This week I want to share a personal reflection on art, motivated by a recent article in the New Yorker.
Take a minute to look at – and into – this person’s eyes. He died 351 years ago.What do you see?
(Seriously. Take a minute. It’s worth it.)
First, a little personal background.
I did not want to take the required art appreciation course in college. I grew up in San Bernardino, a town whose claim to fame was not its art galleries or general sophistication but being the birthplace of the Hell’s Angels and McDonalds. When I got to college, I had the experience of people saying they could “see” things in a poem or a novel or an artwork, but try as I might, I couldn’t see what they claimed to see. This made me feel ignorant, self-conscious and defensive.
That’s the attitude I carried into the initial art history class. But as that course unfolded, I was intrigued, then fascinated, then transfixed. I traded potential embarrassment for lifelong curiosity.
Some years later I was drawn to Rembrandt, particularly by his portrayal of Biblical scenes. These weren’t fancy, perfectly coiffed characters. They were ordinary people. They looked real. But he brought depth and presence to them. You could sense their soul.
Let’s turn to his “Self-Portrait of 1658”. It was one of many paintings mentioned in the February 15 issue of the New Yorker by the art critic Peter Schjeldahl.* His focus is a new book, “The Sleeve Should Be Illegal: & Other Reflections on Art at the Frick,” in which a broad range of people give personal reactions to many of the art works at this unique museum in New York. The “Self-Portrait of 1658” merits comments from Schjedldahl, the actress Diana Rigg, and the cartoonist Roz Chast.
First, I’ll share my impressions and thoughts as I took time to look. It’s always an interesting exercise to just see what comes to mind.
- I notice he seems to be looking just over my left shoulder.
- Next, I notice the double chin. That leads me to think of how my own double chin has been emerging this last year, made more obvious thanks to Zoom; it appalls me. But he paints his without apology. He is capturing his real life at this point in time. I then think, “He must have a sense of dignity that is deeper than mine.”
- A little later I notice he dressed himself up in fancy clothes, a favorite technique of his. Do the clothes suggest vanity after all? Or are they an effective contrast with the aging face?
- I look back into his eyes now, rather than just at them. I sense he is not looking at me but letting me look at him. Looking deeply, I feel we are suddenly connected. It reminds me of Star Trek: Mr. Spock was capable of performing the “Vulcan Mind Meld” by placing his fingers on someone’s head and going into a trance, then tapping directly into the person’s psyche, bonding with a hidden pain, memory or secret.
- Accepting his invitation to look into his eyes, I sense he is strong, assured, confident. At peace. Also, generous, in that he let me take as much time as I want to make the connection across 350 years of time. He never knew me, but he let me – and all of us –gaze into his soul.
- I sense the particularity of the person he was. It reminds me of the particularity of each one of us. You see it in the eyes of a newborn. Or a family member or friend when you take a moment. Sometimes in a stranger, who then no longer is as strange.
These are some of my initial impressions.
Let’s turn now to Schjedldahl’s description:
Another matter is the best painting in the museum, if not the world: Rembrandt’s fathomlessly self-aware “Self-Portrait” of 1658, made when he was fifty-two and sorely beset by personal and professional woes. He knows that he’s the leading painter in Amsterdam, but he seems to wonder if that’s worth anything. It does nothing for his tiredness. A shadow falls across his eyes. I’m loath to argue with the five contributors who single the work out. It becomes part of each viewer’s life: a talisman…
And then these two comments.
The late Diana Rigg recalls thinking, when she first saw the picture, “That is how I want to act!”
Roz Chast recounts an existential encounter. She writes, “I felt as if he were saying to me: Once I was alive, like you. Sometimes I suffered. Sometimes things seemed funny, or maybe absurd, especially myself. I was a man. I was an artist. I was a great artist. My name was Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn. I painted this painting. I lived. I died. Yet here I am. There you are. We are looking at each other.”
It’s a mystical experience to look deeply into the eyes of another being in the present moment and across time. I’m grateful for all the artists who make that happen, and skilled guides like Peter Schjedldahl.
If you gaze at him again, what do you see? Where do those thoughts lead? I invite you to add any of your observations in the “Leave a Comment” space below so we can make this a shared experience.
Truly a spacious mystery, this thing called life.