Just outside Amsterdam there lives an old, well-known, and respected Dutch painter. He has worked hard throughout his life—but he has only produced, as far as the world knows, a few drawings and one ...

Just outside Amsterdam there lives an old, well-known, and respected Dutch painter. He has worked hard throughout his life—but he has only produced, as far as the world knows, a few drawings and one large canvas which is in the National Museum. I went to see his second major work, a triptych of the war. We spoke of war, old age, the vocation of the painter. He opened the door of his studio to let me go in first. The huge canvases were white. After years of work he had that day calmly destroyed them. The second major work of his life was still unfinished.

The point of this story is that it shows how persistently something very like Calvinism can still influence Dutch art even today. In itself the Calvinist religion has discouraged art, and all important Dutch artists have had to fight against it. But it has influenced them nevertheless. It has often made them moralists and extremists. Their central fight—as with my friend—has been with their own consciences.

Mr. Valentiner’s most interesting essay on Rembrandt and Spinoza describes how these two men, whom he believes must surely have met, both had to fight the State Church in their different ways. 1 In the month that Rembrandt was declared bankrupt, Spinoza, then a student, was excommunicated for his views by the rabbis of his synagogue. Later, the Calvinist Church Council at the Hague issued a condemnation of Spinoza. Eleven years before, Hendrickje Stoffels, Rembrandt’s much-loved mistress, whom he could not marry on account of a clause in his wife, Saskia’s, will, had been summoned to appear before the Amsterdam Council and confess “that she lived with Rembrandt as a whore.”

The other thing that the philosopher and the painter, who were so different in temperament, had in common was their moral concern with ethical problems. For Spinoza this concern was conscious and direct—even supplying the title for his principal work. For Rembrandt it was partly conscious—in his choice of parables and Bible stories as subjects—but, more important, it was intuitive.

As soon as we drop the habit of looking at paintings exclusively from the point of view of form, it becomes clear that Rembrandt was the first modern painter. He was the first artist to take the tragic isolation of the individual as his recurring theme, just as he was the first great artist to experience a comparable alienation from his own society. And it was this theme which presented him with his ethical problem: a problem which—to put it very simply—he solved by compassion.


In an article as brief as this, one cannot prove in detail the connection between Calvinism, Spinoza’s pantheism, and Rembrandt’s charity. One can only point out that they all arose from the need to explain the new commercial-competitive relations between men. Calvinism overrides the problems by claiming that God has already chosen certain souls to be damned. Spinoza strives to create a new unity of pure philosophical logic round nature. Rembrandt appeals: “There but for the grace of God…”

Mr. David Lewis in his essay on Mondrian describes lucidly and appreciatively how this painter arrived at the doctrine behind his most severely abstract art. 2 But he does not relate his art or his ideas to the Dutch tradition. This, I think, is a pity. Mondrian was a fervent moralist. He believed that his geometric abstractions heralded a modern order of society, in which “the tragic,” the result of conflict with nature, and of excessive individuality, would finally be made to disappear. The austerity of his later works (emphasized by the tenderness almost amounting to sentimentality of his earlier representational paintings) undoubtedly owed something to his Calvinist background—even though he rejected this. The completeness of his system of thought and his method of arguing is very closely related to Spinoza’s. While his single-mindedness—however we assess its result in terms of art—recalls Rembrandt’s or Van Gogh’s. Nor is this only an academic interest today. As soon as one recognizes the discipline, logic, and ethical preoccupation that lie behind Mondrian’s work, one realizes that his art, although called abstract, has absolutely nothing to do with the nihilism of the currently fashionable form of abstract painting—Tachisme.

The essential character of oil painting has been obscured by an almost universal misreading of the relationship between its “tradition” and its “masters.” Certain exceptional artists in exceptional circumstances broke free of the norms of the tradition and produced work that was diametrically opposed to its values, yet these artists are acclaimed as the tradition’s supreme representatives, a claim which is made easier by the fact that after their death, the tradition closed around their work, incorporating minor technical innovations, and continuing as though nothing of principle had been disturbed. This is why Rembrandt or Vermeer or Poussin or Chardin or Goya or Turner had no followers but only superficial imitators.

