Rembrandt, Bathsheba, and the Textures of Art

In Love’s Shadow, Paul A. Bové presents a case for literary critics and other humanists to stop wallowing in their aestheticized helplessness and instead turn to poetry, comedy, and love.

Bové challenges young lit critters to throw away their shades and let the sun shine in. Love’s Shadow is his three-step manifesto for a new literary criticism that risks sentimentality and melodrama and eschews self-consciousness. The first step is to choose poetry. There has been since the time of Plato a battle between philosophy and poetry. Philosophy has championed misogyny, while poetry has championed women, like Shakespeare’s Rosalind. Philosophy is ever so stringent; try instead the sober cheerfulness of Wallace Stevens. Bové’s second step is to choose the essay. He praises Benjamin’s great friend and sometime antagonist Theodor Adorno, who gloried in writing essays, not dissertations and treatises. The third step is to choose love. This brief excerpt looks at Rembrandt, who brought lovers to life in his paintings.

Bathsheba’s stomach may be lovingly painted, but it is not a realistic representation of any woman. This nude achieves its realism effect by tricks of proportion, placement, and shadow that separate this body from any anatomically or biologically existing body. The twisted left arm, in a posture the human body cannot assume, tells the story of art’s unfaithfulness to the given. It stresses the imagination’s desire to achieve the goal of its own intelligence, which is importantly independent of the given. The human, in the Abrahamic stories, might be secondary but Rembrandt’s Bathsheba is not. The craft of the stomach, of the body itself, as the vehicle for innerness or experience has value in its texture, not only in its formal design. Rembrandt’s impasto combined with the rough traces of brush strokes to create the thigh and hip, as they are. His technique created bodies marked by their physicality and position as well as by the traces of experience, motion and emotion, upon their flesh and bones. If there is love, it exists as Genet’s goodness exists, because of art.

Love comes out from the shadow of hope when we see again that not everything is ruination, when we accept the value of creating the human in acts of intelligent imagination, when the artist provides a new imagination in creations that produce what the human might be. The act of love is not the embrace between the creature and her watchers. Love is in the creation, which traces in detail all human capacities, both in the form of experience reflected in thought and motion and in the work of poiesis, of loving intelligent creation, which is essential to the species and its habitat. Messianic hope looks over the horizon or has no reason to exist except as disappointment. The Bathsheba forecloses the horizon, focusing on the knowable as the immediately emergent creature loved in detail by artist and student alike. Love has no purity from violence or defeat, no evasion of violence or death. Bathsheba is by virtue of what Rembrandt makes her in the immediacy of a near future she ponders, as its violence looms over her watched body. Where is love, then? It is in the immediate creation, which poiesis dwelling in the master of the imagination puts on offer as a mystery of the human, shadowed by the darkness of its own complex emergence, the burdens of its own imagination and its remains. Love and poiesis produce far more drama than the sentiment of embrace, which the great English artist and critic, John Berger rather surprisingly thinks is the virtue of Rembrandt’s art. We, however, know the violence of embrace and see it there in the pre-figured marks across the materials that give us Bathsheba’s body. It carries past and future, a function of art as it struggles to bring into sight what has been and what almost certainly will come, albeit in some not yet known form. It is love acting in finitude, at the best level of the species’ capacities, fully aware of darkness that can be historical, moral, or both. Imagination as love does not turn to religion, as St. Paul would have had it. Nor does it turn to religion, as Kant might have hoped. This is something human that lives in the species, a potential which creates what was not there before, including humanity now fully as meditative, trapped, betrayed, and yet creative, full of beauty, and inescapable. In large, this human can create the world as the dream of its own desires, fully aware that secular finitude precludes perfection or escape from its own limited but loving nature. In other words, Rembrandt has fought his way through to love and beauty without at all the need for the divine.

The painting is a gift to the species from its own existence as the venue for poiesis. It does not sit there in the Louvre, fixed as an object, settled as the echo of some subject placed before us. Rembrandt’s important early commitment to match motion and emotion continues in this most still of canvases. All its best viewers — those who notice its effects on viewers, its ability to induce sympathy, and so on — all these viewers testify to the motion and emotion created in this work. Many of them psychologize the work, making psychology the normative albeit limiting way to address the work done by the imagination in art. What are they noticing? The mystery of which Van Gogh speaks lies in the shimmering, trembling flesh and thought embodied in the human presence Rembrandt found himself able to entice from darkness. We can borrow a phrase used to describe the exceptional quality of Shakespeare. Bathsheba is “shifting uncrystallized life.”