Art vs. Illustration

Left: Rembrandt, St Bartholomew (1659)

Art is not illustration. We all know that. Illustration simply depicts a verbal story and that alone cannot be art. We call those image-makers “illustrators” because they copy reality or a written story. We should not give them the grander title of a visual poet, “artist.” Arthur Wheelock, a leading expert on Rembrandt, hails the Dutch master as “one of the greatest interpreters of biblical stories” because he transforms “the written word into visually compelling pictorial language, replete with all the text’s nuances of meaning.” That is a description of illustration, not art. Art cannot copy literature: it is a contradiction in terms.

Wheelock, like most viewers, is caught in a trap of his mind’s making and that of his predecessors. In Rembrandt’s portraits of St. Bartholomew, for instance, the saint inappropriately holds the knife with which someone else flayed him and on one occasion [not illustrated] as though he is about to slit his own throat.  That is not “illustration” because it tells the story incorrectly. Yet Wheelock can only imagine that the image is illustration and so rhapsodizes over how “the artist explored the way in which an evocative attribute, the knife, served to amplify his characterization of St. Bartholomew, the emotional manifestations of the apostle’s faith and anticipation of his corporeal fate.”  However poetic those words may sound, they still describe “illustration” and not “art”. If there is any poetry in that description, it is Wheelock’s alone.

The common element of all art (visual, written, aural) is that every creator imagines himself. In the case of St. Bartholomew, Rembrandt has imagined the saint’s knife as his own palette-knife. Indeed in at least one version of the portrait [not illustrated] it glistens like a mirror, a traditional symbol for the reflective mind. The saint in the version above sits like an artist in front of his canvas imagining the image he is about to paint with his palette-knife. He has the frown of an artist's self-portrait, a sign of deep thought. The blade of the knife faces inwards in order to emphasize that the painter “paints” himself while the facture of actual paint, chopped and sliced with a palette-knife, confirms Rembrandt’s own use of the tool. The saint created himself. Rembrandt's story of St. Bartholomew provides a visual metaphor for the excruciatingly painful manner in which true poets must delve inside their own minds and exhaust their bodies in search of inner truth. And that is a description of visual art, not illustration. 

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