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Rembrandt’s self portraits and the need for a better understanding of painting

Rembrandt’s self portraits are well known. They vary in character, portrayal and style, but when critics and historians write or talk about his work, they never describe or analyse the paintings as paintings. Instead we tend to hear about his facial expressions; the gaze looking back at the viewer; speculations about his character. With a face like that he must have been nice. Those eyes, you can tell he suffered. Comments like these are common. Historians have an opportunity to let themselves go making connections between his bankruptcy in later life and his appearance. How does this relate to painting?

We are living in a commodity culture. Nowadays successful artists have to be celebrities, what they produce becomes art because it is endorsed by a celebrity. Their “personality” is a factor in the marketing of their work. And like the cult of personality attached to Rembrandt, which endorses his reputation, contemporary celebrity artists can’t be criticised by formal analysis either. We must consider the fact that Mr. X or Miss Y are “nice guys” and any impersonal evaluation of their paintings’ artistic merit or lack of it is seen as unfair.

Of course the real reason they aren’t criticised properly is because the critics are ignorant. Their job isn’t easy. Some give up and just write advertising blurb promoting the work in question. They are paid for this, and are colluding in a marketing scheme, usually paid for by the artist’s gallery. The better ones have researched their subjects and often they write well, but what they don’t have is an understanding of the medium of painting. By “medium” I  don’t just mean the physical properties of painting: colour, line, space, form etc., and how these work, but also and more importantly, the history of the medium.


The “physical” side can be problematic (a source of innovation and discovery for the right artists, of little interest for the majority) because the formal elements in painting are opposed to each other. This is most clearly seen when an artist focusses on extracting the maximum intensity from any one of them. For example, Colour is opposed to Form, it doesn’t help to reveal it, it camouflages and destroys it. If you bring in Space and Line, it gets more complicated, because each of these exerts a pressure which has to be balanced without losing its separate identity. What we see in most contemporary paintings is a blended, blurred compromise, where the image depiction dominates and carries the meaning of the work. In cooking terms this blurry mass is like English cooking used to be fifty years ago. Since then we have improved, we have learned from the continentals, helped by Elizabeth David’s excellent books on French and Italian cooking. Most people today recognise good cooking even if they aren’t gourmets. One of the things we have learned to recognise is the importance of ingredients: fresh produce not overcooked and ingredients combined so that the flavour of each is enhanced. Similarly, good painting uses elements which mutually enhance each other.

We can recognise a talented footballer or tennis player because we know the rules of the game and exceptional talent is easily spotted. But in painting there are many different “games”, how do we know which if any, are important? This is the second aspect of the “medium” of painting: the historical lineage or tradition. Knowing when painting is really saying something new and challenging is even more difficult than understanding the physical properties of good painting. If price tags are anything to go by we have more great painters now than In the past. Is this the case? Are we really living in a period when painting has never been stronger?

The sequence of discoveries, not the sum of what has been painted constitutes the history of European painting. Each new discovery creates a new paint language but doesn’t produce rules which can be followed or built on, as they are in science. It’s only minor artists, the academic ones, who are able to follow their chosen master. Today there are many of these, working in lots of different styles, figurative, abstract, semi-conceptual etc. This is helpful for buyers and curators of art because most of the time, paintings need to be labelled and pigeonholed otherwise they remain invisible. The truly original is never seen or understood quickly and this isn’t only the case for earlier painting. Philip Guston’s later paintings (in the 1970s) were dismissed by the critics and he lost most of his painter friends: they thought he had betrayed abstraction by reverting to figuration. This nationalistic attitude among painters still prevails, it’s part of the blanket of ignorance which covers contemporary painting.

In art you need hierarchies. Critics and writers should declare what they believe is important, like Ruskin did in his wonderful narrative: “The nature of Gothic: a chapter of the stones of Venice”. He made a list of six characteristics, starting with “Savageness” as the most important. The other five elements are:  Changefulness; Naturalism; Grotesqueness; Rigidity and Redundance. I don’t want to summarise what he wrote, it needs to be read as a whole because every sentence is meaningful. However, I can say in his list he believed one or two characteristics could be omitted without doing harm, but removing more than two would destroy the meaning. Ruskin’s list is important because though all the characteristics belong together, some are seen as particularly important: they belong to a period when the Gothic reached its pinnacle. A personal, imaginative sense of history and its continuing importance is embedded in the narrative, he is an exemplar to learn from.

Mere competence in painting isn’t enough. There are probably two hundred competent painters in London at this time, but that doesn’t mean we have as many good artists. And if any of these became even more skilful in their practice, it wouldn’t necessarily make them better artists. What matters is having something to say. In the past artists were against the Art Establishment and it’s values, but as information technology has grown, so too has the Art  Establishment, creating armies of curators who help decide what should be seen and promoted. Their knowledge is limited but their influence is considerable. In our crowded, busy world we are saturated with a constant downpour of images. What marks some as significant? What is the defining image of our time? Is it Love, Death, or Judgement Day?

