“We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.”
If you are an artist, your life is art and your art is life. The two are symbiotic. You can enjoy someone else's art on its own merit without knowing the context. However, when one has the chance to know what? who? when? how? and the amalgamation of all (hence the most interesting question) why someone expressed their interpretation of the world, it makes them and their work that much more fascinating. I had this same experience when I went to see a screening of Rembrandt: The Late Works from the National Gallery London and Rijksmuseum Amsterdam at the Curzon Chelsea last December.
Art is Life
So what did I know about Rembrandt before the screening?
Name: Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, born 15th July 1606...
...okay, for a blog discussing the importance of truth in one's work, maybe I should start using it. I had only heard of his first name before this screening. If I was placed in a gallery and told to find a Rembrandt, I wouldn't know where to begin. Yet, whenever I had heard of his name before the screening, I always felt that I should be aware of and in awe of his artistic merit. What's in a name indeed. In the same way one may speak of other mononymous people such as Beethoven, Mozart, Einstein, Newton, Darwin etc. there is a reverence, and an underline assumption that their brilliance should be acknowledged. Hard facts about an artist's life such as where they were born may not be as stimulating or as captivating as experiencing their art. However, context adds so much more to understanding one's process and choice of expression.
Take for example the two paintings shown below. On face value they are aesthetically beautiful and if I had not known the context of these paintings I could still enjoy them. However, knowing about Rembrandt's life and what was happening in his world at that time adds depth and appreciation. Take a closer look at the two paintings below. The genius and originality of these paintings were initially lost on me because the innovative artistry he mastered is something I take for granted today; the art of capturing motion and drama in a single moment. Rembrandt explored and mastered the then radical technique of replicating the effect of capturing lifein a single image. Much like observing a photo or a frame from a film, one imagines that there was motion/action before it was captured, the captured moment that we observe, and then the action that would continue after the moment captured. His approach to painting would predate what film and photography could replicate by centuries. In the Night Watch this is overt; a multitude of individuals interacting where one can imagine the commotion and cacophony of sound from just observing the painting. The Syndics has this but the motion is more intricate and subtle: the man second from the left is in the process of getting out of his chair, the man far right is gripping a pair of gloves, the man centre is leafing through the pages, and the observers interaction with the subjects in this painting suggests a narrative where we seem to be an uninvited visitor at this moment in time.
On the other hand, his mainstream contemporaries choose to continue in the classical approach to paintingwhere subjects were statuesque and resembled either classical gods or heroic figures from the past. This approach ignored Rembrandt's attempt to recreate the truth of a moment or the reality around him. An artist who's art strives to find the truth around them will always stand the test of time. Absolute truth is universal, and the closer an artist comes to trying to capture the truth around them, the closer they come to achieving immortality. Sadly, artisitc genius is rarely appreciated in its own time and in the twilight of his years, he was unappreciated, destitute and alone. This culminated in what I found his most interesting self portrait in the exhibition. To be an artist you must have an awareness of the world around you. To be a great artist, you not only need an awareness of the world around you, but an awareness of oneself as well: "TEMET NOSCE"
Life is Art
No other artist created as many self-portraits of themselves throughout their career. I do not consider this a shallow attempt of Rembrandt to satisy his vanity. If it is one's attempt to satisfy the baser satisfaction of surface beauty, this can be found by numerous attempts by the "selfie" generation. Rembrandt transcended this vanity ashis oeuvre produced the most illuminating, honest and arresting self-portrait at the end of his life. The Self-Portrait with Two Circles below revealed more than Rembrandt intended to. As the great Stella Adler said about acting, "your talent lies in your choices". This is applicable to all, artist or otherwise. With the help of modern of technology, we are able to see the original composition of this particular self-portrait. He orignially painted himself facing awayfrom the observer with his arm raised painting on a canvas. The choice to change this is a testament to his genuis as an artist. The artist who pioneered movement and drama, decided in this self-portrait he would be still, yet imposing. Meek yet defiant to the end. The best way to compare this amendment is to compare it with his two portraits of the Rape of Lucretia. The first one is focused on the drama before her suicide. The second portrait is more heart breaking as it is after the fatal woundingand she is resigned to her fate. Rembrandt, resigned to his predicament, drew (pun intended) upon the reality of his life; he was an artist but not a working artist. Lucretia's suicide changed Roman history and in that same vein Rembrandt's art, particularly at the end of his life, changed the art world forever.