Friday, December 7, 2012

Rembrandt and the Literary Sleight of Hand

"The difficulty of literature is not to write, but to write what you mean."  Robert Louis Stevenson succinctly summarizes what is, to my mind, a central literary challenge. In some fashion we serve as our own translators: the nebulous shape of plot and place are formulated within our own imaginative expanse; we ruminate upon scenes in the quiet of predawn hours, gnawing on the bones of the narrative, savoring the confluence of character attributes that elevate the persona from page to proto-breath.

Rembrandt is a Dutch master much admired, his portraits imbued with light and life. His work might represent an immobilized literary scene depicted in oils, for like the writer he applies hue and vibrancy with a deft hand; or, better yet, a character-study of an individual passing through the narrative of life. Few other contemporaries devoted comparable attention to the human face; his sitters are frequently depicted partially eclipsed with the nose, unequivocally bright, thrusting into the mystery of halftones. It serves to focus the viewer's attention upon, and to dramatize, the division between a flood of light—an overwhelming clarity—and a brooding duskiness. Flesh-tones are comprised of a wide range colors, from carmine reds to dense yellow ochers and even shades of green, each laid down with marvelous sensitivity to differential wear and tear of age on various parts of the face.

 Like the writer, Rembrandt was a compulsive peeler, itching to open the casing of things and people, to discern the content concealed within.  He like to toy with poignant discrepancies between outsides and insides, the brittle husk and the vulnerable core; being particularly drawn to the ruined, the underbelly of life, the poetry of imperfections. Rembrandt's most vivid depictions, like Hugo's Thénardiers in Les Misérables, are of the poor and bedraggled; with meticulous attention to the pits and pockmarks, red-rimmed eyes and scabby skin, the mottled blemishes of the human countenance. The piebald, the scrofulous, the stained and encrusted were a matter for close and loving inspection; furrows on the brows of old men and women, sagging timbers of decrepit barns, lichenous masonry of derelict buildings, the mangy fur of a haggard lion - all came under the close scrutiny of eye and brush.

 Rembrandt paid detailed attention to the topography of the middle-aged upper eyelid, the oiliness of a prosperous nose, the overlapping folds of a jowl or wattle, the wateriness of the eye's vitreous membrane, the shiny tightness of forehead pulled back into linen cap. Despite this painstaking face-mapping, despite this vital veracity to form, Rembrandt's work is seldom described literally by sharp-edged lines and contours. There is a freedom and versatility of brushwork: some places defined by short dabbing marks, others long fluent curves. While his subjects are depicted with a forceful clarity, Rembrandt's technique is audaciously loose and suggestive. The sketchier and more suggestive the hand, the more potent its invitation to sympathetic projection.

There are writers who have perfected a comparable literary technique of suggestive character sketch. Constrained by the forward momentum of plot and the patience of our reader, the writer supplies a daub of detail here and there; a character deftly sketched in hunched posture and heavy-lidded gaze, defined, perhaps, by indolence and dressed in grime. Fortunately for the writer language is a flexible medium, growing and breathing much as a living thing, expanding to meet need and circumstance. While we cannot convey the breadth and complexity of Rembrandt's portraiture we choose words with specific intent. The resultant image is necessarily one of many, a diversity of impressions in minds of different readers; a linguistic fluidity in the interpretation of visualized form. The essential nature of the character might be brilliantly defined in a minute detail; the languorous heaviness with which they recline, the narrowed silvery-bright gaze that pinions, the elaborate fussiness with which they attire themselves, or perhaps their distinguishing feature is an oily complexion perpetually mopped by anxious hand. I am reminded of Dickens’ Smallweed in Bleak House who is, in some measure, defined by his insistence on being ‘shaken up’ or the exquisite Lady Dedlock who is languidly and elegantly bored. By casting a specific attribute into bright relief, the writer can leave the rest in dusky halftones, allowing each reader to project their own particular imaginings.

Like Rembrandt, I find myself most engaged by what lies beneath. Within the confines of a novel this might be represented by hidden agendas and unrevealed motivations. There is a particular fascination with the dilapidated and the impoverished; the story of decline is an irresistible one – the character tested in adversity, deprived of fundamental comforts; in this furnace of penury all extraneous affectations are stripped away until the essential truth of a character is revealed. Masks are utilized to self-advantage just as they are with the prosperous, but there is an edge there, a certain poignant desperation, a clawing survival instinct. I admit also to an unadulterated deliciousness in writing the historical grime of gloomy backalleys. Perhaps it is a sense that the denizens of these narrow half-forgotten streets might startle me with a furtive deviousness…with a sly sideways glance that sends the plot moving in an altogether unexpected direction. Perhaps they more readily commune with my internal Golem who conspires in their fabrication.

