The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt van Rijn (1632) described in The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald and translated by Michael Hulse.
If we stand today before the large canvas of Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson in the Mauritshuis we are standing precisely where those who were present at the dissection in the Waagebouw stood, and we believe that we see what they saw then: in the foreground, the greenish, prone body of Aris Kindt, his neck broken and his chest risen terribly in rigor mortis. And yet it is debatable whether anyone ever really saw that body, since the art of anatomy, then in its infancy, was not least a way of making the reprobate body invisible. It is somehow odd that Dr Tulp’s colleagues are not looking at Kindt’s body, that their gaze is directed just past it to focus on the open anatomical atlas in which the appalling physical facts are reduced to a diagram, a schematic plan of the human being, such as envisaged by the enthusiastic amateur anatomist René Descartes, who was also, so it is said, present that January morning in Waagebouw. In his philosophical investigations, which form one of the principal chapters of the history of subjection, Descartes teaches that one should disregard the flesh, which is beyond our comprehension, and attend to the machine within, to what can fully be understood, be made wholly useful for work, and, in the event of any fault, either repaired or discarded. Though the body is open to contemplation, it is, in a sense, excluded, and in the same way the much-admired verisimilitude of Rembrandt’s picture proves on closer examination to be more apparent than real. Contrary to normal practice, the anatomist shown here has not begun his dissection by opening the abdomen and removing the intestines, which are most prone to putrefaction, bus has started (and this too may imply a punitive dimension to the act) by dissecting the offending hand. Now, this hand is most peculiar. It is not only grotesquely out of proportion compared with the hand closer to us, but it is also anatomically the wrong way round: the exposed tendons, which ought to be those of the left palm, given the position of the thumb, are in fact those of the back of the right hand. On other words, what we are faced with is a transposition taken from the anatomical atlas, evidently without further reflection, that turns this otherwise true-to-life painting (if one may so express it) into a crass misrepresentation at the exact centre point of its meaning, where the incisions are made. It seems inconceivable that we are faced here with an unfortunate blunder. Rather, I believe that there was a deliberate intent behind this flaw in the composition. That unshapely hand signifies the violence that has been done to Aris Kindt. It is with him, the victim, and not the Guild that gave Rembrandt his commission, that the painter identifies. his gaze alone is free of Cartesian rigidity. He alone sees that greenish annihilated body, and he alone sees the shadow in the half-open mouth and other the dead man’s eyes.
This painting has previously appeared:
though the piece copied here is earlier; some of the same points are made about the hand and the averted gaze of the anatomist’s colleagues, though the conclusion is different.
La Mariée by Marc Chagall (1950) discussed in Notting Hill.
[Anna, played by Julia Roberts, is a famous movie star who, though a series of chance encounters, ends up in the Notting Hill home of William, a book seller played by Hugh Grant. She spots a reproduction of the painting on his wall, it later turns out she owns the original.]
Anna: I can’t believe you have that picture on your wall.
William: You like Chagall?
Anna: I do. It feels like how being in love should be. Floating through a dark blue sky.
William: With a goat playing the violin.
Anna: Yes - happiness isn’t happiness without a violin-playing goat.
and still from
Another bride painting is featured at
The green in Annunciation (c. 1472–1475) and The Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci (c. 1474-1478) by Leonardo da Vinci described in The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald, translated by Michael Hulse.
[A friend of the narrator is describing a fabulous fabulous seen in a dream.]
Higher still were clusters of mistletoe, mimosa and lobelia, and cascading down into them from the next level of this luxuriant forest realm, in clouds of snow-white or pink, were hundreds of flowering plants and lianas from branches that reached out like yard arms of great sailing ships, festooned with bromeliads and orchids. And above these, at a height the eye could hardly attain, the tops of palms swayed to and fro, their delicate, feathery, fan-shaped fronds that that unfathomable green which seems underlaid with burnished brass and which Leonardo used for the crowns of his trees, in the Annunciation, for instance, or the portrait of Gineva de Benci.
The Rings of Saturn also appears here:
where an academic in her office is compared to Durer's melancholic angel.
Attirement of the Bride by Max Ernst (1940) described in Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.
