What it means to be Our Contemporary ?
Rembrandt is one of those few artists who have permeated other areas, other concerns and other dilemmas in addition to being one of the Masters of the specific craft, i.e. painting. After five hundred years, his works continue to remain relevant to our own times. Why ?
I think it is because of the Man and not because of the Artist. There have been many Masters of Painting, many are Rembrandt’s contemporaries but they do not command such inter-disciplinary influence. For example, I have no formal training in painting nor I have any natural talent in this area. But the more I read about his works and his life, thanks to some very sensitive commentators, I find a man who like many of his self-portraits are living persons.
A brief bio of Rembrandt
Rembrandt’s career spanned a period of Holland’s age of great prosperity. He understood the need of the elites and nouveu rich to have their portraits made (which were previously only the domain of princes and kings) and Rembrandt used his skills and craft to bring out a lifelike representation. You just do not see how a person looks like but you feel as if you are meeting him or her. Elites and aristocrats of his time loved this and he was a very sought after artist with attendant fame, fortune, wealth and following. In his later years however, he was seized by an insatiable urge to bring out the essence of the character and that made him lost patronage, fame and wealth. In his later years, when his greatest works were done, he was lonely, poor but accompanied by something what in Hindu Scripture is called swadrahma. (one’s essential mission)
Society and Individual
The relationship between one’s society and an individual is as old as Man because Man is a social animal. The more gifted an individual is, the more he / she is sensitive to this relationship. A dynamic society in some of its episodes, where wealth is created at a rapid pace with attendant wealth disparity, an individual tends to think that without wealth, power and prestige, one may become prisoner of the society. Thus in all ages,some personalities of humble origins strive and either they challenge the elites and replace them or they are opted by the elites and become part of it. The former is a kind of revolution and the latter is evolution. This process changes the society as well as the individual. Rembrandt’s life as an artist is significant for the direction of the change of the individual, i.e. the artist.
Rembrandt’s relation with his society
- Rembrandt, at the start of his career used the skills and craft to catch the attention of the elites and social influencers and became very successful.
- However, when he pushed the envelope, as he did in The Night Watch, his patrons found themselves effaced by something the Artist conceived. Or in other words, they wanted the artist to fulfill their psychological desire through his craft but the Artist fulfilled his own desire at their expense. This was a rebellion more dangerous than an actual rebellion.
- From the above defined prisoner of society, one comes to the top and then encounters another subtle form of imprisonment – to be a well-oiled machine producing impeccable works but not reflecting his inner essence. Rembrandt was much ahead of his age in terms of temperament in his later years, he valued individual expression above everything and concentrated on something physically and spiritually most individualistic : one’s own face.
Rembrandt’s later works – especially his self-portraits are neither glorification of poverty or celebration of kitsch – he was an aristocrat and he spent a fortune in collecting collectibles from all over the world. His self-portraits are a form of meditation with eyes open – self examination where he transcends society and its relationship. A new form where an individual, in a secular sense, renounces the world and concentrates wholly one something one can call one’s own : his own body.
Without the context of Rembrandt’s past, his self-portraits do not carry the Force of Beauty. It is something like an old Emperor or like the Old Sailor of Hemingway or King Lear – who is now looking back and front through the only thing we have, the present moment, the face in front and the mirror that reflects both light and shade.