Learning from Rembrandt
I caught a quick glimpse of a Rembrandt self-portrait in Kenwood House on Saturday. The house was about to close at 4pm so it was a race around as many rooms as we could see in the time. Library? Tick. Dining room? Tick. Anything else - forget it. The attendants started ushering us quietly and efficiently out but I managed five minutes looking at the Dutch master's selfie, the light falling across his face - that fantastic milky glow from a candle just out of sight, his palette in hand, staring with a sort of self-knowledge, a man divided between himself: artist and subject, and yet utterly one being.
Jonathan Jones asks the question in a Guardian article from 2013 whether it is the 'greatest painting in Britain', which is some claim. But there's something in it - after all, this was a painter who created forty odd self-portraits, an artist in pursuit of something which perhaps remained tantalisingly out of reach
until this version, from his 59th year, not a lot older than me as I sit here writing this, failing yet again to capture with the same honesty the nature of myself as a writer. After all, what is a blog if not a self-portrait?
I'm not a particularly honest writer in my other work - except perhaps in poetry - but I haven't yet mined my own life for much in the way of creative gold. I'm not sure it warrants it - yet. But looking at that Rembrandt portrait makes me feel much as Jones does in his article. I saw the painting in the flesh, so to speak, so its power was magnified. Even seeing it on screen, Jones says.....
'His eyes contain so much knowledge and melancholy that even looking at this painting on a computer screen, I get the eerie feeling that Rembrandt is looking back and weighing up my failures. You can deduce the power of the original.
He was a failure when he painted this, a proud man reduced to poverty by his enthusiastic spending – but here he throws it back on the burghers of Amsterdam. Art is not a business; it is a struggle with eternity. Rembrandt stands not proudly or arrogantly, but in the full consciousness of the heroic nature of his work.'
I have no hopes of emulating Rembrandt's powers of self-perception made into art, but self-knowledge alone (without the art) would be a pretty good thing. In the meantime, go to Kenwood House and see this great painting. Then, as I did, walk back amongst the autumn leaves falling across the great lawns and sweeping paths and in the dying twilight lift a glass to the power of the creative impulse.