From the tradition a kind of stereotype of “the great artist” has emerged. This great artist whose lifetime is consumed by struggle: partly against material circumstances, partly against himself. He is imagined as a kind of Jacob wrestling with an Angel. (The examples extend from Michelangelo to Van Gogh.) In no other culture has the artist been thought of in this way. Why then in this culture? We have already referred to the exigencies of the open art market. But the struggle was not only to love. Each time a painter realized that he was dissatisfied with the limited role of painting as a celebration of material property and of the status that accompanies it, he inevitably found himself struggling with the very language of his own art as understood by the tradition of his calling.

The two categories of exceptional works and average (typical) works are essential to our argument. But they cannot be applied mechanically as critical criteria. The critic must understand the terms of the antagonism. Every exceptional work was the result of a prolonged successful struggle. Innumerable works involved no struggle. There were also prolonged yet unsuccessful struggles.

To be an exception, a painter whose vision had been formed by this tradition, and who has probably studied as an apprentice or student from the age of sixteen, needed to recognize his vision for what it was, and then to separate it from the usage for which it has been developed. Single-handed he had to contest himself as a painter in a way that denied the seeing of a painter. This meant that he saw himself doing something that nobody else could foresee. The degree of effort required is suggested in two self-portraits by Rembrandt.

The first was painted in 1634, when he was twenty-eight; the second thirty years later. But the difference between them amounts to something more than the fact that age has changed the painter’s appearance and character.

Rembrandt, <i>Rembrandt and Saskia in the parable of the Prodigal Son</i> (c. 1634). Oil on canvas

Rembrandt, Rembrandt and Saskia in the parable of the Prodigal Son (c. 1634). Oil on canvas

The first painting occupies a special place in, as it were, the film of Rembrandt’s life. He painted it in the first year of his marriage. In it he is showing off Saskia, his bride. Within six years she will be dead. The painting is cited to sum up the so-called happy period of the artist’s life. Yet if one approaches it now without sentimentality, one sees that it employs the traditional methods for their traditional purposes. His individual style may be becoming recognizable. But it is no more than the style of a new performer playing a traditional role. The painting as a whole remains an advertisement for this sitter’s good fortune, prestige, and wealth. (In this case Rembrandt’s own.) And like all such advertisements it is heartless.

In the later painting he has turned the tradition against itself. He has wrested its language away from it. He is an old man. All has gone except a sense of the question of existence, of existence as a question. And the painter in him who is both more and less than the old man has found the means to express just that, using a medium which has been traditionally developed to exclude any such question.

At the age of sixty-three he died, looking, even by the standards of his time, very old. Drink, debts, and the death through the Plague of those nearest to him are amongst the explanations of the ravages done. But the self-portraits hint at something more. He grew old in a climate of economic fanaticism and indifference—not dissimilar to the climate of the period we are living through. The human could no longer simply be copied (as in the Renaissance), the human was no longer self-evident: it had to be found in the darkness. Rembrandt himself was obstinate, dogmatic, cunning, capable of a kind of brutality. Do not let us turn him into a saint. Yet he was looking for a way out of the darkness.

He drew because he liked drawing. It was a daily reminder of what surrounded him. Painting—particularly in the second half of his life—was for him something very different: it was a search for an exit from the darkness. Perhaps the drawings—with their extraordinary lucidity—have prevented us seeing the way he really painted.

He seldom made preliminary drawings; he began painting straight- away on the canvas. There is little of either linear logic or spatial continuity in his paintings. If the pictures convince, they do so because details, parts, emerge and come out to meet the eye. Nothing is laid out before us as it is in the work of his contemporaries like Ruysdael or Vermeer.

Whereas in his drawings he was a total master of space, of proportion, the physical world he presents in his paintings is seriously dislocated. In art studies about him this has not been emphasized enough. Perhaps because one needs to be a painter rather than a scholar to perceive it clearly.

