Saturday, 12 February 2011
3 Dutch Pictures 2: Rembrandt, 'The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp' (1632)
Rembrandt's 'The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp' (1632) is a striking canvas, partly because it's bigger than reproductions of it might lead you to believe. Big old picture.
It's got something to do with left and right, something to do with making the hidden plain -- which is to say, something (most importantly) to do with inversion. The left arm is the one being dissected. It's striking, indeed, how few living arms the painting contains, given that it is so crowded with human corpuses: apart from Tulp himself, there are four hands (not all of them immediately visible) between seven men. But I think the key to the image is in the book in the bottom right hand corner, from which the Doctor is working, or against an illustration in which he is checking his actual progress. The significant thing about this, I'd say, is that we know woodcuts (such as will be found in the book) work according to a different visual logic than paintings (like the one we are looking at). Paintings reproduce what the artist looks at directly; woodcuts reproduce a mirror-image of what the artist sees. This in turn, I'd suggest, reflects back upon the leftness of the arm. The painting is a study in inversions and reversals: sinister, dexter -- life and death -- inside and outside.