[This is from a fictional essay by Daniel Dreiberg, the second Nite Owl; Blood from the Shoulder of Pallas (Journal of the American Ornithological Society, Fall 1983), in which he argues that ornithology should incorporate our visceral and atavistic response to any encounter with birds.]
When we stare into the catatonic black bead of a Parakeet’s eye we must teach ourselves to glimpse the cold, alien madness that Max Ernst perceived when he chose to robe his naked brides in confections of scarlet feather and the transplanted monstrous heads of exotic birds.
The Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin (1889) mentioned in Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys.
[A fictional work of art, a modernist painting of a banjo player, is central to the novel, in one of the many stories that fills the narrative we are told about the hero’s journey to Paris with her new husband, Enno; they visit the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam before traveling to Paris where a waiter has promised to lend the couple money.]
Walking about the streets of Calais with the waiter’s wife. We went to see that statue by Rodin. All the time she was complaining in a thin voice that he never let her have any money for clothes, and that it was her money after all; he hadn’t a sou when she married him.
[The image is from wikipedia, the full statue is pictured in
this is a detail showing Jean d’Aire and is from
Rhys has also been quoted in this entry describing a Modigliani nude:
Melencolia I by Albrecht Dürer (1514) mentioned in The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald and translated by Michael Hulse.
[Sebald is describing his friend Janine’s office; its mass of paper, notes taken as part of her scholarship, a flood of paper filling the room.]
In the end Janine was reduce to working from an easychair drawn more or less into the middle of her room where, if one passed the door, which was always ajar, she could be seen bent almost double scribbling on a pad on her knees or times just lost in thought. Once when I remarked that sitting there amidst her papers she resembled the angel in Dürer’s Melancholia, steadfast among the instruments of destruction. Her response was that the apparent chaos surrounding her represented in reality a perfect kind of order, or an order which which at least tended towards perfection.
Mount’s Bay with St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall by Alfred Wallis (c. 1928-1945) described in The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith
“Is that St Michael’s Mount? Strike asked, pointing to a small picture hanging near the wood-burner. It was a naïve painting on what seemed to be board.
‘An Alfred Wallis,’ said Chard, with another minor glow of enthusiasm.
‘The simplicity of the forms… primitive and naïve. My father knew him. Wallis only took up painting seriously in his seventies. You know Cornwall?’
‘I grew up there,’ said Strike.
But Chard was more interested in talking about Alfred Wallis. He mentioned again that the artist only found his trues métier late in life and embarked on an exposition of the artist’s works.
[Alfred Wallis painted this scene frequently, of the examples in public collections this one, from Leeds, seems the most likely, it is small, 28 X 40 cm, and is on board. However, the author may have been describing a painting in a private collection or she may not have had a specific painting in mind.
The image is from
Another candidate in which the hill is more prominent is
However, though this is also painted on board it is bigger, 43 X 49cm.
Thanks to my Dad for spotting the passage.]
Posters of Aristide Brunet by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1880s), the inspiration for the appearance of Tom Baker as The Fourth Doctor in the Doctor Who television series.
The Fourth Doctor’s costume was inspired by a painting of French artist Tolouse Lautrec. The now legendary scarf was a happy accident - the result of a freelance knitter not realising she didn’t have to use all the wool she had been given.
Guardians of the Secret by Jackson Pollock (1943) described in the film Play It Again, Sam.
[Allan, the Woody Allen character is recently separated, he has two friends who are keen for him to begin dating again and here, in a museum one of them persuades him to approach a woman, played by Diana Davila in one of her few roles.]
Allan: It’s a lovely Jackson Pollock.
Woman: Yes, it is.
Allan: What does it say to you?
Woman: It restates the negativeness of the universe. The hideous, lonely emptiness of existence. Nothingness. The predicament of man forced to live in a barren, godless eternity, like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void with nothing but waste, horror and degradation forming a useless straightjacket in a black absurd cosmos.
Allan: What are you doing Saturday?
Woman: Committing suicide.
Allan: What about Friday night?
[The image is from:
and the stills are taken from:
The Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden by Otto Dix (1926) reenacted during the opening song Willkomen of the film Cabaret.
Animate gif made from: