Certain exhibitions of Old Master paintings are so far-reaching for the light they shed on their subjects that they immediately achieve a special place in our entire experience of art itself. The remarkable survey of Rembrandt’s self-portraits currently on view at the National Gallery in London is an event of this sort. If only for the fact that Rembrandt by Himself , as the show is called, is the first exhibition to be exclusively devoted to its celebrated subject, this would be an event of commanding interest.
For no master of the Western pictorial tradition has ever equaled Rembrandt either in the sheer quantity of masterworks he produced in this genre of self-portrayal or in the exalted union of existential candor and esthetic grandeur he brought to its realization. For appropriate comparisons we would have to turn to the Western literary tradition of autobiographical revelation that begins with the Confessions of Saint Augustine in the fifth century and achieved its greatest modern expression in Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past in the early decades of this century.
It is for these and other reasons–among them the attempts that have lately been made to deconstruct and discredit this achievement–that I shall be devoting two columns to this extraordinary exhibition. This week, I want to focus on the critical assault that has lately been mounted against Rembrandt’s self-portraits, for this bizarre attempt to discredit posterity’s high opinion of these paintings has itself achieved a malign intellectual orthodoxy in certain academic circles. Next week, I shall focus more closely on the exhibition itself.
If you want to get a sense of posterity’s high opinion of Rembrandt’s portraits and self-portraits, consider the following passage from Kenneth Clark’s Civilization , which was published some 30 years ago as the book version of a much-admired television series. Clark’s judgment may indeed be taken to represent the conventional wisdom on the subject of Rembrandt’s genius. “The psychological truth in Rembrandt’s paintings,” Clark wrote, “goes beyond that of any other artist who ever lived.” To which Clark hastened to add, “Of course they are masterpieces of sheer picture-making.”
Now the conventional wisdom about artistic achievement–or, for that matter, about anything else–is never beyond question. But it isn’t always wrong, either. And in the last decades of this century, such high praise for an artist has come to serve as a provocation, an incitement to political rage, especially if, as in Rembrandt’s case, the artist has been praised for his achievement in exalting the individuality of his subjects. For there is nothing the academic mind at the end of the 20th century so much despises as human individuality. The very concept of individual character and individual achievement is anathema to the political mindset of these academics, and so Rembrandt must be shot down as–what else?–”an entrepreneur of the self.” Never mind the art–it was the market, stupid!
The key text in this assault on Rembrandt’s achievement is a book called Rembrandt’s Enterprise: The Studio and the Market (1988), written by Prof. Svetlana Alpers of the University of California at Berkeley. In this study, Rembrandt is depicted not so much as an artist as, in Professor Alpers’ words, “a maker of representations.” It is thus as “commodities,” rather than as paintings or esthetic creations, that she studies this artist. “One can say of the artist,” she writes, “what Adam Smith said of mankind. ‘Every man thus lives by exchanging or becomes in some measure a merchant.'” Yet for Professor Alpers, to speak of Rembrandt as a merchant is to take the full measure of his accomplishment.
We are thus treated to observations like the following:”Hehada ‘propensitytotruck, barter and exchange,’ in Adam Smith’s phrase and to make works suitable to such transactions. As a master in the studio, he made himself a free individual, not beholden to patrons. But he was beholden instead to the market–or more specifically to the identification he made between two representations of value, art, and money.”
What, then, is Rembrandt alleged to have been selling as “an entrepreneur of the self”? Certainly not the “universality” that generations of Rembrandt’s admirers have taken to be the touchstone of his genius. No, what he was selling was only what Professor Alpers calls an ” effect of universality”–in other words, a counterfeit that is meant to pass as something authentic. “He makes a portrait more than a portrait by elevating the genre,” she writes–as an indictment, not as praise. “But this effect of universality,” she writes, “is achieved by masking or hiding the economic and social basis of the transaction between the painter and his sitters.”
Exactly how Rembrandt was able to hide the economic basis of this “transaction” from the sitters who were handing over large sums of money for their portraits, she does not say. We are simply invited to take it on faith–a kindofneo-Marxist faith–that the economic basis of the “transaction” had remained hidden to all and sundry until Professor Alpers discovered it centuries later.
What is really under attack here is that issue of humanindividuality, whichpoliticalideologues like Professor Alpers so much despise. “The 19th century,”shewrites, “credited Rembrandt with being uniquely in touch with something true about the individual human state.” But this is unacceptable to Professor Alpers. And so she writes, “Rembrandt was not the discoverer, but one of the inventors of that individual state. And so his late works became a touchstone for what Western culture, from his day until our own, has taken as the irreducible uniqueness of the individual.” (Mind you, this is not said as praise.) It is the very essence of Professor Alpers’ indictment of Rembrandt that he was so successful in fostering our understanding of “the irreducible uniqueness of the individual.”
This is art history with the art left out, art history devoid of esthetics, art history as social science. And this is the way a great many students are nowadays taught to think about and look at Rembrandt.
Next week, I shall turn to what there is to look at in Rembrandt by Himself , which remains on view at the National Gallery in London through Sept. 5.