Rembrandt helps me deal with my vitriol

Rembrandt's Self-Portrait of 1658 (Frick Collection)


I've been reading Proust, as I mention often enough, and I'm at the infuriating section in The Captive where the young Marcel betrays just how much of a pansy he actually is. I've always found it amusing how easy it is to dislike the character, to even think of him as a dissipated ninny (sort of where I am right now in my assessment of the guy). But at the same time as Marcel is saying aloud the sorts of things I would smack someone else for, he's thinking the most beautiful, provocative, and spot-on thoughts I've ever been privy to. So I forgive him for seeming like a girly-man and enjoy his swirling musings on the only way we can know human experience--through the filter of memory.

Nonetheless, these last 100 or so pages on jealousy have made me impressively annoyed and irritable. He lies in bed all day and thinks about this woman who he doesn't love but merely wants to possess--in the sort of way one possesses a plant (he doesn't even want her as a pet, but as something that is limited to respiration and immobility). He makes lofty speeches about how beautiful she is when she's asleep in his bed, or anchored to his arm, or entirely at the mercy of his call and desire, but as soon as there's the slightest suggestion of a life outside of being Marcel's mistress she becomes ugly in his eyes--and reprehensible.

Dealing with my vitriol has been difficult--for a dangerous few pages I was about to just flip forward and forget all of the speeches I was confident I could predict as loathsome. But I persevered, largely with the help of a splendid trip to the Frick.

I was fortunate enough to receive, as a parting gift from my previous librarian co-workers, an annual membership card to the Frick. This is one of my favorite galleries, right up there with the Wallace Collection in London and the National Gallery in DC. I used to imagine my own future home as something like a glorified and less dusty version of the library in the Frick. (I spent 0 hours imagining my wedding and countless ones planning my library...still do actually).

This was my first visit in quite some time and I found myself face to face with a lot of nostalgia, quite a few happy reunions, and one almost-tear-soaked encounter. It was as if I were walking through the vaults of my own memory, turning slowly and bemusedly to shake hands with the first forgotten face and lock eyes with the next well-loved gaze. As I smiled at the pink-checked courtiers and admired the lovely ladies of society, I found myself in the world of beauty that makes it effortless to forget quotidian affairs.

I was only slightly irritated by pat art commentary (whenever I visit a gallery solo I always wish everyone else had done so also and would remain silent...but I am just as guilty of that superfluous chat when I have a gallery companion), and entirely ensorcelled by one man.

Rembrandt is one of those historical figures who, to me, comes closest to what greatness must be. I don't know much about him, I only know that every time I encounter his art my breath catches a little bit and I feel that immediate, complete recognition of genius. His realism is of the sort I wish we would encounter more often in artworks-- complete and profound honesty to an idea, an image, a story, and most of all, to a craft practices by a man. There are no ulterior motives, nor are there pushy statements jumping off of the canvas. No frills, no variations, no gloss. It is as if Rembrandt has taken the story, pointed to the very quick of the meaning and then rendered that mysterious essence of idea/story/subject exactly as it should be.

I am not saying that his version of the Return of the Prodigal Son is the one and the only--I am saying that his version is what appears to me to be a complete realization of a specific vision. I am saying that when I stand in front of Aristotle with a Bust of Homer that I know exactly who is the creator of this beauty, and at the same time, I care little for the man and almost entirely for the gift he has made me in remaining so faithful to his vision, in being so exacting with himself.

It is this development of personality and skill and talent that struck me when I found myself eyes to eyes with the Self-Portrait of 1658. His stare is not self-deprecating or self-aggrandizing; it does not grasp after unseen laurels and courtly rewards; he is a powerful man, a talented man, a challenging man, but he confronts you not with condescension, rather with the same challenge he has put to himself. I stood in front of him and heard the statement "This is me, this is my expression of my idea of myself." A statement like that cannot be taken lightly, I immediately made the appropriate substitutions and asked myself what it would look like if the accumulated weight of my personality were to be displayed by my skill to an audience.

It's easy to turn coward under the scrutiny of an audience, but how much easier is it for us to turn blind eyes on ourselves--to ignore faults or indulge excesses? How difficult would it be to meticulously portray each crag in the skin, each shadow over the mind, each hidden shame or mis-step?

I stood in front of honesty and felt tears prick my skin; as people walked about me; as a beautiful de la Tour stood two paintings down and a Vermeer on the other side of the room; I stood in front of honesty and beauty and challenge and wanted to weep. But I didn't, I'm not yet honest enough (foolish enough?) to forget the audience we are each surrounded by.


(as an aside, and now that I have at least a few familiar commenters, I would love to hear what anyone else has been reading/viewing/being moved by lately. I'm a bit starved for some intelligent conversation)