There’s a scene in one of my favorite books, Dr. Oliver Sacks’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, in which the good doctor walks into a room full of stroke victims, many of whom are laughing at President Reagan making speech on TV. The stroke victims have lost their ability to understand language, a condition called aphasia. They have compensated for this by being remarkably adept at reading vocal tone and facial expressions. They understand the wild disconnect between an actor’s facial lines and the ones he’s delivering. As Dr Sacks says, an aphasic patient is “undeceived and undeceivable by words”.
The face is a complex web of forty two muscles working independently and in concert. Scientists have categorized them all. They can tell you that a look of disgust requires these three muscles: levator labii superioris alaeque nasi (nose wrinkler), depressor anguli oris (lip corner depressor) and depressor labii inferioris (low lip depressor). (Shouldn’t the eyes be in there somewhere?) This is a start, but mere kindergarten compared to the expressions that Rembrandt is able to summon forth in the blockbuster exhibit of his late paintings at London’s National Gallery.
We don’t often look deeply and critically into a face. (There may well be an EU law against doing that in public!) Yes, mothers and lovers, but that’s the opposite of critical. It takes an act of bravery to intrude so deeply. There are uncertainties, manifestations from other selves, an entire contradictory matrix of stories, what Dr. Sacks calls, “one’s entire, largely unconscious, personal repertoire and posture”. And there are lies (witness the Reagan’s speech).
We commonly think that Van Gogh painted all those self-portraits because he couldn’t afford models. Rembrandt, who at one point in his career was quite wealthy, persisted with self-portraits through good times and bad, one estimate has him doing 85 of them. He understood that it is not the likeness that’s important, it is the conscious mind trying to read signs from other parts of the “personal repertoire”. Because to understand oneself fully an artist needs to be brave enough to face down the contradictions and illogicalities of his own being. Perhaps this is what drove Van Gogh mad.
There are two miracles in Rembrandt’s paintings. The first is the depth of his understanding of the human soul. This is more a function of bravery and persistence, of how he looked into his own face to understand others’. It is a persistence of a sensibility in continual acts of bravery. The second, the real miracle, is how he is able to re-create such complex expressions in his portraits. It is art of such a high order it transcends understanding.
Perhaps my favorite painting in the exhibition is the second Lucretia. (Due to thematic presentation it actually appears several rooms before the first one). The wife of a high Roman official, Lucretia was raped by a king’s son. She was brave enough to protest her violation in public, but not brave enough to look in the mirror ever again. Rembrandt shows her just after she’s stabbed herself, in her face a complex web of finality, resignation, and horror, all with the life force half-drained from her chalky gray face. In short, almost four dimensional.
Rembrandt was clearly captivated by Lucretia’s story. When it was painted in 1666 (the year of London’s Great Fire) Rembrandt was broke and miserable—worse was to come: he would outlive both his second (common law) wife and his son. Perhaps his fascination with the Lucretia’s story is the way she can act as his proxy. In an echoing regression she looks on her act, but she also looks on Rembrandt’s behalf at his own contemplated suicide, for what artist doesn’t invest himself in his characters? As we will see in the other Lucretia painting, her suicide is the end result of a cool decision. There is no passion here. Just Hamlet’s two infinitives in six words. The painting is about Lucretia’s willed and considered death; it might also be about Rembrandt’s future one. But there is a faint taste of rust and iron in our mouths as we look at the blood running from Lucretia’s breast. And this is just one of the marvellous paintings on display here.
Afterwards, we walk out into a gray London afternoon to headlines screaming about an MP who allegedly called a cop a semi-depreciating name, about another MP who tweeted a picture of a house that could be construed as sardonically elitist (and had to resign). In a world that is getting more trivial and microscopically judgmental by the day we don’t look too deeply into faces. We don’t even look shallowly at them, unless of course they are on Flickr. Soon there will be an app that can interpret those 42 muscles and tell us what they mean. And no doubt it will be called RembranTT, or some such. If we were to take a snap of the second Lucretia painting and run it though this app we would get: “this woman is unhappy”, with an accompanying ad for new choco-ectasy, “guaranteed to put a smile on your face. Or if the app was truly sophisticated it would come back with “formatting error”.