The “new” element in painting must also be a construction, with colour, form, space etc. working in interesting ways. These must challenge the tradition of painting, not just pay lip service to it, in order one day to belong to it.

Every life is unique, but in painting terms a life that’s significant reflects the universal life. Rembrandt, especially in his late self portraits does this, and some of  his portraits seem to transcend time. Unlike most paintings of people, Rembrandt’s seem to contain something at their core. It’s as if inside the painted head there’s a human essence, like the soul. But this quality is part of a painted structure.

I want to describe some of the formal qualities of one late self portrait at Kenwood House in London. Painted 1659-60 or 1665; Rembrandt died in 1666. For many years I found the Kenwood self portrait an awkward painting, I couldn’t really see it. Then one day I found a way in. It began when I noticed how odd the left side of the painting is, where Rembrandt’s arm seems to flatten into a shape adjacent to the background. This isn’t due to lack of light, it’s a wilful flattening of form, at odds with the rest of the painting. Then I noticed the shoulders. For a fairly well rounded adult figure like Rembrandt’s, he seems to have a child’s shoulders, roughly a third smaller than their actual size. This is initially disguised by two things, the posture of his arms which create a sort of pyramid with the head at its apex, and the exclusion of light from the arms, they are simply a dark tonal colour. He has deliberately made a disjunction in scale between the massive head and undersized shoulders. Why?

The head is heavy as a cannon ball. Rembrandt wanted this weightiness, but he also wanted buoyancy. Imagine a large cannon ball being dropped into the sea, descending for a second, then rising up to the surface, this is the effect he has created. He wanted to keep the face as intense as possible and having other parts of the body in the same terms would have resulted in a static, inert image. My guess is originally the clothes he is wearing were differently painted, they may even have been painted over. He might have been re-painting, destroying things and realised the painted out parts were setting off the face and bits of the wall in the right way, unblocking the clogged flow of energy. It takes intelligence to recognise the potential of a lucky accident and genius to push an image into a new area of painting.

Rembrandt must have been unwilling to settle for a compromise. Usually, the scale of the various parts of a self portrait have a logical connection. Here, the face and parts of the wall have something in common, but his hat, body and painting equipment are painted differently. What I believe happened is the painting became over burdened with densely articulated surfaces. Look at his face and the wall with two circles. These have a tactile surface: a fly could walk along the edges where the circles are drawn, it’s that specific, not how we usually see. And the surface of the face in the lit parts is even more acutely tactile. Here a tiny fruit fly could easily find its way across the illuminated parts of the face. The scale has changed, now we see the face and head as enormous, as big as a cliff face seen at a distance. Our eyes experience a little shock. The distance and sense of remove is great. Imagine a bird flying towards a cliff. That is the closest I can get to describing the feeling. Rembrandt’s eye socket in shadow is like a cave that invites you in, but you never really enter, there is always a distance which resists the eye. Here I think is the explanation for the sense of inwardness, the soul or essence we sense. Passing from lit parts to half lit and shadowed areas, on a face which looms up as in a dream, detached, solid, but hovering. It’s like meeting yourself after death: a resurrected self.

These feelings the painting provokes in viewers are made entirely of paint. It’s all artifice. Painting and drawing a tactile surface is difficult, few people today can do it well. But painting with the scale in this Rembrandt self portrait is unprecedented. From tiny pinhead sized notations on the face, to very large divisions across the body, making a kind of landscape of the portrait. Never before (nor since) has it been done. This is a perfect instance of an artist squeezing the maximum intensity out of the ingredients in painting.

This painting was made through trial and error, but with a guiding idea: to create a living and consequential thing. What this means is that each part of the painting’s structure was made in response to other parts, not on its own. The initial impact of the face, which I believe Rembrandt held on to while destroying and changing other parts, needed a buffer to absorb the shock of its minutely articulated surface. This was created by the loose and open nature of the paint in the parts which were being painted out at an earlier stage. The difference between the opaque tactile surfaces on the face and parts of the wall and those which are diffuse and translucent creates an expansion and contraction of the picture surface, allowing the eye to move freely and in different ways.

To see it properly, you have to stand back about six feet. You need time and quiet and not too many people blocking your view. Also, you need to project your own ideas into the painting in order to see things happening. Standing passively, expecting it to reveal itself won’t work.

Every part in good painting plays a role. As in good cooking, the ingredients and the way they are combined, matters. Who would have thought we would one day return to slow food, cooked properly with subtle flavours and good ingredients. And that we would take time to enjoy our food. If it can happen with food, it can happen to painting too. We need to re-discover great paintings. Not by copying them literally, but by understanding certain principles. Unfortunately, there is no guide. The first step is being aware of the need for a change from paintings that are products to those which are living and consequential like Rembrandt’s.


Paul Gopal-Chowdhury, 12 September 2015




















Rembrandt, Kenwood Self Portrait, c.1659-60














detail of left side of painting



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