Aesthetics

Aesthetics is just a question of what you like, right? Wrong.

I well remember the man who came by my gallery and found an etching by Rembrandt hanging on the wall. He stared at it for a while, then announced: "well, it doesn't do anything for me.' No, I thought. You have to do something for it. In other words, it is necessary to learn about art, learn what is difficult to do, study the subject with attention and develop discrimination. That is not good news for those who are used to being fed pap by the mass media.

Rembrandt, The hundred guilder print, created c1649. Original size 11x15.5 inches 280x393 mm. The reproduction below is about half size.

So, consider the above etching by Rembrandt. The composition is remarkable, using the form of the pyramid to point out the figure of Christ, and a circular arrangement of bodies in the foreground to lead the eye round and back to the central figure. The whole is framed in what we take to be massive architecture, in fact merely suggested by a few lines. The dramatic diagonals and verticals behind serve to anchor the attention within the image, and give the whole a powerful context. This is the first element. Masterful composition which serves to direct the viewer's attention to what is important, principally the figure of Christ.

When we start to look at the details within this composition, we begin to see Rembrandt himself. Here he depicts suffering humanity, as he saw it all around him in the Low Countries in the seventeenth century. The peasants and beggars who also made up Christ's congregation, each one individualised with a few strokes, the attention of them all riveted on Christ, who promises to bring relief to their suffering. Quite apart from the technical skill of the drawing, which is impressive when compared with any product of any age, before or after, we see the artist's compassionate humanity, his understanding of where Jesus was coming from, and who he was talking to, ie everybody. Just incidentally, there is a camel in the background, but that is no accident.

The camel belongs to the character in the centre of this group, the finely dressed young man, his hand half covering his face, for he is in a dilemma. Christ has just told him that to enter into heaven, he must give away his wealth. It's the story of the camel getting through the eye of a needle, and it is this story that connects the two parts of the image thematically. A child in the foreground pulls at the dress of its mother, urging her forward. In the background, three Pharisees discuss the finer points of the law, hoping to trap Jesus in a contradiction.

To the left of Christ, we see another woman with her children. The apostle Peter tries to push them away, but Christ extends his hand to them, saying: 'Suffer the little children to come unto me,' To the right of Christ is the suffering multitude. In the words of Matthew (12:15) 'great multitudes followed him, and he healed them all'. This is the main theme of the etching.

There's a lot going on! In all, thirty three characters, a camel, a dog and four different stories. As previously mentioned, it is the superb sense of composition that allows Rembrandt to harmonise all these different elements, and it is his great skill in drawing that enables him to individualise each character. But it is his great humanity (and humility) that enables him to recount the stories accurately and with feeling. Eye, brain, heart and hand are in perfect accord.

It is this accord that produces a work of aesthetic value. The requirement is the same whatever the art: photography, painting, sculpture, music. Each art has its own means of communicating this accord, each art has different elements that need putting together into a finished composition, but the final requirement is the same. Eye, brain, heart and hand in perfect accord.

For more on Rembrandt's etchings, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kfz6yfn62sc