Rembrandt conveys both polarities of society with consummate skill, the wealthy as well as the impoverished are captured beneath the sable of his brush: the gentle luminescence of faces in candle-glow, the improbable perfection of cascading lace rendered in shades of white, gray and yellow, the rich sheen of rippled satin, and the warm darkness of velvet; the impression of art is a static one, a moment captured in the perfection of paint. The writer, however, is responsible not only for a single visual depiction but must combine a means of dynamic locomotion to move the character through the narrative.  Like the great Dutch Master a novelist must illuminate salient attributes of his personages, a telling detail that helps define personality, and then leave the rest to dusky obscurity, allowing their reader to project the rest - to vividly imagine a construct whose tendencies have been outlined but whose flesh and outward appearance remain to be seen. The reader is the painter, filling in the details suggested but not utterly defined by the narrative. This is the power of literature, enthralling and engaging the reader as the characters become a part of their own imaginative landscape in a literary union of souls.


  1. The Artist In Me
    by Don Ford

    It all started for me during my college days. I attended an art class at Houghton College. Most were pencil or painted pieces on canvas. My art teacher after the first year asked if she could keep my art portfolio to show to the next class. I said okay. She kept it all in a book.

    It wasn’t long before my artwork became photography. But I wanted to be able to couple art with my poetry and storytelling. A picture could help to complete a story idea. It helped move my work along. Now I get pictures and stories published together. Pictures help sell my writings.

    My art was then applied to a digital process to allow me to bring the picture and words even closer together. I might add words, or other colors, and even framing to bring all of my writings and art together as one.

    The Writer and the Artist 
    by Don Ford
     One day, a hot day at best, I was sitting alone on a bench in the park. No sooner had I sat down when a small bird almost landed on my head. Curious, I watched it land instead in the tree above me. I couldn't help but comment. 
    "Aren't you just the prettiest thing." 
    "Why, thank you," was the bird's reply," 
    I was astonished at both the words and the remarks. A bird just spoke to me. There was no one else around trying to trick me, so I was really hearing something. 
    "How can you be talking, you're a ..." 
    "Yes, I am a bird, but not just any flyer, I am from a much higher realm. I am from the realm of imagination." 
    "Am I sleeping?   So when will I wake from this odd dream?" 
    "Imagination is a real place, you have to dream a lot to get there. You have to think colorful thoughts and sometimes close your eyes to get there. But believe me when I say it is very real. Words like yours on paper are a tool you use to help others feel, smell, hear and actually help them imagine they are there." 
    "Why are you here speaking to me?" 
    "I am a what you call a work of art. I was colored beautifully in my world and I am not like you, a writer. I need you to help others know I exist; that there is a whole other world out there. One that is found in the expression of color, design, texture, and so much more. You can express our world in the choice of your words." 
    "But they are only words on paper." 
    "Oh, no they're not. They are life experiences that one has and another swears they were there too. You take the readers to your worlds in your writing. As you describe a falling shelf of water, as it careens off the cliffs above and crashes and splashes on the smaller rocks below, we can see it in our minds, and it takes us to the scene you are trying to paint. Imagination is the "paint." Now add the picture of the falls, and place the reader there." 
    "So you are the Artist, with color intact, and are here to add a brush stroke of your genius, is that not right?" 
    "Wow, you are right on target, that is exactly who I am and why I am here. Why go it alone when you have me, your imagination. Use me ! I am at your beckoned call. Anytime of the night or day I am here. Imagine you are sitting in a full field of flowers, now add our colors in a picture to your story and you have a complete work." 
    My bird then flew higher than I have ever seen one fly before and it vanished out of my sight, but imagination will always be there for me, and I never forget to use it with my writings. 

    1. Beautiful analogy - thanks so much Don! May we all nourish and pay heed to our inner bird!

  2. Thoroughly enjoyed - thank you PJ!

    1. Sarah - thanks so much for visiting, and for your kind commentary.

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