I was very moved this morning to read Holland Cotter’s art review of the Rembrandt show at the Met, In The Gloom, Seeing Rembrandt with New Eyes. He describes how the 17th century Dutch economy went bust, taking the art market with it, and how Rembrandt plunged from wealth and reknown into poverty and obscurity. He compares Rembrandt’s style before and after his reversal and describes a simplicity and looseness in the latter paintings:
Living in near-poverty, public reputation shot, with nothing to gain or lose, Rembrandt was painting in a fresh way because he was painting mostly for himself. The color in the Stoffels portrait is unspectacular: shades of tawny brown with flicks of red like ruby chips. The brushwork is loose and undescriptive. Technically the picture is unfinished, but it’s as complete as it needs to be to deliver the image it does: a devastatingly candid and loving portrait of woman, not young, leaning forward from darkness into light.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my own work, how it is evolving, its reception and lack of it. We all write for ourselves, but we also are influenced by the traditions we work from and the innovations around us. Painting and writing are always arts in dialogue with themselves, and artists are always aware of their relationships with other artists, even if only in their work. So, with the art market plummeting and the publishing world already limiting only 1/2 of 1% of its publishing to “literary fiction,” chances are more and more of us will work in obscurity. What will that do to our work? To what we make and why we make it?
I think of Einstein, of how he labored far from the centers of science and came up with the theory of special relativity. Walter Isaacson, in an interview about his book, Einstein: His Life and Universe, says:
I think he was lucky to be at the patent office rather than serving as an acolyte in the academy trying to please senior professors and teach the conventional wisdom.
Not many of us are Rembrandts or Einsteins. But it is heartening to know that they, too, labored in obscurity, and that the obscurity freed them in some ways to discover their truest work. I think that illness can also have that effect, of winnowing one’s creative ideas down to the most essential elements, of freeing one from distractions. I am often humbled by the power of the writing that comes from my workshops with cancer patients, work which has as its aim nothing more than to express the “cry from the heart.”
For a wonderful read, check out the rather obscure Rembrandt’s Whore, by Sylvie Matton.