This weekend just gone I read an art review on the BBC news site that really knocked my socks off. This is quite unlike me. When it comes to the world of art, and especially of the highbrow variety that requires furrowed eyebrows signalling appropriate sobriety, I’m not so much a fish out of water as a long-forgotten fish finger at the back of the freezer.
Luckily the BBC’s Will Gompertz, whose name makes me think of eastern bloc dumplings for some reason, has artistic expertise in abundance and then some, and he guides you along like the friendliest fish in the pond.
That said, it wasn’t so much his review that had me sockless as what he was reviewing: the Rijksmuseum’s release of a super-duper high-resolution image of Rembrandt’s 17th century painting, The Night Watch.
It’s something truly to behold and if I may be so bold to press upon you to press this link herein you can experience it for yourselves:
And this is Mr Gompertz’s review if, like me, you’d like to be taught a thing or two:
See, the crafty Rijksfolk have stitched together multiple mega-pixel pictures of the painting allowing near infinite zoom-zoom power (like high art, technical photography isn’t my area of speciality either) which means you can magnify any part of the painting to microscopic scale without experiencing image degradation. You can swoosh in so close you can see the actual cracks in the canvass. Marvel at the minute detail in the characters’ clothing, their embroidery, it’s colossal, extraordinary.
It’s the closest I’ve ever come to any painting, let alone a masterpiece, and what struck me most wasn’t just Rembrandt’s obvious genius, nor even his clear commitment to it, but the expression of his conscious decision-making to create the exact composition of his choosing.
Every element on the canvas exists purposefully. There’s no accidental occurrence in the tilt of a head or the shape of a hand or the fall of a shadow. According to Mr Eastern Bloc Dumpling Fish even the tiny glint of the main geezer’s right eye is comprised of four different brush strokes. There’s no going through the motions with this master, no compromising in the quest to create the desired effect.
Look at the painting in the forensic detail this digital bit of wizardry allows and you begin to get a sense of Rembrandt’s freedom in the expression of his decisions. He changed things as he went, painted over parts he no longer liked, or wanted to improve. He didn’t settle for the habitual, the automatic, the worn-out patterns of unconscious actions. You can see, witness, each exquisite decision.
That’s what most struck me, what I’ve found myself interested in: Rembrandt’s relationship with, and expression of, the exquisite. Because isn’t that where we can all find freedom?
Put genius aside now, that’s no longer relevant, it’s not what I’m on about.
What I’m on about is an ability to consciously create, one fine, exquisite decision at a time, the composition of our daily lives. To become a master of our day-to-day, to turn each moment into a canvass and create, to treat life itself as an art form.
And before this starts sounding a bit lofty and romantic, let me put it in more practical terms, because that’s what I’m concerned with.
Just as Rembrandt, presumably, decided how thick or thin to layer each stroke, how light or dark to make a certain part, which direction to set an eye-line, we too can decide how to compose the contents of our own daily frame.
Do I smile hello to the woman in the shop or look away? Do I pay a compliment to a friend on FaceTime or not bother? Do I eat another cookie or resist temptation? Decisions like these are seemingly tiny, admittedly, but only as tiny as each decision Rembrandt made when creating his masterpiece.
And that’s the point I’m making.
The point is whether or not we make our choices consciously—and in so doing decide the finest details of our lives. Because each one of these decisions really is a fine brush stroke in the great collage of our experience.
Does that sound obsessive? Like too much effort?
Well, the way I see it, when it comes to the finer details of life, with which we’re presented hundreds and hundreds of times a day—and are really the only things over which we have any control at all—we have an opportunity to become the authors of our stories, the artists of our imaginings.
Suddenly, then, life becomes exciting.
It becomes a craft or a beautiful art form to practise.
It becomes a great game that we’re all free to play.
The opposite of this is like living with our eyes closed, it’s going through the motions, it’s repeating old habits, it’s living within restrictions that really need not be there. Which causes boredom, apathy, maybe even depression. We become prisoners of routine, of compromise, of passivity, we no longer engage fully, we refuse the invitation to live playfully, and we behave as if there’s no other way through it.
And sure, the seemingly big things in life might not be going our way – job, relationship, pandemic-hit plans – and that might make us feel like a prisoner to fate, jailed in limitation, unfulfillment or drudgery.
But freedom isn’t found in these externalities anyway. A job won’t set us free, not truly, nor even a relationship, no matter how beautiful. Sure, there’ll add to the delight, to the experience, to the tapestry, but these things, as with everything, come with their opposites and unforeseen consequences.
We are, however, free to create our internal experience, quite literally compose it, with the artistry of an Old Master, through the conscious expression of each and every exquisite decision.