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Rembrandt Smoke and Mirrors

  1. Rembrandt – the master alchemist unconsciously playing with  smoke and mirrors

  2. Releasing himself to the process of the paint and its qualities

  3. Releasing himself from dualism

  4. Re-linking to the connectedness of all things

  5. Receiving in grace the ultimate reward – finding the  reflection of self in the eyes of the other.

Having, in my last blog explored the psychology of Henri Toulouse Lautrec, I realised I had to go back to where the study of the inner life of a painter started and  ‘do Rembrandt’ .

Rembrandt van Rijn .1606-69.    A Dutch tenebrist painter (painter of shadows) considered to be a corner stone of the evolution of modern Western Art History for his experimental technical practices.

Although Rembrandt fell out of fashion in his later career, scholars in the ensuing centuries consider his legacy in his body of work particular his 99 self portraits (70 paintings), as autobiographical, and deemed him the first psychological painter, painting more than the surface of the painting, imbuing the painting with deeper levels of understanding of the human condition, the brevity of love and life, as it moves and transitions from dark moments to light and back again.

I would agree with the aforesaid but would also suggest there is an even richer story about Rembrandt and his work.

In my opinion, his true achievement is that he used the unconscious process of releasing himself to explore with qualities of his materials and thus to a greater result.

Oil paint is Rembrandt’s preferred medium of exploration as he  attempts to release himself,  to the paint, its tactile, fluid, dynamic physicality, its ability to express the illusion of  drama,  suspense and all the emotional qualities that humans can experience.

Rembrandt is seeded by two main traditions, which, in their pure form,  transcend the dualism of things .The alchemical tradition of the earlier Flemish  painters such as JanVan Eck, 1380-1441 whose glazed surfaces and metaphoric hidden structures  utilized the generative power of opposing forces  and  the Christian spiritual  tradition whose ultimate aim also is to  transcend dualistic thinking   ( opposites)  e.g.  the fall from grace by the eating from the tree of knowledge of  good and evil ).  In both traditions,  a synthesis occurs  re-linking the dichotomies to create something new,  achieving a  higher state of  consciousness  and connection with the  divine.

Even though Rembrandt, was steeped in the Christian tradition of the Protestant North, and painted many biblical subjects, his thinking is not dualistic and his expression of spirituality is not confined to this motif but is reflected throughout his work as a universal spirituality deeply introspective and compassionate.   Indication of  a spiritual thread, is shown in the way he  releases himself to the paint, in a symbolic act  he dissolves the  boundaries between self and other,  blurring the edges between the dark and light, as he gazes into the dark liquid eyes of the other, he see himself reflected there.

While  Rembrandt, ultimately transcends  dualistic thinking, he does however rely on the power of opposing  forces  to create the  heightened non dualistic experience   The  master of light and  shadow  knows, here is no light without the dark, nor are there mountains without valleys, so hence the dynamic use of  technique and tonal range. –  the thin mirror  glazed surfaces of the mysterious darks,  the near white impasto peaks of  paint catching the light shine like mountain peaks in the morning sun as the smoky haze stumbles over the shadowy valleys, blending  and  blurring edges.

We, the spectator experience an alchemical trance as we look into the mirror of Rembrandt’s dark transparent shadows, peaks of light and the betwixt and between worlds, to find our own reflection, our own stories, our own tragedies.

However, I would argue, that we see in Rembrandt’s work, not his story, tragic or heroic, nor our own stories, but the altruistic, reassurance that we are a part of something greater than our individual existences.

To demonstrate the consistent progress/movement towards Rembrandt’s distinctive language and contribution to painting, these are two paintings which I feel express that journey.

In the first tiny early portrait, oil on wood, 15.5cmx12.7, 1629, the young, wide eyed and open mouthed Rembrandt is awake and alerted to the joy of creativity and its potentiality.

Through his gaze he asks us to come with him on a journey of exploration carefree, light and airy carving out the valleys with the end of the paint brush, building the rugged terrain with thick paint exploring the possibilities.

Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait (c 1659-60) oil on canvas 45in. X 37in.  According to some critics suggest this portrait is of a man bereft of family, friends, and possessions save his art.

For me this aged triangular portrait speaks of an assured confident man who has no need to impress as he stands solidly grounded having journeyed over the rocky terrain of life.  He knows how to paint life into his work by replicating all life’s facets in paint, by building paint, sculpting high points creating shadows in the valleys using, whatever means, palette knife, brush or thumb.

Now, the deliberation of the early years is over, it’s painful search and disciplined dedication to his craft  has opened him up to see beyond.   Dressed in a simply shaped red tunic, black cape and a  white beret encrusted with thick paint, he champions a limited palette and tells us he is in harmony with his environment, he is a  ‘universal man’ using universal colours  of  black white, red and yellow, as  he stands harmoniously enveloped in its background.

Finally,  Rembrandt binds and re-linking the dualities that separates and divides all things even though his only plan is to ‘see where the paint takes him’.   He trusts in  the process  and  moves beyond mastery of oil techniques, to  become the consummate alchemist,  transforming paint into a profound  language  of the universal  heart and soul which  continues  to speak to generations, filling them  with awe beyond words, linking them  to the world memory which is one with all life.  Furthermore, there is an undeniable message from Rembrandt,  that speaks not only of the  triumphant human condition, its rich dark shadows and  textures, but the  eternal  light of the ongoing Joie de vivre  that comes from  simply  releasing  to the process and the paint.

Is this the greatest painting in Britain?

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