Rembrandt, self-portrait

Rembrandt was 51 and I was almost 27. It was January of 1970 and I, back-packing through Europe for the first time, stood before his Small Self-Portrait in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. The middle-aged painter’s eyes looked through me with what seemed an uncompromising wisdom of some kind and I, for half an hour, could not move.

I finally walked on to the roomful of Bruegels, the half dozen portraits by Vaelazquez, the Cranachs, the Raphael, and socked away some masterpieces. But I returned to the Rembrandt three or four times. Again and again, the Self-Portrait asked questions that I, more geared to guidebook simplifications than the trials of a distant middle age, hadn’t learned to ask.

To be sure, I vaguely knew that the sequence of Rembrandt’s 100 or more self-portraits in drawing, etching and painting made up one of the most searching autobiographies in art. In 1635, the young painter, ripe with success, raised a glass in the exuberant and cocky Self-Portrait With Saskia and the world was his. But with the painter’s decline in popularity, the death of his wife, bankruptcy, and the wear and tear of aging, his self-portraits, like the 1657 Kunsthistorisches example, became studies of a humble and wounded radiance in surrounding darkness.

Considering the whole of these self-portraits, the course of an artist’s life was, on one level, easy to handle. I had jargon from art courses, psychological clichés to explain suffering artists, perhaps a youthful smugness about the misfortune of others and, most naïve of all, an untested confidence that accurate words could be found to somehow understand, somehow justify, the daily wounds of this world.

Beethoven's grave But maybe it was also Vienna’s fault that her tourists resorted more to popular myth and jargon than to considering the mundane realities of humanity around them. I had really come to the musically richest of cities to visit the apartments and graves of Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and Mozart, not a painting by Rembrandt. I loved their music with all my heart, there was no question, but, like everyone else, for me the music was inseparable from the stories and legends I’d known since a kid and that made music, though abstract, easier to grasp and explain.

At the Pasqualati House, where Beethoven had composed his Fifth Symphony, it wasn’t hard to recall fate pounding at the door in the best-known four notes in music. I had, a few months before, chucked a boring bureaucratic job with the Canadian government and was now working on my first, and somewhat swaggering, book of poetry. Hadn’t Beethoven, before he died, raised an angry fist at the raging storm outside? Such defiance was delicious and inspiring.

Still, a nagging feeling of self-deception would not bow to my tourist’s enthusiastic hunger to see everything, albeit with clichés in hand. In the room where Schubert, at only 31, had died, a sense of helplessness unsettled me and I remembered one morning, in Crete, a month before. The letter from home, read eagerly over Greek coffee, said that Bill, a mentor and friend in his 30s, had died of a heart attack. He’d been young and very smart, a professor of Existentialism, but in the room of Schubert’s last breath I remembered something else, a brief conversation. “I’d like to discuss my essay on Heidegger,” I’d said, “since you’re not doing anything important right now.”

“But I am,” he’d laughed, and continued to water the flowers in his office. Bill was being patient and kind, because life had taught him to help these qualities burn brighter, like a light, in others. But now Bill, like Schubert and Mozart, was dead after only his third decade. I almost then conceded a very crucial truth, that a decent and creative life might suffer or end while all we can do is look on.

And now it was 1996. Rembrandt, still fifty-one, stared at a middle-aged tourist, just turned fifty-three, who had come back to Vienna for the first time in twenty-seven years. The tourist, this time bedded at a comfortable pension in Vienna's Ring, in easier walking distance to all the sights, did a shifting win-and-lose battle with his pot-belly and squinted at the never forgotten Self-Portrait through glasses. His impending jowls echoed the pudginess of Rembrandt.

Tour groups came and went and other tourists, from France and Germany, muttered, annoyed and intrigued, that they couldn't get closer to the Rembrandt. The middle-aged tourist seemed nailed, like a man in front of a mirror, to the spot where he stood. He seemed to be talking, reflecting, answering questions in a whisper, even as the large room emptied and he was alone with the master's painting and no living human.

Jeno Takacs But this was later, for on this trip to Vienna, and out of fear, I suspect, I put off to the end of my visit the Rembrandt Self-Portrait. Once again, I did music first. On my first day, at 10:30 in the morning, I took in a performance of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony and had a chat with composer Jeno Takacs, born in 1902, whose Purcelliana Suite was also on the program.

I enjoyed the feistiness of the 94 year old composer who, when asked once to write a sonata for tuba and piano, had told the musician, "Go to hell, I can't write for such an instrument." But, for some creative need, he did and the work is now one of his most popular. Old age didn't daunt him, it seemed. There was spirit in the man and music, as it expressed that spirit, gave birth to more of it. For the rest of the week, I walked and walked through Vienna with a new energy, a new feeling of inspiration through the creative presence of others.