There is an early painting of a man (it’s himself) before an easel in a studio. The man is not much more than half the size he should be! In the marvelous late painting Woman at an Open Door Hendrickje’s right arm and hand are the size of those of a Hercules! In Abraham’s Sacrifice Isaac has the physique of a youth but in proportion to his father is no larger than an eight-year-old!

Rembrandt, <i>The Sacrifice of Isaac</i> (1636). Oil on canvas

Rembrandt, The Sacrifice of Isaac (1636). Oil on canvas

Baroque art loved foreshortenings and improbable juxtapositions, but, even if he profited by the liberties won by the Baroque, the dislocations in his paintings are in no way similar, for they are not demonstrative: they are almost furtive.

In the sublime St. Matthew and Angel the impossible space over the Evangelist’s shoulder for the Angel’s head is furtively insinuated, as if by the whisper the Angel is whispering into the writer’s ear. Why in his paintings did he forget—or ignore—what he could do with such mastery in his drawings? Something else—something antithetical to “real” space—must have interested him more.

Leave the museum. Go to the emergency department of a hospital. Probably in a basement because the X-ray units are best placed underground. There are the wounded and the sick being wheeled forward, or waiting for hours, side by side, on their trolleys, until the next expert can give them attention. Often it is the rich, rather than the most sick, who pass first. Either way, for the patients, there underground, it is too late to change anything.

Each one is living in her or his own corporeal space, in which the landmarks are a pain or a disability, an unfamiliar sensation or a numbness. The surgeons when operating cannot obey the laws of this space—it is not something learned in Dr. Tulip’s Anatomy Lesson. Every good nurse, however, becomes familiar by touch with it—and on each mattress, with each patient, it takes a different form.

It is the space of each sentient body’s awareness of itself. It is not boundless like subjective space: it is always finally bound by the laws of the body, but its landmarks, its emphasis, its inner proportions are continually changing. Pain sharpens our awareness of such space. It is the space of our first vulnerability and solitude. Also of disease. But it is also, potentially, the space of pleasure, well-being, and the sensation of being loved. Robert Kramer, the filmmaker, defines it: “Behind the eyes and throughout the body. The universe of circuits and synapses. The worn paths where the energy habitually flows.” It can be felt by touch more clearly than it can be seen by sight. He was the painterly master of this corporeal space.

Consider the four hands of the couple in The Jewish Bride. It is their hands, far more than their faces, which say: Marriage. Yet how did he get there—to this corporeal space?

Bathsheba Reading David’s Letter. She sits there life-size and naked. She is pondering her fate. The king has seen her and desires her. Her husband is away at the wars. (How many millions of times has it happened?) Her servant, kneeling, is drying her feet. She has no choice but to go to the king. She will become pregnant. King David will arrange for her fond husband to be killed. She will mourn for her husband. She will marry King David and bear him the son who will become King Solomon. A fatality has already begun, and at the center of this fatality is Bathsheba’s desirability as a wife.

And so he made her nubile stomach and navel the focus of the entire painting. He placed them at the level of the servant’s eyes. And painted them with love and pity as if they were a face. There isn’t another belly in European art painted with a fraction of this devotion. It has become the center of its own story.

On canvas after canvas he gave to a part of a body or to parts of bodies a special power of narration. The painting then speaks with several voices—like a story being told by different people from different points of view. Yet these “points of view” can exist only in a corporeal space which is incompatible with territorial or architectural space. Corporeal space is continually changing its measures and focal centers, according to circumstances. It measures by waves, not meters. Hence its necessary dislocations of “real” space.

The Holy Family. The Virgin is seated in Joseph’s workshop. Jesus is asleep on her lap. The relation between the Virgin’s hand holding the baby, her bare breast, the baby’s head, and his outstretched arm is absurd in terms of any conventional pictorial space: nothing fits, stays in its proper place, is the correct size. Yet the breast with its drop of milk speaks to the baby’s face. The baby’s hand speaks to the amorphous landmass which is his mother. Her hand listens to the infant it is holding.

His best paintings deliver coherently very little to the spectator’s point of view. Instead, the spectator intercepts (overhears) dialogues between parts gone adrift, and these dialogues are so faithful to a corporeal experience that they speak to something everybody carries within them. Before his art, the spectator’s body remembers its own inner experience.

Commentators have often remarked on the “innerness” of Rembrandt’s images. Yet they are the opposite of icons. They are carnal images. The flesh of the Flayed Ox is not an exception but typical. If they reveal an “innerness” it is that of the body, what lovers try to reach by caressing and by intercourse. In this context the last word takes on both a more literal and more poetic meaning. Coursing between.

About half of his great masterpieces (portraits apart) depict the act or the preliminary act—the opening of the outstretched arms—of an embrace. The Prodigal Son, Jacob and the Angel, Danaë, David and Absalom, The Jewish Bride…

Nothing comparable is to be found in the oeuvre of any other painter. In Rubens, for instance, there are many figures being handled, carried, pulled, but few, if any, embracing. In nobody else’s work does the embrace occupy this supreme and central position. Sometimes the embrace he paints is sexual, sometimes not. In the fusion between two bodies not only desire can pass, but also pardon or faith. In his Jacob and the Angel we see all three and they become inseparable.

Rembrandt, <i>Jacob Wrestling with the Angel</i> (c. 1659). Oil on canvas

Rembrandt, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (c. 1659). Oil on canvas

Public hospitals, dating from the Middle Ages, were called in France Hôtels-Dieu. Places where shelter and care were given in the name of God to the sick or dying. Beware of idealization. The Hôtel-Dieu in Paris was so overcrowded during the Plague that each bed was “occupied by three people, one sick, one dying, and one dead.”

Yet the term Hôtel-Dieu, interpreted differently, can help to explain him. The key to his vision, which had to dislocate classical space, was the New Testament. “Who lives in love lives in God and God in him… We know that we live in him and he in us because he has given us of his Spirit.” (The First Epistle of John, ch. 4)

“He in us.” What the surgeons found in dissecting was one thing. What he was looking for was another. Hôtel-Dieu may also mean a body in which God resides. In the ineffable, terrible late self-portraits, he was waiting, as he gazed into his own face, for God, knowing full well that God is invisible.

When he painted freely those he loved or imagined or felt close to, he tried to enter their corporeal space as it existed at that precise moment, he tried to enter their Hôtel-Dieu. And so to find an exit from the darkness.

Before the small painting of A Woman Bathing we are with her, inside the shift she is holding up. Not as voyeurs. Not lecherously like the Elders spying on Susannah. It is simply that we are led, by the tenderness of his love, to inhabit her body’s space.

For Rembrandt, the embrace was perhaps synonymous with the act of painting, and both were just this side of prayer.

It is strange how art historians sometimes pay so much attention, when trying to date certain paintings, to “style,” inventories, bills, auction lists, and so little to the painted evidence concerning the model’s age. It is as if they do not trust the painter on this point. For example when they try to date and arrange in chronological order Rembrandt’s paintings of Hendrickje Stoffels. No painter was a greater expert about the process of ageing, and no painter has left us a more intimate record of the great love of his life. Whatever the documentary conjectures may allow, the paintings make it clear that the love between Hendrickje and the painter lasted for about 20 years, until her death, six years before his.

She was ten or twelve years younger than he. When she died she was, on the evidence of the paintings, at the very least 45, and when he first painted her she could certainly not have been older than 27. Their daughter, Cornelia, was baptized in 1654. This means that Hendrickje gave birth to their child when she was in her mid-30s.

The Woman in Bed was painted, by my reckoning, a little before or a little after the birth of Cornelia. The historians suggest that it may be a fragment taken from a larger work representing the wedding night of Sarah and Tobias. A biblical subject for Rembrandt was always contemporary. If it is a fragment, it is certain that Rembrandt finished it, and bequeathed it finally to the spectator, as his most intimate painting of the woman he loved.

