One of the good things about living in London is that you can pop into the National Gallery for free and see some of the world’s greatest paintings. I cycled to a board meeting in King’s Cross and determined before I went that I would make the day extra worthwhile by stopping at the National Gallery on the way home and looking at one painting. I decided that I would look at the Rembrandt self-portrait painted in the year he died—partly because it is one of the world’s greatest paintings and partly because I half remembered Karl Ove Knausgaard’s account of the painting.
Today is a hot and exquisite day in London, and I hurtled down St Martin’s Lane, parked my bike, and arrived sweating in the National Gallery. I didn’t quite stick to my plan. I was diverted first by an exhibition of Dutch flower paintings. They are beautiful but too cute, and I thought why would you paint flowers, pretty as they are, if you could paint a face as Rembrandt does? The obvious answer, I suppose, is that almost nobody can or ever could. I couldn’t help stopping as well before Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne, which I last saw on television in a programme on the colour blue. https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2016/08/11/the-magic-of-blue/ I noticed for the first time that one of the wild men (a satyr?) on the right of the painting seems to be holding a severed limb. I saw too what I took to be a tiny fat Bacchus at the back of the picture. I made a mental note to read about the symbolism of the painting, but I haven’t done it yet.
But I walked past Vermeers that some people cross the world to see and stood face to face with the aged Rembrandt. The painting is hung at a height that we were eye to eye. I am older than he was when he painted the picture, and I flatter myself that he looks much older. I was dressed in pale cream trousers and a short sleeved, pale yellow tee-shirt. He’s dressed in heavy brown coat with a hat. His hair is white and wavy, very like mine, but his is longer. The skin on his face is wrinkled and heavily marked, his nose is bulbous, and he’s poorly shaved. It’s a lived in face. My face is lived in to, my nose tending towards bulbosity, but I don’t think that I look as tired as he does. He was within a year of death; I hope that I’m not, although I might be.
I walked I into the next gallery and looked at the self portrait painted when he was 34. It’s a much cockier, almost arrogant painting. It’s a great painting as well, but it doesn’t have the emotional depth of the older portrait.
Thanks to the ease of technology I’ve found the Knausgaard account of the painting, and it’s below. It was the light in the eyes that struck him. I wasn’t struck in the same way; indeed, Rembrandt looks tired, burnt out, to me.
Knausgaard gives his account of the painting after a few lines (see below, before the account of the painting) in which he says that he says that he doesn’t want anybody to see him or get close to him. Writing autobiographical novels, revealing every last intimate detail about yourself, thus seems like an odd step.
Knausgaard on himself
“I do not want anyone to get close to me, I do not want anyone to see me, and this is the way things have developed: no one gets close and no one sees me. This is what must have engraved itself in my face, this is what must have made it so stiff and mask-like and almost impossible to associate with myself whenever I happen to catch a glimpse of it in a shop window.
Knausgaard on the Rembrandt self-portrait
The only thing that does not age in a face is the eyes. They are no less bright the day we die as the day we are born. The blood vessels in them may burst, admittedly, and the corneas may be dulled, but the light in them never changes. There is, in London, a painting which moves me as much every time I go and see it. It is a late self-portrait by Rembrandt. His later paintings are usually characterised by an extreme coarseness of stroke, rendering everything subordinate to the expression of the moment, at once shining and sacred, and still unsurpassed in art, with the possible exception of Hölderlin’s later poems, however dissimilar and incomparable they may be – for where Hölderlin’s light, evoked through language, is ethereal and celestial, Rembrandt’s light, evoked through colour, is earthy, metallic and material – but this one painting which hangs in the National Gallery was painted in a slightly more classically realistic, lifelike style, more in the manner of the younger Rembrandt. But what the painting portrays is the older Rembrandt. Old age. All the facial detail is visible; all the traces life has left there are to be seen. The face is furrowed, wrinkled, sagging, ravaged by time. But the eyes are bright and, if not young, they somehow transcend the time that otherwise marks the face. It is as though someone else is looking at us, from somewhere inside the face, where everything is different. One can hardly be closer to another human soul. For as far as Rembrandt’s person is concerned, his good habits and bad, his bodily sounds and smells, his voice and his language, his thoughts and his opinions, his behaviour, his physical flaws and defects, all the things that constitute a person to others, are no longer there, the painting is more than four hundred years old, and Rembrandt died the same year it was painted, so what is depicted here, what Rembrandt painted, is this person’s very being, that which he woke to every morning, that which immersed itself in thought, but which itself was not thought, that which immediately immersed itself in feelings, but which itself was not feeling, and that which he went to sleep to, in the end for good. That which, in a human, time does not touch and whence the light in the eyes springs. The difference between this painting and the others the late Rembrandt painted is the difference between seeing and being seen. That is, in this picture he sees himself seeing while also being seen, and no doubt it was only in the baroque period with its penchant for mirrors within mirrors, the play within the play, staged scenes and a belief in the interdependence of all things, when moreover craftsmanship attained heights witnessed neither before nor since, that such a painting was possible. But it exists in our age, it sees for us.
Actually you can see in the picture in great detail by downloading it from: https://www.dropbox.com/s/xhf9133nvg1239q/N-0221-00-000054-wpu.jpg?dl=0