Friday, December 7, 2012
Rembrandt and the Literary Sleight of Hand
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.