Letter from 1996: Rembrandt and Winter on a Turkish Peninsula

Letter from 1996: Rembrandt and Winter on a Turkish Peninsula

January 23, 2020

By A.L. Phillips

Even on the Turkish Mediterranean, it is winter. When I can’t stand being alone inside any longer, I walk. On these cold, rainy days, everything seems friendless: drumbeats before dawn, a ritual of Ramadan; children standing in fields, kicking stones during the call to prayer; streets emptying before dusk. It’s hard to say why I’m here—sometimes as a child, I fell mute, or could only whisper in response to a question.

I am here to read, write, and draw. I am here to find solace, a new center, to torture myself in the wake of a failed marriage. I am here to avoid anyone who might perceive my heart is broken. To hide. When the sun comes out, as it does in bursts, my shadow is long: I walk by the sea, and it searches the waves. I walk in the fields, and my shadow scatters the birds that fly up from dry stalks of wheat.

 At night, in the small stone house I’ve rented for the winter, rain falling in the sea and wind thrashing the cypress, I leaf through the book on Rembrandt that John sent from New York (along with the news that he is getting along fine without me). Shadow and light is nowhere so concentrated, so movingly evoked, so mysteriously living as in Rembrandt’s portraits. I have a small collection of other books on hand—Andrei Tarkovsky's autobiography, his astute observations about life and art laced with haunting stills from his films; Dr. Zhivago and Anna Karenina, which I packed not knowing tragic romance would have any special resonance for me; Lamarck’s Zoological Philosophy. Books that various people recommended for various reasons. Books I brought thinking that John and I would be abroad for a few months at the most, as had happened many times before, and I’d catch up on some reading before we returned to the drudgery of our lives in New York. Working in offices during the day. Trying to paint and write at night. Instead, he went back to New York alone.

Only Rembrandt’s 400 years’ old portraits sustain me now, his subjects more real than anyone I encounter during the day. Companions, their hearts bared; their gazes, like mine, seeking the reaches. How solitary they are in their so human acts of yearning. I love the portrait of Rembrandt’s son Titus reading, and the one of Titus at his desk; of a young woman leaning on the windowsill; of Jan Six, and the cabinet maker Herman Doomer. Stripped of masks, surrounded by a darkness from which they have emerged and to which they will (but for these portraits) return, they gaze at the painter, and they also gaze questioningly into a distance that neither we nor Rembrandt are looking at, as if something behind him puzzles them or beckons. They’re like shy, thirsty wildlife, come out at dusk to find water. What Rembrandt has captured of them, in the moment he saw them, is that solitude is the profoundest fact of the human condition. Octavio Paz.

Of all the paintings in the book, Self-Portrait, Gorget, 1629 draws me in the most. So much so that I copy it night after night, using graphite, charcoal, colored pencil, watercolor (I have not yet learned to use oils). Rembrandt is twenty-three, six years younger than I now am: rosy cheeks, plump face, attentive eyes.


I always get lost, looking at this portrait, trying to sort out the complicated levels of subject and object, seeing and being seen. In capturing himself, Rembrandt has captured the painter—empathetic, yet proud and guarded. In capturing the painter, Rembrandt is not only the seen one but also the seeing one. Unlike with his portraits of others, in depicting himself, Rembrandt does not extend his gaze beyond; he is looking at us. Looking into a mirror at himself, he looks for all time at his viewers, all of us looking back to be seen by him, all of us his subjects, all of us subject to his insight and understanding.

As is the case for ministers and therapists—those in the business of opening themselves to the human soul—he seems to exhibit the need to guard himself. Never a solider, he wears a kind of armor around his neck and shoulder girdle that was typically put on before battle to protect oneself from harm. As if he has to limit his exposure to the intensities of speechless human feeling he evokes and depicts.

He knows the essence of what draws me in, though he cannot imagine the particulars of what I look toward beyond him. The rain falling in the sea and, farther, snow falling on New York today—the man with a satellite dish told me it was snowing there when I went into town earlier, showing me the soundless drift on his television, muting the city in what will be one of the decade’s great blizzards there. I can see John, after work, wearing his knit cap, walking from lower Manhattan to where he’s staying in Brooklyn, since he prefers walking over taking the subway. The storm will make him feel alive.

I can see the fourth-floor apartment on Riverside Drive in Harlem where John and I once lived. Our view of the black river, light from the Jersey cliffs leaking over chunks of sluggish ice. Our Brooklyn winters, going out to walk at midnight, because we could. We’d have coffee on the Lower East Side, not worrying that it was the middle of the night, that we wouldn’t be able to sleep. Our winter in Prague, the carp in barrels sold on Christmas Eve. We left Seattle in winter together, soon after we met, crossing the Allegheny Mountains in a borrowed van with no heat. Planning the adventures we’d have together.

The rain falling in the sea. In the self-portrait, that liquid darkness like the sea around luminous faces.

 

 

 ________

A.L. Phillips is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Cincinnati and also directs The Vision & Art Project, a non-profit initiative that profiles the lives and work of artists with vision loss.

 

 

You're also gonna like The Numinous Quality of Portraiture.

 

 

 

Photo by Brannon Naito on Unsplash



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