Rembrandt and the Use of only One Canvas

What’s the link between Rembrandt and your life? I’ll give you a hint: it has something to do with a technology called Macro X-ray fluorescence. By using this new technology scientists have been able to detect paintings that have been painted underneath other paintings. Apparently, ancient painters – even the big ones – made mistakes, or were in any other way dissatisfied with their end product. Therefore they decided to change this ‘end’ product, either by painting an entirely new painting on top of the old one, or by changing a few details. But that’s not really interesting, is it? Everyone makes mistakes, so painters make mistakes as well, right? That’s true, but what is interesting is the fact that the painters decided to reuse a used canvas on top of which they painted their new painting: they deliberately didn’t use a new canvas. Why is that? Were canvasses very expense in those days, or might there be a deeper meaning behind this seemingly innocent action? Let’s take a look at that.

When you think about painters re-painting a canvas, you might see similarities with the manner in which we – human beings – live our lives. We also have a canvas – call it our souls or bodies, or both – which we have to re-paint in order for a new and revised work of art to appear. Even more than the painter we are forced to use the same canvas over and over again. Not because new canvasses are expensive, but simply because we only have one canvas. Like the painters we can decide to make minor adjustments to our paintings, or decide to radically alter the shapes and colors of our work of art. Layer upon layer, color upon color, we build and redesign ourselves until we are reasonably satisfied with the ‘end’ result.

But then the painful question shows it face: will we ever be satisfied with the end product? Do we ever reach the point at which we are simply done adjusting the colors and shapes? Probably not, right? There is always a new color to implement, a new technique to use, and a shape more appropriate. We keep on changing our minds, and this change is reflected in our paintings. And the painting process will go on until we die, until we cannot adjust anything any more, and the painting of our lives will get sold.

You could take the analogy ever further by saying that – by using a certain ‘technology’ – we can, just like the paintings’, unravel the layers of our own existence. That’s after all what Freud intended with his psychoanalysis, right? Peeling down the layers of our mind until we reach those layers buried and forgotten, the lake of the unconscious mind. Just like the painters we try to correct the mistakes we’ve made in our lives. But no matter how good of a painter we are, and no matter how bright the colors that we use might be, we can never erase the layers beyond our consciousness: we can merely masquerade them with fancy flowers and rivers.

You can take the analogy to the extreme by applying the painting metaphor to society as a whole. After all, what do you think Marx meant with his structuralism? What about his notions of ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’? Sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it?

So, what’s the conclusion of this article? Well, you could say that we’re all painters: painters of our own lives. And although we only have one canvas, we (have to) keep on adjusting our paintings, trying to attain that seemingly unreachable goal of perfection. And if we make a big mistake, unable to be corrected by a few brushes? We’ll start all over again. How to do so? Well, ask Rembrandt.

But what do you think?

Written by Rob Graumans

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