembrandt were turning the radical realism for which he was known on its head, but age both diminishes the vision and provides a totally new level of insight. Could the author of a screed called A Doll’s House have really composed the surrealistic When We Dead Awaken in his old age? The Aristotelian unities don’t explain what was going on in the Kenwood House portrait, but Aristotle did contemplate the bust of Homer in another Rembrandt on view in the same gallery.

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