Rembrandt, <i>A Woman in Bed</i> (c.1645-46). Oil on canvas

Rembrandt, A Woman in Bed (c.1645-46). Oil on canvas

There are other paintings of Hendrickje. Before the Bathsheba in the Louvre or the Woman Bathing in the National Gallery, I am wordless. Not because their genius inhibits me, but because the experience from which they derive and which they express—desire experiencing itself as something as old as the known world, tenderness experiencing itself as the end of the world, the eyes’ endless rediscovery as if for the first time of a familiar body—all this comes before and goes beyond words. No other paintings lead so deftly and powerfully to silence. Yet in both, Hendrickje is absorbed in her own actions. In the painter’s vision of her there is the greatest intimacy, but there is no mutual intimacy between them. They are paintings which speak of his love, not of hers.

In the paintings of the Woman in Bed there is a complicity between the woman and the painter. This complicity includes both reticence and abandon, day and night. The curtain of the bed, which Hendrickje lifts up with her hand, marks the threshold between daytime and nighttime.

In two years, by daylight, Rembrandt will be declared bankrupt. Ten years before by daylight, Hendrickje came to work in Rembrandt’s house as nurse for his baby son. In the light of Dutch 17th-century accountability and Calvinism, the housekeeper and the painter were distinct and separate responsibilities. Hence their reticence.

At night they leave their century.

A necklace hangs loose across her breasts,

And between them lingers—

yet is it a lingering

and not an incessant arrival?—

the perfume of forever.

A perfume as old as sleep,

as familiar to the living as to the dead.

Leaning forward from her pillows, she lifts up the curtain with the back of her hand, for its palm, its face is already welcoming, already making a gesture which is preparatory to the act of touching his head.

She has not yet slept. Her gaze follows him as he approaches. In her face the two of them are reunited. Impossible now to separate the two images: his image of her in bed, as he remembers her; her image of him as she sees him approaching their bed. It is nighttime.

The late Rembrandt self-portraits contain or embody a paradox: they are clearly about old age, yet they address the future. They assume something coming towards them apart from Death.

Twenty years ago in front of one of them in the Frick Collection, I wrote the following lines:

The eyes from the face

two nights look at the day

the universe of his mind

doubled by pity

nothing else can suffice.

Before a mirror

silent as a horseless road

he envisaged us

deaf dumb

returning overland

to look at him

in the dark.

At the same time there is a cheek, an insolence, in the painting which makes me think of a verbal self-portrait in a story I like very much by the American polemicist and fiction writer Andrea Dworkin:

I have no patience with the untorn, anyone who hasn’t weathered rough weather, fallen apart, been ripped to pieces, put herself back together, big stitches, jagged cuts, nothing nice. Then something shines out. But these ones all shined up on the outside, the ass wigglers, I’ll be honest, I don’t like them. Not at all.

Big stitches, jagged cuts. That’s how the paint is put on.

Yet, finally, if we want to get closer to what makes the late self-portraits so exceptional, we have to relate them to the rest of the genre. How and why do they differ from most other painted self-portraits?

The first known self-portrait dates from the second millennium BC. An Egyptian bas-relief which shows the artist in profile drinking from a jar that his patron’s servant is offering him at a feast where there are many other people. Such self-portraits—for the tradition continued until the early Middle Ages—were like artists’ signatures to the crowded scenes being depicted. They were a marginal claim that said: I also was present.

Later, when the subject of St. Luke painting the Virgin Mary became popular, the painter often painted himself in a more central position. Yet he was there because of his act of painting the Virgin: he was not yet there to look into himself.

One of the first self-portraits to do precisely this is Antonello da Messina’s, which is permanently in the National Gallery. This painter (1430–79), who was the first southern painter to use oil paint, had an extraordinary Sicilian clarity and compassion—such as one finds later in artists like Varga, Pirandello, or Lampedusa. In the self-portrait, he looks at himself as if looking at his own judge. There is not a trace of dissimilation.

In most of the self-portraits that were to follow, play-acting or dissimilation was endemic. And there is a phenomenological reason for this. A painter can draw his left hand as if it belonged to somebody else. Using two mirrors he can draw his own profile as if observing a stranger. But when he looks straight into a mirror, he is caught in a trap: his reaction to the face he is seeing changes that face. Or, to put it in another way, that face can offer itself something it likes or loves. The face arranges itself. Caravaggio’s painting of Narcissus is a perfect demonstration.

