In the human face, the anonymity of the universe becomes intimate. - Patrick O'Donoghue
When visiting museums I often go alone so I can move from piece to piece, as slowly or quickly as I choose, and wait for the divining rod in my spirit to lead me; I planned just such a day at the National Gallery of Scotland. This particular morning I happened to read a passage by Patrick O’ Donoghue, ‘Our outer world offers no access to the inner world of an individual. At a deeper level, each person is a custodian of a completely private, individual world. The life of an individual writes itself on our faces.’ So perhaps it was that thought which inspired me to stop in front of this particular work of art.
Against one corner of an Octagonal room, against a scarlet gallery wall, is a painting so small and dark it seems barely there. It is a self-portrait by Rembrandt at age 51, a year after his 1657 bankruptcy which involved the auctioning off of his house and the disintegration of all he built. A very public humiliation. His face peers through the gallery, which contains some of the world’s greatest artistic wealth, like a downcast loner in a corner at a party.
How many times have I walked past this painting on my other visits with only a glance? The portrait appears to be one continuous tonal note of umber, from background to shirt, collar, hat and hair with only a breadth of light, barely there, to differentiate one from another- like a gray Seattle sky slipping into nightfall. There is an almost imperceptible transition from the darkness of the background to the fleshy forms of the face, the wrinkles and furrows, the modeling of the skin capturing the worried lines in the artists forehead. I tried to analyze how Rembrandt made such a perfect work of art, but, although I can point to all the components, the painting transcends that kind of language- it is an embodiment, another form of flesh and spirit.
A face is a portal to the interior world of a human being and so closely do we associate attention to our face with intimacy that, to be truly seen, feels like we are truly liked or even loved. It is a deep privilege to stare at a face. Face-to-face conversation is the most human- and humanizing- thing we do. Our offline interactions are incredibly rich because they require our brains to process large amounts of information about subtle analog cues such as body language, facial expressions, and voice tone. The digital version of this process only offers a ‘simulacrum of this connection’. *
I attended a class on Compassionate Listening and, once paired with another student, thought we would be given a set of skills. However, they had us start by staring directly into our partners eyes for a few minutes, without saying a word. After the first moment of embarrassment and discomfort, as I broke every social norm, I settled in to take a good long, intentional, look. I don’t remember her face now, only the feeling of love and empathy that seemed to bind me to her when we were done. We never spoke a word, yet whenever I saw her throughout that weekend, I felt protective of her, and as if she was someone important to me. I had a deeper connection with her than many people I have known for years and the experience took perhaps 3 minutes at most.
In this painting, Rembrandt has given us permission to stare and we get to see him through his own eyes- we see him simply as a man. He is vulnerable, filled with darkness, tears and somehow it is more beautiful than if he had the lit symmetry of Apollo. So many of our encounters veil our faces using only text, our electronic communications that mask even the peculiarities of our handwriting. There is a loss of authenticity and intimacy as we hide our faces behind a brightly polished online persona that is confronted by a painting such as this one.
This painting is a reminder of what the poet David Whyte wrote in his poem the Winter of Listening:
What we strive for
is not what turns us
into the lit angel
Before I left the museum room, a tall young woman in shredded jeans purposefully walked into the gallery and directly to Rembrandts’ face, not distracted by the Vermeer Holy Family on the left or the wall size Van Dyck family portrait on the right, she stood with her nose almost against Rembrandts nose as if in a kiss. There was no personal space, no boundaries, it was intimate. I expected a guard to stop her but no-one did and there she stayed, in his space with time collapsing, for longer than I thought possible, staring.
*this paragraph contains two adapted lines from Sherry Turkle and Cal Newport both hyperlinked in the text for reference.