The Artist in the Studio
17th century inspiration
Rembrandt van Rijn was a prolific artist of his time, but even among the greats, he holds the special distinction of possessing an intense focus on self-portraits. Countless articles have been written about Rembrandt’s self-portraits, using the paintings both as a clue into the artistic commercial tastes of the time, as well as seeing the artist’s preferences and tastes for art.
While most experts warn against the “temptation” to analyze the works as autobiographical, autobiography, in terms of the selfie, has now worked its way into society. The other day, having already dug deep in the bowels of YouTube, I stumbled upon a teenage girl’s video compilation of selfies that she had taken for six straight years of her life.
I wondered if Rembrandt himself would be annoyed or amused at the sheer volume of portraits created or at least marvel at the industriousness of over 2,000 seconds spent on such an endeavor. But I think that he would agree, at least in principle, that both are acts of reflection. Indeed, Rembrandt painted his portraits with the aid of a mirror; the girl with the reverse-facing camera of her phone. In creating their art, both made choices of what they wanted to reflect to the world. And likewise, this year has been a heavy year of self-reflection for me. In my gallery featuring works dating circa 2021 (for what is time these days), I have painted myself as an athlete; a guard player; a powerlifter; a hobbyist; a podcaster; a full-time professional that happens to like jiu jitsu; and a judoka, even, on the days that I feel daring. Like Rembrandt, I have placed myself in a variety of scenes and roles: sometimes as the main character, and in others, a mere observer.
I disagree with the art critics that there is nothing autobiographical about Rembrant’s work. The artist gives life to the work, and the work gives life to the artist. This year, I’ve come to realize that the most masterful artists, the most beautiful artists, are the ones who are not separate from the tools and materials that they work with. When you look at the word origins, this makes sense. The prefix auto means “self,” bio means “life,” and graphia means “writing.” (And while Rembrandt worked in images, let’s not forget the old adage that “a picture is worth a thousand words.”) Most, if not all artists, need to give some part of themselves in order to create the art: be it their hands, bodies, thoughts, emotions, and spirits.
“Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter. The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the coloured canvas, reveals himself.”
― Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
In jiu jitsu, as a martial artist, we are also inseparable from our art. When a martial artist finds their way, you can see it in their movements, an intangible tangibility. When a martial artist artist loses their way, you can see it, too. In the way that people speak of jiu jitsu as a form of honesty, we can understand jiu jitsu to be a form of art.
But coming to terms with the idea that as a martial artist, I can never be separate completely from jiu jitsu, is a lifelong journey, and dare I admit, a lifelong struggle. When you are so intimately connected to your art, you cannot hide from yourself — and trust me, I’ve tried to hide from the truth plenty this year.
You cannot ignore the legs when they moan under the weight of a barbell like a water buffalo working the field; or the neck, when it enjoys the slather arnicare and tiger balm with the relish of a rhino wallowing in mud; or the back, when it sends little yelps of annoyance like the yipping of a Chihuahua on a Sunday afternoon. You cannot ignore the days when your body reminds you that you are both the canvas and the creative, and that you’ve been stretched over a frame that’s sometimes a little too wide. You cannot ignore that the impact of mimicking that you are in a washing machine has, or will, do its number on your joints and bones.
In each self-portrait that I have made this year, I’ve revealed a little bit more of myself, to myself, about why I love jiu jitsu. As I encounter more jiu jitsu “occasions,” I’ve started to try to feel within, instead of analyzing what is outside of me.
Rembrandt’s Artist in His Studio features an artist standing before a giant canvas, presumably blank—a piece that some experts interpret as representing the daunting nature of what it is like to be an artist, and the hollow, crushing fear that comes with failure.
But I’m not so sure the canvas is blank. Perhaps, the painting instead is commenting on a greater not-so-secret, secret: that an artist, in order to create, must face themselves fully. Perhaps on the other side of that canvas is not fabric, but instead a mirror, to which we can reflect to ourselves the true lightness of our existence and the beauty that our art can bring.
If you’ve enjoyed this essay, please give it a share. I would love for others to read it.