It is the same for all of us. We play-act when we look in the bathroom mirror, we instantly make an adjustment to our expression and our face. Quite apart from the reversal of the left and right, nobody else ever sees us as we see ourselves above the washbasin. And this dissimilation is spontaneous and uncalculated. It’s as old as the invention of the mirror.

Freed from the double-bind, he was sustained by a vague hope, an intuition, that later it would be others who would look at him with a compassion that he could not allow himself.

Throughout the history of self-portraits a similar “look” occurs again and again. If the face is not hidden in a group, one can recognize a self-portrait a mile off, because of its particular kind of theatricality. We watch Dürer playing Christ, Gauguin playing the outcast, Delacroix the dandy, the young Rembrandt the successful Amsterdam trader. We can be moved as if by overhearing a confession, or amused as by a boast. Yet before most self-portraits, because of the exclusive complicity existing between the eye observing and the returned gaze, we have a sense of something opaque, a sense of watching the drama of a double-bind which excludes us.

True, there are exceptions: self-portraits which do look at us: a Chardin, a Tintoretto, a copy of a Frans Hals self-portrait when he was bankrupt, Turner as a young man, the old Goya as an exile in Bordeaux. Nevertheless, they are few and far between. And so how is it that during the last ten years of his life Rembrandt painted nearly 20 portraits which address us directly?

When you’re trying to do a portrait of somebody else, you look very hard at them, searching to find what is there, trying to trace what has happened to the face. The result (sometimes) may be a kind of likeness, but usually it is a dead one, because the presence of the sitter and the tight focus of observation have inhibited your response. The sitter leaves. And it can then happen that you begin again, referring not anymore to a face in front of you, but to the recollected face which is now inside you. You no longer peer; you shut your eyes. You begin to make a portrait of what the sitter has left behind in your head. And now there is a chance that it will be alive.

Is it possible that Rembrandt did something similar with himself? I believe he used a mirror only at the beginning of each canvas. Then he put a cloth over it, and worked and reworked the canvas until the painting began to correspond to an image of himself which had been left behind after a lifetime. This image was not generalized, it was very specific. Each time he made a portrait he chose what to wear. Each time he was highly aware of how his face, his stance, his appearance had changed. He studied the damage unflinchingly. Yet, at a certain moment, he covered the mirror so that he no longer had to adjust his gaze to his gaze, and then he continued to paint only from what had been left behind inside him. Freed from the double-bind, he was sustained by a vague hope, an intuition, that later it would be others who would look at him with a compassion that he could not allow himself.

The roads are straight, the distance between towns long. The sky is making a new proposition to the earth. I imagine travelling alone between Kalisz and Kielce 150 years ago. Between the two names there would always have been a third—the name of your horse. Your horse’s name the constant between the names of the towns you approach and the towns you leave behind.

I see a sign for Tarnów to the south. At the end of the 19th century Abraham Bredius, the compiler of the first modern catalogue of Rembrandt paintings, discovered a canvas in a castle there.

“When I saw a magnificent four-in-hand passing my hotel and learnt from the porter that it was Count Tarnowski who had become engaged some days before to the ravishing Countess Potocka, who would bring him a considerable dowry, I had little idea that this man was also the fortunate owner of one of the most sublime works by our great master.”

Bredius left the hotel and made a long and difficult journey by train—he complained that for miles the train travelled at a walking pace—to the Count’s castle. There he spotted a canvas of a horse and rider, which he unhesitatingly attributed to Rembrandt, considering it a masterpiece that had been forgotten for a century. It was given the title of The Polish Rider.

Rembrandt, <i>The Polish Rider</i> (c. 1655). Oil on canvas

Rembrandt, The Polish Rider (c. 1655). Oil on canvas

Nobody today knows precisely who or what the painting represented for the painter. The rider’s coat is typically Polish—a kontusz. Likewise the rider’s headgear. This is probably why the painting was bought by a Polish nobleman in Amsterdam, and taken to Poland at the end of the 18th century.

When I first saw the painting in the Frick Collection in New York, where it ended up, I felt it might be a portrait of Rembrandt’s beloved son, Titus. It seemed to me—and it still does—a painting about leaving home.

