Why Is This Man Wearing A Turban?

Portrait_of_a_Man_by_Jan_van_Eyck-small-383x525Teju Cole in New Inquiry:

He is unknown. No name, no profession, no identifying details, but he looks out with the calm sternness of one who knows his place in the world. And because of this calmness, this sternness—the skeptical gaze and tight lips—we suspect it might be an image of the artist himself. Self-portraits of artists often present them with a certain forthrightness, which is necessary because the status of artists is always uncertain—this was true in the 15th century, and it is true now. And so, in their portraits of themselves, artists show confidence, worldliness, and a measure of pride in being artists.

Worldliness: the artist is Jan van Eyck, the portrait was painted in 1433 in Bruges, and it is as much a portrait of a man as it is a portrait of his enormous red turban. Each wrinkle of the cloth, each fold, each soft glimmer of light across the soft weave, is painted with the holy precision Jan van Eyck helped introduce to art. He had abandoned tempera and begun to dissolve his pigments in linseed oil in the 1420s. With that came control and a perfection in painterly mimesis never since matched. An inscription on the frame reads, in pseudo-Greek letters, ALC.IXH.XAN—“as I can,” or “to the best of my ability.” He must have known that his best was the best. The gray-eyed gaze of the man in the painting is a dare. Show me who’s done it better, he seems to say. Didn’t think so, he adds.


I was in Brussels a few weeks ago. At the end of my brief visit, something happened that reminded me, in an oblique way, of the fearlessness of “Man in a Turban.” It was a Thursday, and I had a free evening. My friend F. invited me to join her at the opening of a hip place in a central part of town. Around ten, she sent a text message: “I will be a bit later, feels like a scene from your book; there are riots in Molenbeek, the part of Brussels where I live.”

She eventually arrived, and as we got our beers at the sleek new bar, in which I was the only non-white customer, F. told me about Molenbeek. It is an immigrant neighborhood, mostly Muslim, mostly poor. F., as pale as the women in paintings by Van Eyck and Memling, and her husband, who is also Flemish, chose to raise their family among Moroccan neighbors. There are African blacks in the area too. There are sometimes tensions between the two groups.