Thursday, April 16, 2009

Raymond meets Rembrandt: A brush with death

(Rembrandt, Portrait of the Artist at His Easel, 1660. Oil on canvas, 111 x 90 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris)

"They had Rembrandt on the calendar that year, a rather smeary self-portrait due to imperfectly registered color plate. It showed him holding a smeared palette with a dirty thumb and wearing a tam-o'-shanter which wasn't any too clean either. His other hand held a brush poised in the air, as if he might be going to do a little work after a while, if somebody made a down payment. His face was aging, saggy, full of the disgust of life and the thickening effects of liquor. But it had a hard cheerfulness that I liked, and the eyes were as bright as drops of dew."

Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely
© Peter Rozovsky 2009

Labels: ,

20 Comments:

Blogger Dana King said...

It's example like this that prevented me from participating in yesterday's challenge. I like coming up with similes when I wrte, and I even put some of them in the story. Putting them so close to Chandler's own, especially after recently having re-read The Big Sleep was a little too intimidating.

April 16, 2009  
Blogger Dorte H said...

I agree with Dana, I am just no Chandler. Wonderful quote, so excellent and so down-to-earth at the same time.

April 16, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, Chandler's similes are not unformly brilliant, but the ones that work are not just unexpected and funny, they work well within the story. That last, especially, is not always true of Chandler's countless imitators.

I wonder if he ever set down his own thoughts on similes. I say his are not uniformly brilliant because similies are such a marked feature of Chandler's writing. Perhaps they were no big deal to the author himself.

April 16, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dorte, I liked how thoroughly Chandler willed himself into the world of the painting. Rembrandt's late self-portraints will do that to a viewer.

Or rather, they evoke intense sympathy from viewers, but not always a response as imaginative as Chandler's.

April 16, 2009  
Blogger Sucharita Sarkar said...

That was really good, although what Mr Rembrandt himelf would have thought about that hint of importunity (waiting to work if the right amount is offered) is debatable.

April 16, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Suchartia, Chandler's effrontery may have surprised him, but Rembrandt would likely have appreciated the observation or at least acknowledged, perhaps grimly, that it was just. Rembrandt ran a studio and had his share of financial troubles. He would not have been shocked, in other words, at the suggestion that an artist was a businessman.

April 16, 2009  
Blogger Dana King said...

Peter,
I recently re-read The Big Sleep and even I, devoted Chandlerphile that I am, thought some of the similes were reaches. As you said, when he was on, no one was, and his percentage was good enough, and the heights high enough, that the occasional air ball can easily be forgiven.

My favorite is still, "From thirty feet, she looked like a lot of class. From ten feet, she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet." Not a true simile, I know, but an indication of how his mind worked.

April 16, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That was one of his best and most extravagant. Perhaps similes were just workaday building blocks of hsi writing, except when he liked to go wild with them.

April 16, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

Whenever I see anyone writing about Rembrandt, I think of my beloved teacher, Mary Holmes. From time to time, she gave a lecture on the self-portraits of Rembrandt, from youth to old age. The facility was with him from the start. The self-knowledge and discernment, not really a gift of youth, came later.

Chandler I shall have to save for another day.

April 18, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You've mentioned her name more than once. She must have been quite a woman.

I can think of no more emotionally compelling aesthetic experience than that offered by Rembrandt’s late portraits and self-portraits. Rembrandt used very loose brushstrokes in his late pictures, and peering at them up close, realizing that such experience is produced by splashes and dabs on rough canvas –- the mind can’t comprehend at the same time painting as artifact and painting as represented object. It oscillates between the two. (You get something like this with Piero della Francesca, but on a cooler, less emotional level. But what do you expect? The guy was a mathematician.)

"The self-knowledge and discernment, not really a gift of youth, came later."Interestingly, Rembrandt showed a glimpse of sympathy and self-knowledge in this relatively early painting (though it’s not a self-portrait). And we in the U.S. (or at least in its Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions) are fortunate that some of Rembrandt's best late self-portraits are in New York and Washington. And I live smack in between the two cities. Which should I visit this weekend?

April 18, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It appears that link does not work. Try this one.

April 18, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

Both sympathy and empathy can be gifts of youth. But I think wisdom and self-knowledge grow. It's not just because I want to confer some gift to age. It's because I think that in youth certain things are hidden from us--mortality is an obvious one, but also a sense of the limitedness of life in many senses. And also the limitedness of ourselves. I wish I could just channel Mary Holmes, but I think the knowledge that we are a foible-filled sack of bones waiting for death--but at the same time finding a kind of humor about and tolerance for all that means--is what you get from the late self-portraits.

As to New York or Washington, you are suffering from an embarrassment of riches. Go to one this weekend, probably wherever the weather's nicest, and to the other soon.

I saw a nice exhibit in London about two years ago. It was in a small museum/house near Marylebone. I just looked it up recently, but I'm already forgetting. It was about Rembrandts and Rembrandt fakes or works from his apprentices. I don't know what I actually learned from it, but I did enjoy standing there looking at the paintings.

Piero della Francesca is one of my absolute favorites. I don't know why, but he just completely speaks to me.

