In an idle hour one afternoon last week I bethought myself to wander over to the National Gallery and take a look at the Velásquez exhibition they’re putting on at the moment. I turned up an hour or so before the doors closed and, predictably enough, they sent me away with a flea in my ear, being all sold out for the day. So I thought I might as well kill a couple of hours in the main gallery.
Whenever I go to the National Gallery I always end up looking at the same things; so this time I thought I’d take a different route through, bypassing the Cinquecento Italians and avoiding the magnetic pull of that damn Holbein, and heading straight into the seventeenth century instead.
In the Rembrandt room there are two paintings hanging side by side, one by the man himself and another not (or rather no longer) considered worthy of his brush. These are: 'Anna and the Blind Tobit'; and the snappily-titled 'A Man Seated Reading at a Table in a Lofty Room'. It’s easy to see why the curators set them next to one another like this: they are pretty similar in composition and tone. But what interested me were less the visual and more the thematic similarities and contrasts between the two pieces.
Considered as two texts to be read in parallel (though they were almost certainly never intended to be), the paintings say something about reading and writing. Blindness adopts the same pose as reading. The light streams from behind and above; the seated figure is engulfed by solitude.
Solitude is the unifying theme of these two paintings. Tobit's blindness isolates him from his wife Anna, and he prays for death ("for it is profitable for me to die rather than to live […] turn not thy face away from me." Tobit 3:6). The reader (or is he a writer? Is that a pen in his left hand?) hunched over his desk, withdrawn fully within the ‘little world’ oblivious to those symbols of the ‘big world’ on the right: what looks like two globes, barely visible in the gloom. The function of the light here, it seems to me, is paradoxically not to draw the eye ‘outside’, but to involve it more deeply in the darkness.
Where there is but the merest suggestion of a ‘seeing hand’ in the Reader painting, the Tobit scene features hands prominently. Hands are the focal point of the composition. The hand of the blind man, unfailingly, suggests the hand of the artist, the hand of the writer. Tobit gazes unseeingly at his hands while Anna busies hers with work. Derrida, in his Mémoires d’aveugle – though he does not discuss this painting – writes at length on the significance of hands and eyes in the Tobit story, and in its representation in visual art. Tobias will cure his father’s blindness by laying hands on his eyes, his hands guided in turn by the hand of the angel Raphael.
And Tobit will become a writer. Once his sight is restored Tobit will write the first-person account of his blindness and solitude. As Derrida emphasizes, this act of writing is an act of acknowledgement, the repaying of a debt that is unpayable; Tobit’s story is of the ‘seeing of sight itself’. Derrida goes on to write of the impossibility of the self-portrait (the draftsman draws without seeing – he cannot see himself as he draws – just as our Reader writes without seeing, in the dark); here Rembrandt, the self-portraitist par excellence, makes Tobit into a writer who is not yet a writer, and portrays the impossibility of writing.
Maybe next week I’ll get to the Velásquez…