A more scholarly theory suggests that the painting may have been inspired by a Pole, Jonaz Szlichtyng, who, during Rembrandt’s time in Amsterdam, was something of a rebel-hero in dissident circles. Szlichtyng belonged to a sect that followed the 16th-century Sienese theologian Lebo Sozznisi, who denied that Christ was the son of God—for, if he were, the religion would cease to be monotheistic. If the painting was inspired by Jonaz Szlichtyng it offers an image of a Christlike figure, who is a man, only a man, setting out, mounted on a horse, to meet his destiny.

Do you think you are going fast enough to get away from me? she asks as she draws up beside me at the first traffic light in Kielce.

I notice that she is driving with her shoes kicked off, her bare feet on the pedals.

No question of leaving you behind, I say, straightening my back and putting both feet on the ground.

Then why so fast?

I don’t reply, for she knows the answer.

In speed there is a forgotten tenderness. She had a way, when driving, of lifting her right hand from the steering wheel so that she could see the dials on the dashboard without having to move her head a centimeter. And this small movement of her hand was as neat and precise as that of a great conductor before an orchestra. I loved her surety.

When she was alive I called her Liz, and she called me Met. She liked the nickname Liz because during her life up to that moment it would have been inconceivable that she should answer to such a vulgar abbreviation. “Liz” implied a law had been broken and she adored broken laws.

Met is the name given to a flight navigator in a novel by Saint- Exupéry. Perhaps Vol de Nuit. She was much better read than I, but I was more street-wise, and perhaps this is why she named me after a navigator. The idea of calling me Met came to her while driving through Calabria. Whenever we got out of the car she put on a hat with a wide brim. She detested suntan. Her skin was as pale as the Spanish royal family’s in the time of Velázquez.

I have no patience with the untorn, anyone who hasn’t weathered rough weather, fallen apart, been ripped to pieces, put herself back together, big stitches, jagged cuts, nothing nice.

What brought us together? Superficially it was curiosity—almost everything about us, including our ages, was undisguisedly different. Between us there were many first times. Yet more profoundly, it was an unspoken acknowledgement of the same sadness which brought us together. There was no self-pity. If she had perceived a trace of this in me she would have cauterized it. And I, as I say, loved her surety, which is incompatible with self-pity. A sadness that was like the crazy howl of a dog at the full moon.

For different reasons, the two of us believed that style was indispensable for living with a little hope, and either you lived with hope or in despair. There was no middle way.

Style? A certain lightness. A sense of shame excluding certain actions or reactions. A certain proposition of elegance. The supposition that, despite everything, a melody can be looked for and sometimes found. Style is tenuous, however. It comes from within. You can’t go out and acquire it. Style and fashion may share a dream, but they are created differently. Style is about an invisible promise. This is why it requires and encourages a talent for endurance and an ease with time. Style is very close to music.

We spent evenings listening wordlessly to Bartók, Walton, Britten, Shostakovich, Chopin, Beethoven. Hundreds of evenings. It was the period of 33” records which one had to turn over by hand. And those moments of turning the record over, and slowly lowering the arm with its diamond needle, were moments of a hallucinating plenitude, grateful and expectant, only comparable with the other moments, also wordless, when one of us was on top of the other making love.

So, why the howl? Style comes from within, yet style has to borrow its assurance from another time and then lend it to the present, and the borrower has to leave a pledge with that other time. The passionate present is invariably too short for style. Liz, aristocrat that she was, borrowed from the past, and I borrowed from a revolutionary future.

Our two styles were surprisingly close. I’m not thinking about the accouterments of life or brand names. I’m remembering how we were when walking through a forest drenched by rain, or when arriving at Milan’s central railway station in the small hours of the morning. Very close.

Yet when we looked deeply into one another’s eyes, defying the risks involved in this, of which we were fully aware, both of us came to realize that the times being borrowed from were chimera. This was the sadness. This is what made the dog howl.