April 18, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Marleybone? A quick search suggest you may have visited the Wallace Collection, a fine place to look at paintings. Poussin's A Dance to the Music of Time is there.

Whatever magic Rembrandt worked with paint to convey the sympathy of the late self-portraits, he'd shown a hint of a few decades earlier, in that Portrait of Johannes Wtenbogaert, a minister with whom I think Rembrandt had religious sympathies.

Piero della Francesca can induce exaltation through geometry. And his colors are pretty stunning on the pieces that have undergone good resttoration/conservation. How does he speak to you? Try standing before his painting of The Resurrection, and ask yourself what the heck that guy is looking at.

April 18, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

Yes, it was the Wallace Collection, which I would highly recommend to anyone who likes museum-going. I keep thinking it should have 'house' in its name, because it is in a charming old London house, or stately home might be more apt.

As for Piero, well, it's an interesting question. It certainly has something to do with color and it very likely has something to do with geometry. Thinking about it a little today, though, I think what is conveyed, by means of technique, is a certain gravitas. The guy had something to say. And, and I do think I'm channeling Mary Holmes a bit now, the structure of having something to convey is an immense resource for artists. Structure is an immense resource for artists. It probably doesn't matter all that much what that structure is, although I think the belief that it means something does. It isn't that the artist has to believe in the imagery in the same way that, say, a devout Christian of his era might believe it--it's that an intact symbol structure that everyone understands implicitly is an immense advantage to him. Or, of course, her.

April 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I seem to recall lots of brown wood decor at the Wallace ... wonderful for viewing Netherlandish paintings. And if "house" sticks in your mind, perhaps you'd like Apsley House, home of the Wellington Museum and Velasquez's early Water Carrier, best seen at some time other than late afternoon if it's displayed in the same place as when I saw it.

Geometry is it, I think. Piero has always been noted for the great weight of his figures, and structure ... look at the heads in the scene of Solomon meeting the ueen of Sheba from The Legend of the True Cross. Geometry and story at the same time. I'd say no artist is a more fruitful starting point for discussions of structure than Piero della Francesca.

I don't know that I'd have noticed color as much as I do except that one of my teachers was a leading scholar in that area. Also, I got to climb up on the scaffolding and see some of the frescoes in Arezzo up close, a stunning experience.

April 19, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

Climbing up on the scaffolding--wow.

It has been quite awhile since I really looked at Piero della Francesca's work, let alone studied him. And certainly not in depth. I think that he was just one of the artist's who spoke to me unmediated, which is always nice. But of course I would do well to delve in a little deeper.

I went to the Wallace Collection late in the afternoon, and there was some problem with glare, now that you mention it. Though not on the Rembrandt exhibit. And nothing that was irresolvable.

I haven't been to Appsley House, though interestingly, Joyce does erect a wholly imaginary Wellington Museum in Phoenix Park in Dublin to meditate upon in Finnegans Wake. Or at least one of our commentaries said it didn't exist. I've been to Phoenix Park, but wouldn't know the whole of it.

April 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The climb was public. Italy, with the sponsorship of a major bank, planned a complete conservation of the frescoes of The Legend of the True Cross to be completed in honor of the 500th anniversary of Piero's death, in 1992. Work on the frescoes on the left side of the chapel had just been completed when I made my ascent (This was in 1997, which should give you an idea of the pace and efficiency of the project). In any case, the planners had the splendid idea of having an expert lead guided tours up the scaffolding, which let us see the frescoes up close.

I guess I know my London a bit better better than I know my Dublin or my Joyce because I know Apsely House is in London, but I didn't know Phoenix Park until I just looked it up. I feel like an eejit.

Piero's figures always have solemn or dreamy expressions. Perhaps this lends itself to contemplation of his pictures. There are some nice pieces of his altarpieces and frescoes in my part of the country, one in Boston and one in New York, but most of his relatively small surviving output is in Europe. But his precise geometry, at least, works well in reproductions, I think.

April 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

There is another fine late Rembrandt self-portrait in Kenwood House, London, that I kick myself for not having seen. My first time in London, of which I spent almost all the daylight hours in museums, I sent some postcards home on my last day. The stamp on one of them bore the Rembrandt.

"Dash it, old man," I said to myself. "Bloody shame to have missed the old daubs, what?"

He looks a little livelier in this one than in some of the other late self-portraits.

April 20, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Peter, you “wonder if he ever set down his own thoughts on similes. I say his are not uniformly brilliant because similes are such a marked feature of Chandler's writing. Perhaps they were no big deal to the author himself.”

From what I’ve read he did give them a lot of thought before using them. He wrote down similes that struck his fancy in notebooks for possible future use. He made a nasty crack about Ross Macdonald’s use of simile in the first Lew Archer, “The Moving Target”: "’The seconds piled up precariously like a tower of poker chips’", etc. The simile that does not quite come off because it doesn't understand what the purpose of the simile is.” (Chandler’s absolutely right; the simile does not come off.) On another occasion he wrote the purpose of the simile is “to convey at once a simple visual image.”

February 05, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

If the MacDonald simile is indeed as you cited it here, Chandler was right. Seconds don't pile up, and it they do, they don't do so precariously.

February 05, 2010  

Post a Comment

<< Home