What “poetry” means: Rembrandt

A post in the ongoing series Poetry in the Arts.

staalmeesters
De Staalmeesters (The Masters of the Cloth Drapers Guild)
by
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn

The main idea of this series is to suggest three criteria for poetry, in any art — a film, painting, sculpture, music, fiction, or poem.

  • A poem is not an object you passively contemplate or an idea you learn: it’s something that you live through, that you experience.
  • A poem is a made object: it may bring you into a story or admit you to a world, but it also shows you itself and the person who made it.
  • A poem conveys emotion.

I can illustrate what I mean using Rembrandt’s De Staalmeesters as an example.

The painting hangs in a large hall of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. It’s big: about 6 x 9 feet.

There is a place, five or ten feet away, where you can stand and all the men’s eyes — except the man in the center, with his right hand on the book — focus on you. To view this computer image the same way, your nose would have to be three or four inches from your screen.

When you’re this close you can’t see the whole painting at once: you have to turn your eyes or, for comfort, your head. This close, your perception of the physical painting is distorted: the edges of it barrel out and the ends recede in perspective.

So your idea of De Staalmeesters is not a single perceptual picture — a snapshot representation — but something you build up from the fragmentary views that you see from different vantage points. You don’t just see it (with your eyes): you see it with your mind. You experience it. You live through it.

This thought is reinforced by the story the painting seems to tell. Some think it shows the moment when the artist Rembrandt comes in to the Staalmeesters to be interviewed as a candidate for the commission to paint their group portrait. He glimpses them — you glimpse them — as he comes up a short flight of steps into their chamber, at the same moment they notice him and prepare to greet him.

De Staalmeesters is not a posed tableau, a moment constructed to represent the Staalmeesters symbolically — it’s an instant plucked out of the stream of time. It suggests the motion of that stream, of what just happened before and what will happen next. It indicates the various threads of what each Staalmeester is doing and the thread of what you (Rembrandt) are doing.

This sense of seeing the artist as well as the subject leads to a second idea about poetry. The word poetry derives from the Ancient Greek verb poiein — their ordinary word to do or to make. A poem, or poiesis, is a made thing: something crafted — a tangible artifact, just like a clay pot. It thunks as you put it on the table in front of you. You can look at it, turn it around, critique it, throw it against the wall.

Even if you don’t happen to know the story De Staalmeesters represents, you’re still as aware of the painting and the painter as you are of the subject.

You look through the painting to see what it shows; but, just as much, you look at the painting and you put yourself in the place of the person who created it.

The light — on the walls, on the oriental table covering, and on the men’s faces — is too beautiful to ignore. You’re very aware of the specific narrative and compositional choices that Rembrandt made: for example the way that the perspective on the tabletop indicates the unusual, low angle from which you view the scene. Although the effect of the whole is realistic representation, it’s impossible at close range not to notice the powerful emotionalism, the anti-realism, of Rembrandt’s brushwork.

Emotionalism is the third key. It arises out of the surface of the painting and out of the story the painting tells.

There is tension in the room and each man’s emotions are complex. The man turning the page with his left hand is said to be Rembrandt’s friend, sponsoring him for the commission. He’s reassuring, but he’s obviously a tough businessman. Will he stick by Rembrandt if the politics get heavy? Or is he a realist? The man rising from his chair seems to oppose Rembrandt, but to make an display of politeness while guarding his emotions. Or is he perhaps using the ostentation of his courtesy as a signal of his disapproval? The others seem not to be protagonist and antagonist, but to have sophisticated, partly sincere and partly cynical, reactions. The man in the back, a servant, seems to have his own ideas.


Summary

I admire an art work — a film, painting, sculpture, music, fiction, or poem — that has structure and shows its story. But I love art that has “poetry.”

This series of posts suggests three criteria for poetry:

  • A poem is not an object you passively contemplate or an idea you learn: it’s something that you live through, that you experience.
  • A poem is a made object: it may bring you into a story or admit you to a world, but it also shows you itself and the person who made it.
  • A poem conveys emotion.

Table of Contents for this series: Poetry in the Arts


poetry
“Do you know my poetry”
— Johnny Depp as William Blake, in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man

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