Beethoven's death mask This feeling of companionship touched me deepest at the Pasqualati House where, leaving Beethoven's piano in one room, I met his life mask in another and stared at his forehead, almost to hear the music inside. His face was like that of a friend I'd known all my life and never really taken time to understand. Then I met Yoko from Tokyo, also hypnotised by the mask, who, with only two hours to catch a plane, had returned to spend a few more minutes where Beethoven had written a few notes, scratched them out, and written a few others, time after time. "I work in a bank," she said, "but I work only so I can make money to come here and be with these composers."

It turned out, though she claimed to be no fanatic, that Yoko had ten versions of Wagner's Ring at home. "You know," she said, "when I visited Schubert Park where Beethoven and Schubert were first buried, I was so touched I started to cry inside. Schubert loved Beethoven so much and now he'd got his wish to be buried beside him." When she left, I heard restless footsteps in the apartment, although I was the only one remaining there. It was Beethoven, I knew that.

At another Beethoven residence -and there are so many in Vienna- I looked upon his death mask; it had been a hard death and the cheeks were collapsed in pain. Indeed, this was the Heiligenstadt residence where Beethoven had composed the famous and unsent letter despairing of his gradual loss of hearing. He had written, "How could I possibly admit weakness of the one sense which should be more perfect in me than in others...?"

I read the document and remembered taking my mother, an avid reader who had recently lost much of her vision, to a performance by Alfred Brendel. It was a recital of the last Beethoven piano sonatas, written when the composer was quite deaf. "What do you hear in the music?" I had asked. Hardly able to detect the pianist's facial features, she had answered, "There's anger and frustration, indignation, defiance, and also tranquility, a refusal to be defeated. He finds solace in his music, he finds peace in it." It was clear that this music spoke Beethoven the man and it also spoke other lives.

Brahms' grave I also returned to the room where Schubert had died, where the custodian, gently trembling with indignation, reminded me that "Schubert had nothing when he was alive, he was very, very poor." With unforced and deep sadness for the man, I listened to Der Leiermann, perhaps the most acutely desolate song in all of music, on the headphones, and wondered that one so young knew such bleakness, knew how to create with it.

Perhaps that is why, at the Central Cemetery where Schubert, Beethoven, and Brahms rested at last in peace beneath gravestones of honour, I found myself speaking to each of them. But as I explained to Brahms why I'd feared the profound melancholy, maybe wisdom, of his music all my life, a woman from Poland quietly knelt in what seemed a grateful prayer at Beethoven's grave. Several hours later, as I left the cemetery and the unending pilgrims, I also passed many widows and children bringing flowers to graves of those they still loved as deeply as humans can love.

Next day I visited Rembrandt. I'd put off the visit as long as I could, and now, two years older than the painter, I faced his demanding gaze once again. "Well?' he asked. "I write books, I work in human development, I teach," I answered. "And?" "My father died last year, and so did two of my dearest friends. Others back home have cancer and they're scrounging for their lives." "And?" "I'm getting old."

Then I was silent. His eyes saw everything and they were looking for more. There was no humiliation in his eyes and also no despair, no giving up, no weariness that wants to die. For a moment I noted the painter's trick, a white highlight on each eye that can change the whole human character of a portrait, but this observation diverted me only briefly. Once again I felt blessed and also accused by Rembrandt's compassion; I felt deeply revealed, but not alone.

Mozart's grave On Friday, I decided to forgo any more galleries, even Belvedere, the Akademie, and especially an exhibition of Van Gogh who also pulled no punches, painterly or human. I once again took in some music, this time a rehearsal of the Vienna Philharmonic doing Mozart and Bruckner, and chatted with concertmaster Werner Hink about great conductors he'd known. "With Bohm, Von Karajan, and Bernstein, I felt I was playing for a series of mountains," he said. That evening, inspired by this musician's delighted laughter, I strolled for several hours through a dream that Vienna, on the evening of a sunny day, can be.

I walked to Figarohaus where Mozart, fated to an anonymous grave, had composed yet another masterpiece and, on the way to an Irish pub, passed a young soldier with machine gun in hand. He was guarding a synagogue from terrorists who, in this city of creative genius, might return to kill again. I once again acknowledged that humans both kill and create; this was more a chilling fact than irony. But later, outside the Kunsthistorisches, I stopped for a moment with my imagination.

I knew that a solitary Rembrandt, inside, was staring from private pain and confusion into the shadows of this world that torment all of us. I now realized he was looking for an elusive light somewhere that Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms would one day write music to find. No doubt, Rembrandt could see this light, or some fragment of it, certainly in a mirror from which he painted his wounded reflection, certainly in himself. I suspected Rembrandt knew, as he worked on this Self-Portrait, that for years to come many others would look into his eyes and, in doing so, ease their own darkness, an unnamable darkness that consumes without a fire.