All mere complexities

The story of Zeuxis is enough to make even the most hardened of sensitivity readers reach for the smelling salts. The artist Zeuxis, a historical figure (none of whose works, sadly, survive), is reputed to have suffocated to death while laughing at the ugliness and absurdity of an elderly lady he was painting. The story is about as unlikely as that of Aeschylus being killed by a bird dropping a turtle on his head, but, unlikely or not, it has now become so embedded in mythology that not even the most conscientious of sensitivity readers can prise it out. And, of course, it is a very cruel and unpleasant story. However, it is precisely this cruel and unpleasant story that inspired Rembrandt to paint one of his greatest masterpieces. In one of his late self-portraits, he depicted himself as Zeuxis, laughing heartlessly at the absurdity and ugliness of ageing human flesh.

Rembrandt’s series of self-portraits, especially the later ones, are some of the most enigmatic of artworks. We would be wrong, I think, to see them as autobiography: rather, he seemed to be using his own face as does an actor – presenting it in different ways to express different aspects, not necessarily of his own life, but of human life in general. Thus, in one of these self-portraits (currently in the Frick Collection, New York), he presents himself almost like an emperor, commander of all he surveys, even though it was painted immediately after he had been declared bankrupt. In his last self-portrait (currently in the Mauritshuis in The Hague), he presents himself with dull unglinting eyes, indicating a blankness behind; however, if Rembrandt really had been on the verge of senility, as this painting seems to suggest, he would not have been able to paint this. In these, and in his other self-portraits, he was using his own self to depict other matters. He was looking not into himself, I think, but, rather, out, into the wider world.

And he must have known that there was a particular irony in painting himself as Zeuxis. Obviously, he was not Zeuxis: throughout his career he had painted people not good-looking by any conventional standards, and in none of these paintings is there even the slightest hint of mockery. He frequently painted old people, but without any attempt either to idealise or to caricature. Indeed, his paintings of old people – old men, old women – display quite often a profound sense of sympathy, and, indeed, a sense of tenderness, a tenderness that, thanks to his refusal to beautify, never slips into sentimentality. He finds in these people what I can only describe as a sort of inner beauty – an inner beauty that is often at odds with their all-too-apparent failing human flesh. That Rembrandt, of all people, should depict himself as Zeuxis laughing merrily at the absurdity of this same failing human flesh is profoundly ironic, and it is an irony that would surely not have escaped him.

Self-portrait as Zeuxis by Rembrandt, courtesy of Wallraf_Richartz-Museum, Cologne

If we leave aside the story of Zeuxis, and look at the painting in purely visual terms, what is particularly noticeable is that Rembrandt hasn’t even made an attempt to depict flesh tones. The colour of the face is a sort of bronze, or, perhaps, of dark gold: it is the same colour as the magnificent collar, which appears to be reflecting light, almost as if it were metallic. The cap perched on his head, which one might have expected to be white (as it is, say, in the self-portrait currently in Kenwood House, London), is also of that same dark gold-bronze colour. It is almost as if the head, the cap, the collar, were all simultaneously transforming before our very eyes into something that is not, perhaps, quite human – into some kind of metallic artifice.

It is the kind of transformation that Yeats, some two hundred and fifty years later, fantasised about. He too, had fretted about the absurdity of failing flesh and of decrepitude:

What shall I do with this absurdity —

O heart, O troubled heart — this caricature,

Decrepit age that has been tied to me

As to a dog’s tail?

  • From “The Tower”

“An aged man is but a paltry thing”, he declares in “Sailing to Byzantium”, a poem contained in the same collection. In this poem, Yeats fantasises about being transformed into a metallic object – something that is not human, something that is not subject to decay and to decline into this terrible absurdity of decrepit age. His heart, he says, is

…. Sick with desire

And fastened to a dying animal.

What he longs for is to be gathered “into the artifice of eternity”:

Once out of nature I shall never take

My bodily form from any natural thing,

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

To keep a drowsy Emperor awake

Yes, this artifice is a trivial thing: it has been fabricated merely to keep a drowsy Emperor awake. But be that as it may, it is not subject to ageing, to decline, to death; and this fact alone makes it superior to the absurdity of our mortal state.

Of course, we may ask “What about all those things that make us human?” What about our loves, our passions, our desires, our very consciousness itself? But Yeats isn’t – or, at least, pretends he isn’t – moved by any of this: in the poem “Byzantium”, written some two years later and clearly linked to the earlier poem by its title, he dismisses all this with the striking expression “All mere complexities”:

A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains

All that man is,

All mere complexities

And these “mere complexities” don’t really amount to much: it is right to disdain them. The golden handiwork from the earlier poem returns, “planted on the starlit golden bough”, and it too scorns mere human complexities:

… scorn aloud

In glory of changeless metal

Common bird or petal

And all the complexities of mire or blood.

Better to be gathered into the artifice of eternity, in glory of changeless metal, and be free of all human emotions, of all these complexities of mire and blood, than to see oneself waste into old age, and absurdity. At the point of death, “all complexities of furies leave”.

We need not take this at face value. Indeed, we should not take this at face value. We should, I think, consider Yeats’ stated preference, and shudder at the thought of leaving behind all that makes us human, even if that is the price to be paid for eternity, for the glory of changelessness. But this is merely me putting a moralistic gloss on it all: it is a moralistic gloss that Yeats himself does not provide, leaving the issue open.

As, I think, does Rembrandt. In this deeply enigmatic self-portrait, he paints himself, it seems to me, as a figure leaving his humanity behind, and laughing at the absurdity of those of us who insist on clinging on to what are, after all, mere complexities. It is a very troubling painting, and is, I think, intended as such.

4 responses to this post.

  1. Thanks for sharing this. I’m no scholar of art, so I didn’t know about the idea of Rembrandt ‘performing roles’ for his self-portraits.
    So thank you!


    • I’m afraid I’m no scholar of art either. It really is just my own impression, no more, that Rembrandt is performing roles in his self-portraits. I’m always a bit apprehensive writing about art (or music, or … well, just about everything, really!) as I really am not educated in these matters at all!


  2. Posted by alan on March 19, 2023 at 11:07 am

    It’s not a new observation to say: “The physicists must have it right, they understand and the structure and evolution of stars and turn that knowledge to creating nuclear weapons that could devastate the earth. But few humans doubt the reality of their pain.”.
    Our complexity may be revealing something, but what does it reveal and what kind of answer would satisfy us?


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