Article published on June 1, 2016.
Phil Ramage was extremely impressed with Ms Devereux’s debut (See review) and was keen to put his questions to the author.
Phil Ramage: What was it about Rembrandt which made you feel he had the potential to be a central character in your novel and enticed you to write about him? (I changed the question slightly)
Kim Devereux: “Rembrandt handled his money and marketing in the same manner that he led his life and made his art: he was unconventional in every respect.” I read this statement by Paul Crenshaw in his book Rembrandt’s Bankruptcy. It crystalized why I find Rembrandt’s character so fascinating. He keeps surprising me.
I must admit, I admire people who have the courage to be unconventional. It made me want to slip into his skin and to taste the fearlessness which I suspect he largely enjoyed. On a more serious note, I wanted to understand his state of mind when he created works such as The Jewish Bride, The Return of the Prodigal Son and the late self-portraits. Around this time Rembrandt experienced a series of losses and yet he created images that are not only technically innovative and breathtakingly beautiful, but also have an extraordinary power to move us.
Ever since I saw Rembrandt’s Self-portrait at the age of 63 in my early twenties I’ve wanted to know what makes his art touching and captivating, but even after years of study, I still cannot really answer this, except to describe what happens. I see his face looking back at me and I’m looking back at him and then I’m awed by the simplest of things – the drooping skin under his eyes, the wrinkles and the hollowness of his cheek where his teeth have fallen out. All these are harbingers of his mortality and they seem both nullified and embraced by his steady, open gaze. I’m touched that he is interested in his own physical decay, that he’s not hiding it, or skirting over it. I think it takes great courage. But then I think, no, courage implies an effort to overcome something. There was no doubt great effort in getting the composition right, as pentimenti testify. However, when he came to painting his sagging skin, it was a matter of simply painting what he saw.
And when I look at his aging face or any face for that matter. I find it beautiful. I find each wrinkle beautiful.
PR: I notice in your acknowledgements you mention a meeting with Art Historian Ernst Van De Wetering back in 2004. This suggests this novel had a long gestation period. I’m fascinated to find out more about the development of the idea into the novel.
KD: The history of my telling of Rembrandt’s and Hendrickje’s story is in itself a bit of a story. My background is in film and tv and I reworked the idea at least a dozen times both as a documentary and a drama. I got close to the idea being commissioned for tv a number of times and at one point I was asked by a feature film company to write the story as a screen play. I had just completed it when the producer called me and said he had been approached by Peter Greenaway to make a film about Rembrandt (Nightwatching). My project was ‘shelved’. That was the point when I gave up. However, a few years later when I embarked on an MA in creative writing I soon realized that Rembrandt still had not let me go.
PR: I particularly like the way the research has been seamlessly employed in the novel. How did you immerse yourself into the life of seventeenth century Netherlands?
KD: I travelled to Amsterdam on numerous occasions, losing at least one boyfriend in the process. It was billed as a romantic getaway but I spent all my time in the Rembrandt House or the Rijksmuseum, obsessing about Rembrandt in every way known to woman.
I also read as much scholarly literature as I could. I really wanted to get the facts right. I am an art-historian so there is no excuse.
I found Thijs Weststeijn’s book The Visible World very inspiring. It is about Rembrandt’s pupil Samuel van Hoogstraten and it is very evocative of the 17th century Zeitgeist.
The greatest challenge is to get the balance right of having, on the one hand a strong sense of what is considered customary and on the other, portray the attitudes of individuals which might well be diametrically opposed to the behavioural norms of the time.
For example, just because the prevailing Calvinist doctrine is very restrictive and negative about sex, it does not mean that every single person considered sex to be inherently sinful. In every society there are rules about what is acceptable and even in reacting against them characters are still being shaped by them. One of the most exciting things about immersing myself in another time is that it has made me pay more attention to the unspoken rules and assumptions that might be influencing my own thoughts and behaviour in our time.
One surprising fact is that in 17th century Amsterdam it would have been most unusual to have sex in the nude.
PR: Is there one piece of Rembrandt’s artwork that for you best conveys the genius of the artist?
KD: For me it is the drawing he made of Elsje Christiaens’ body. She was the first woman to be executed in Amsterdam in 21 years. She couldn’t pay her rent and got into a quarrel with her landlady, who tumbled down a flight of stairs to her death. After Elsje was executed her body was strung up on a gibbet. Rembrandt was not the only artist to have made a trip to the field of gallows to see her body. Anthonie van Borssom did the same but his depiction is very different. It shows a wide view with a dozen gibbets with Elsje’s body only recognizable by the axe that dangles from the gibbet by her head.
Rembrandt however, draws none of the surroundings, only Elsje’s body. Her arms hang limp. Her feet dangle in the air, high above the ground. He draws her close enough for her to be an individual, her face young and unmarked by life, in the repose of death. As ever, Rembrandt homes in on what makes us human. No-one and nothing is ever objectified. The smallest of seemingly insignificant details are the means by which he reveals fundamental truths.
PR: In your opinion was Rembrandt a good catch?
KD: I think he was a terrible catch – especially if you add up the sensible things you might want in a man. Having said that, if there was a time machine and I could beat Hendrickje too it, I would no doubt succumb to his genius, his unconventionality and above all – his way of seeing. I must have picked up a sense of how he looked at individual women from his paintings and drawings. In Woman Bathing in a Stream, he creates a perfect union of Hendrickje’s sensual body and her presence as an individual and human being. Mostly women in art are either depicted as objects of men’s desire or in a specific role, such as a mother. In his art Rembrandt doesn’t categorize or type cast women. They seem be depicted in their fullness and complexity. There is a sense of liberty and strength about them.
So perhaps he was a good catch after all.
PR: Do you paint and do you think your research for the novel might influence your own artwork?
KD: I painted a little in the past but I it takes a lot of practice to develop the necessary skill. Studying Rembrandt’s art has made me want to draw people and sometimes I notice a tiny detail in a friend’s face which makes me want to peruse their faces as I talk to them.
PR: Your starting point is well on in the story of Rembrandt. He was an established artist, was married to the woman who was probably the love of his life (who dies at the beginning of the novel) and had a son. I was wondering if you were considering a prequel I suppose you’d call it – if you were interested or had considered turning the earlier life of Rembrandt into a novel?
KD: I have not considered it. I am curious about the young Rembrandt because of the power of his art even as a young artist. However, I have never been as interested in his relationship with Saskia as I am in his relationship with Hendrickje.
PR: What’s next for Kim Devereux?
KD: The next novel will be set in the here and now. It is part disaster fiction, part love story and part exploration of this quote by John Milton from Paradise Lost
“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”
Rembrandt’s Mirror – Kim Devereux
Atlantic pbk Jun 2016