Issue 233 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
Rembrandt painted an astonishing number of self portraits throughout his life. Over 60 were recently on display in London. The exhibition confirms Rembrandt's stature as an innovator, a master of technique and an artist capable of reflecting our deepest emotions back to ourselves.
The modern fascination with Rembrandt has been interpreted as evidence of the existence of eternal values in art and the primary importance of individual genius. An alternative, socialist exploration of the meaning of great art was formulated by Trotsky in the 1920s in opposition to both bourgeois and Stalinist critics. He explained: 'A work of art should be judged in the first place by its own laws, that is by the laws of art. But Marxism alone can explain why and how a given tendency in art has originated in a given period of history.'
Rembrandt's painting techniques were a radical challenge to conventional portraiture. Primarily Rembrandt was fascinated by light which he explored in new and dramatic ways. Some of the early self portraits appear to be almost abstract, studies of the effect of light falling on one side of the face whilst the rest sinks back into darkness. Rembrandt's use of paint was recently examined using X-rays and pigment analysis. The studies confirmed that he used an unconventional layering method involving tonal underpainting overlaid with colour glazes finished using thick impasto brushwork. In later portraits the paint is applied very loosely and quickly, almost impressionistically, in a style that is next seen centuries later in Van Gogh's self portraits.
The colours themselves are inventive. One portrait includes patches of light green overpainted in flesh tones to create the ageing greyness of an old man's skin. His commitment to painting what he saw was not universally acclaimed. Contemporary critics scorned his concern with 'ugly and imperfect reality' in contrast to conventional idealised paintings.
His experimental techniques and interpretations of subject matter were funded initially by the expanding Dutch middle class, enriched by Amsterdam's position as the financial, trading and shipping centre of Europe. Amongst this class, paintings were a popular method of investment. Crucially this source of artistic funding was for the first time outside the control of the church. Representations of everyday life became highly popular. This trend fitted Rembrandt's own humanism.
Rembrandt's studio was in cosmopolitan Amsterdam, a dynamic city at the height of its economic expansion. His social circle reflected its urban, cosmopolitan character and included egalitarian Christian sects and members of the Jewish community. His environment can be seen as an inspiration in terms of subject matter. In other drawings his sympathetic representations of beggars and peasants seem to be expressing his solidarity with humanity.
At one level the exhibition appears to be an autobiography in paint, reflecting a life affected by youthful success, family tragedies (six deaths in seven years) and later a fall from popular acclaim and bankruptcy. It is in the very late pictures of himself as an old man that Rembrandt seems to delve most deeply into his own psyche. His painted eyes truly seem mirrors of the soul looking out and speaking eloquently to a modern audience, reflecting on ageing, mortality and existence.
The self portraits reveal Rembrandt's unique contribution to European painting. As Trotsky wrote about Shakespeare: 'What the worker will take... will be a more complex idea of the human personality, of its passions and feelings, a deeper and more profound understanding of its psychic forces and of the role of the subconscious etc. In the final analysis the worker will be richer.'
Rembrandt by Himself is at the National Gallery and runs until 5 September