Just finished a 36 minute documentary of Rembrandt self portraits. I don’t go much in for the old masters, usually. I had my de rigueur art history courses, which I rather enjoyed, before I was thoroughly immersed in the sort of paradigm in which all that art was just the self-aggrandizement of dead white males in the master narrative of the oppressor. The whole tradition of painting was portrayed as, if not inherently sinister, irrelevant. It’s taken me a while to re-engage with art history that occurred before Duchamp, and to slough off the yoke of the alternative master narrative, and look at painting and art history though lenses untainted by overreaching political agendas and perspectives.
There were a few highlights in the film, for me. One was Lucien Freud talking about a couple of Rembrandt’s paintings right in the beginning. We get a nice shot of Freud, wide-eyed, in admiration of the old master’s painting.
Later, we see where Rembrandt included himself at the foot of a crucifixion, which I hadn’t seen before.
And there are lots of close-ups of his brushwork, some of which are really captivating, if you like painting.
Chuck Close also provides some commentary, and this got me thinking about how the artists who participated were also painters, and a part of this same long tradition of making images. And that got me thinking again how, for the contemporary artist, our focus is nearly entirely on the current art and the art of the last century, as if the only art that mattered were conceptual art. I’m almost 100% certain that in my graduate art classes no artists were studied that weren’t living or recently dead.
In art school, if you did painting, you were a dinosaur, or a dead white male wannabe. But now I see that conceptual art is not a continuation and evolution of the tradition of painting, which makes that which came before antiquated, but rather a completely different avenue for creative production. When someone says they are trying to get away from painting, or the limitations of painting, it’s like a street fighter saying he is trying to escape the rigors of Shoalin Kung Fu. Usually the artist in question doesn’t even know how to draw or paint well enough qualify as breaking away from the tradition. They have nothing to do with it, but want what they do produce to nevertheless be considered as the pinnacle of the evolution of fine art, eclipsing all that went before, and anyone who tries to make paintings or imagery in general. When I was in art school the word “neoconservative” got attached to painters, as if they were deliberately backwards and stunted, while also aligned with the worst kind of politics. If you were painting, you might as well be painting heroic portraits of Reagan.
It was never a question of politics, skin color, gender, creativity, contemporariness, or any of that if one was a painter or not. It really was just a question of whether or not one was a painter, or some other kind of an artist. I use being a painter loosely here to mean making art that is about visual language, and not against it. There are lots of us whose love of art is a love of visual language, and it’s quite strange when one considers it in that way to see that the art that is considered the most relevant today is that which stands in opposition to visual language.
My interest in art lies primarily in visual language, and because of this, the old masters become interesting and relevant. I don’t see them as dead white males, but as living consciousnesses exploring and depicting the worlds they lived in visually. Their own experience of life is only irrelevant and uninteresting to the degree that we lack interest or can’t relate.
For me Rembrandt’s self portraits are not only his ow self-reflection, but documents of the history of ours.
You can watch the documentary here: