What Rembrandt has to teach us. Dignity, character, compassion

NONE of the Old Masters is more relevant today than Rembrandt - not only because of his profound humanity and emphasis on character, but also because he and his art can be understood, even at its deepest level, without specialized knowledge or training. The latter is important in a time when obscurity and ambiguity in art are almost certain to be intentional and when painting all too frequently is perceived as a pictorial code only a few are sufficiently sophisticated to comprehend.

With Rembrandt, everything is frank, open, and accessible - even to a child of 10. Of course, a child might not like the dignified, often solemn older people half hidden in shadow that he delighted to paint. But even a child would know that these were real men and women and that the mood they project represents something special and true.

What that something is has intrigued art lovers since the late 17th century. Opinions have varied, sometimes dramatically, but most experts have agreed that the key to Rembrandt's greatness is depth, and the source of his extraordinary effectiveness lay in his ability to infuse even the most ordinary objects with dignity and character.

He may not have been the most exemplary of men (witness Gary Schwartz's recent book, ``Rembrandt, His Life, His Paintings''), but as an artist he was both wise and profound - and possibly more compassionate than any painter before or since.

His achievement came about because of his enormous capacity for creative growth. One of art's all-time miracles is Rembrandt's transformation from a moderately talented and insensitive youth to one of the world's greatest artists. It's a process one can follow by watching his art unfold, by observing its progress from youthful clumsiness to mature, heartwarming depth and grandeur. It is this amazing progression that sets Rembrandt apart from everyone else and makes him so relevant today.

Depth, after all, is out of fashion in the art of the 1980s. And so, by and large, are dignity, character, and compassion. What we have, instead, are an impressive amount of inventiveness, wit, passion, and entertainment; a modicum of brilliance; and many more self-conscious and silly attempts at profundity and originality than anyone could have imagined even three decades ago. But why should we be surprised? Aren't we the ones, after all, who defined originality as being different and creative growth as always trying something new?

Fortunately, we do realize that Rembrandt and his peers can give us something we can't get elsewhere. And so we go to the museums in ever-greater numbers to pay homage to him and the other Old Masters. But we do so, all too often, in the same spirit in which we sometimes attend church - with self-congratulatory awareness that we are doing the ``right thing.''

Now, by itself, there's nothing very wrong with that. It can be harmful, though, if we believe that those few reverential moments in a museum entitle us to ignore the rather limited nature of our own art. Or to conclude that our respectful acknowledgment of artistic greatness in earlier centuries excuses us from insisting on it in our own.

IT'S true, of course, that art cannot be willed into existence, that it must take root and evolve in its own manner within an artist's consciousness. And great art, because it is a profound and often highly complex manifestation of the human spirit striving for ever-greater symbolic realization, is always something of a surprise and a miracle. As such we must accept it. We cannot dictate it or decree that it must meet certain standards or follow a set pattern, for to do so would turn it into something lifeless and predictable.

What we can do, however, is to provide fertile ground within which it can be conceived and grow. And support the ideals of depth and greatness with at least as much passion as we expend in our pursuit of sensation and the ``new.'' That, in itself, won't produce artistic miracles, but it might create the climate in which they can more frequently occur. If, on the other hand, we do nothing but express satisfaction at whatever the art world throws our way, we may very well end up looking to the past for everything truly significant in art.

Given this situation, we would be wise to look more seriously to the Old Masters for standards of excellence, integrity, and commitment. (But not, let me hasten to add, for examples of style or technique.) And, if asked which of the Old Masters I consider most relevant today, I'd name Rembrandt, for none is more worthy or more challenging to our often limited goals and ideals than he.

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