The traffic light turns green. I overtake her and she follows. After we’ve left Kielce behind, I give a sign to announce I’m going to stop. We both pull up along the edge of another forest, darker than the last one. Her car window is already down. The very fine hair by her temple, sweeping back behind her ear, is delicately tangled. Delicately because to untangle it with my fingers would require delicacy. Around the glove compartment of the dashboard she has stuck different colored feathers.

Met, she says, there were days on end, you remember, when we got rid of the vulgarity of History. Then after a while, you’d go back, deserting me, again and again. You were addicted.

To what?

You were addicted—she touches several of the feathers with her fingers—you were addicted to the making of history, and you chose to ignore that those who believe they’re making history already have their hands on power, or imagine having their hands on power, and that this power, as sure as the night is long, Met, will confuse them! After a year or so they won’t know what they’re doing. She lets her hand fall onto her thigh.

History has to be endured, she goes on, has to be endured with pride, an absurd pride that is also—God knows why—invincible. In Europe the Poles are the centuries-old specialists in such an endurance. That is why I love them. I’ve loved them since I met pilots from Squadron 303 during the war. I never questioned them, I listened to them. And when they asked me, I danced with them.

A wooden dray loaded down with new timber emerges from the forest. The pair of horses are covered with lather and sweat because the wheels sink deep into the soft earth of the forest track.

The soul of this place has a lot to do with horses, she says, laughing. And you with your famous historical laws, you didn’t know any better than Trotsky how to rub down a horse! Maybe one day—who can tell?—maybe one day you’ll come back into my arms without your famous historical laws.

She makes a gesture such as I cannot describe. She simply adjusts her head, so that I can see her hair and the nape of her neck.

Supposing you had to choose an epitaph? she asks.

If I had to chose an epitaph, I’d choose The Polish Rider, I tell her.

You can’t choose a painting as an epitaph!

I can’t?

It’s wonderful when there’s somebody to pull off your boots for you. “She knows how to get his boots off” is a proverbial Russian compliment. I pull off my own tonight. And, once off, being motorbike boots, they stand apart. They are different, not because they have metal in certain places as a protection, nor because they have an added piece of leather near the toecap so that they resist the wear and tear of flicking the gear pedal up, nor because they have a phosphorescent sign around the calf so that the rider is more visible at night in the headlights of the vehicle behind, but because, pulling them off, I have the feeling of stepping to the side of the many thousands of kilometers we have ridden together, they and I. They could be the seven-league boots that so fascinated me as a child. The boots I wanted to take everywhere with me, for even then I was dreaming of roads, although the road made me shit-scared.

I love the painting of the Polish Rider as a child might, for it is the beginning of a story being told by an old man who has seen many things and never wants to go to bed.

I love the rider as a woman might: his nerve, his insolence, his vulnerability, the strength of his thighs. Liz is right. Many horses course through dreams here.

In 1939 units of Polish cavalry armed with swords charged against the tanks of the invading Panzer divisions. In the 17th century, the “Winged Horsemen” were feared as the avenging angels of the eastern plains. Yet the horse means more than military prowess. Over the centuries Poles have been continually obliged to travel or emigrate. Across their land without natural frontiers the roads never end.

The equestrian habit is still sometimes visible in bodies and the way they move. The gesture of putting the right foot in a stirrup and hoicking the other leg over comes to my mind whilst sitting in a pizza bar in Warsaw watching men and women who have never in their lives mounted or even touched a horse, and who are drinking Pepsi-Cola.

I love the Polish Rider’s horse as a horseman who has lost his mount and has been given another might. The gift horse is a bit long in the tooth—the Poles call such a nag a szkapa—but he’s an animal whose loyalty has been proven.

Finally I love the landscape’s invitation, wherever it may lead.


Excerpted from Portraits: John Berger on Artists (Verso, 2015) icon

  1. W. R. Valentiner, Rembrandt and Spinoza: A Study of the Spiritual Conflicts in Seventeenth-Century Holland (London: Phaidon, 1957).
  2. David Lewis, Mondrian, 1872–1944 (London: Faber, 1957).
Featured image: Rembrandt, Bathsheba with Davids Letter (1654). Oil on canvas