By Raoul Middleman
The 1657 "Apostle Paul", from the Widener Collection, has recently been cleaned. The sharp rectangle of light that appeared in the upper right hand corner, representing the high up window of the prison cell, has been taken out. No doubt it was thought to be a later addition. This deletion improves the painting, however; its deep melancholy all the more poignant for being less specific. The window was just some cheap illustrational flimflam to explain how the light from the outside world got there through the barred recesses of the Apostle's prison cell. Now that his incarceration is generalized, the Apostle Paul's Dark Night of the Soul takes place in the deepest dungeon, with no worldly connection but the sword and the pen. The book is the intermediary between the two; the ostensible message being that the pen is, in the spiritual sense, mightier than the sword. On the other hand, given Saint Paul's martyrdom, the dominion of the sword — its bade bluntly stuck upright in the tabletop, a murderous pillar prognosticating its dire futurity — has the last word. His head is heavy and the expression, weary, as he ponders what to write in the Epistle before him. The hand that holds the quill is overcome by a profound languor.
Silence and listening are what Rembrandt's paintings are about, a postponement of resolution, an ecumenical waiting, in this case for revelation, the word of God. In this painting he puts the ear center stage (check the diagonals). But the cloak with ail its sumptuous folds, beginning at the shoulder and continuing all the way down and including the hand holding the quill pen, describe, with the help of a little imagination, some humungous ear. The entirety of this canvas is given over to one vast galactic orifice, a shell held to the void.
In this instance, Rembrandt uses theology as metaphor for painting, the stations of his development as a painter. Just as the Apostle Paul is poised, listening for the word of God, so Rembrandt is listening for a new order of painting, a new language whose syntax will change forever the way reality is perceived. The brushwork, in this painting, is desperate and unruly, nervy with sporadic leaps across the whole gestalt of form. Like Jazz, the score doesn't exist apriori, so the artist must improvise. For the classical musician, the notation is already there, but the jazz musician has no such luxury; he must jump the beat.
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