Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Picasso's Rembrandt

Simon Schama, perhaps my all-time favorite art history writer, discusses the influence of Rembrandt on Picasso in an article titled "Rembrandt's Ghost" in the March 26, 2007 issue of The New Yorker.

(I must confess a weakness for anything Schama writes. Citizens, his one-volume history of the French Revolution, grabbed me for its integration of Jacques-Louis David's work with the politics of the time. I haven't read his new The Power of Art, but I plan to and look forward to the series on PBS.)

Schama displays the same commanding breadth of knowledge about Rembrandt that filled his wonderful Rembrandt's Eyes, but here places Rembrandt in the context of his influence on later artists. No painter "has been so compulsively co-opted as heroic alter ego as Rembrandt" by other painters, including Picasso, who stole freely from Rembrandt's vocabulary of the self-portrait to create his own self-portraits. Schama does not actually say "stole," but I do, placing faith in T.S. Eliot's aphorism that "immature poets immitate, mature poets steal" holds true for painting, too. The money quote from Schama on Rembrandt's influence on modern art is here:

The transference of that vitality effect from the geometric reproduction of illusory space according to the rules of Renaissance rules of perspective to the vibrating paint surface itself was the beginning of modernism.

Schama's phrase "vibrating paint surface" really struck me. Rembrandt's paintings are a great example of iconic works that have made a greater impression on me in person than in reproduction. (Conversely, one of the more anticlimactic art experiences I have had was seeing the Mona Lisa in person, but perhaps nothing could live up to that level of hype.) Schama sees this "transference" as part of the same "chain" that Picasso and Matisse saw connecting them to the old masters such as Rembrandt, Velazquez, and Goya. Unfortunately, it is in such concepts as "chains" of influence that Schama and most modern writing on art part ways.

Schama compains about "the default mode of modern writing about art" and its ability to "despise any notion of singularity as so much overheated genius-fetishism" in an attempt to reach a "coolly empirical view, wary of perpetuating platitudes." Coming from a literature background, I understand (or think I understand) many of the principles of modern critical philosophy and its deconstructive approach to art. I threw around the Foucault as good as anyone in graduate school, but there was still a part of me that wished that "old school" perpetuating of platitudes still had a place in the critical world, mainly because I felt that some of those platitudes were still more or less true. The chill of the modern critical approach is more light than heat, whereas the "old school" platitudes may have been more heat than light, but I believe that some compromise can reach the best of both worlds.

I think that something is lost when Rembrandt is deconstructed to a white male living in the 17th century who also painted here and there. That's an unfair simplification, of course, but no less unfair than dismissals of Rembrandt's stature in the cannon (or dismissals of any such idea of a cannon).

1 comment:

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