It is improbable that more nonsense has been written about aesthetics than about anything else: the literature of the subject is not large enough for that (Clive Bell)


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Saturday, December 22, 2012

Simmel : Individualization and the General

(this is Chapter Two of Georg Simmel's "Rembrandt: An Essay In The Philosophy of Art".
Quoted text is in YELLOW.
Text quoted from other authors is in GREEN)

The human being of the Greek has pride of his beauty and the consciousness to present this beauty to the viewer. As soon as the surface phenomenon with which life as its result presets itself to the outside, becomes the self-sufficient material of artistic design, the decision to direct interest toward the viewer has been made.

This ideal viewer represents a decisive moment of the whole classical style. One only needs to compare an Italian burial with one of Rembrandt’s. In the latter each appearance is completely individual, and one could not name a law of form that would stand evenly above them all. Their unity, however, lies in the fact that each of the figures completely dissolves in the act of the respective emotion. Despite its quite unique appearance, none of the figures seeks to stand there as something like a being for itself. With the Italians, in contrast, all figures have the formal type in common, but it is their special quality that each should be beautiful for itself. Losing oneself in the process as well in emotion transcending mere existence finds its limit within the intrinsic aesthetic value, and in the emphasis on the individual, which, as it were, is never forgotten and which spiritually always remains separated from that which individuals feel, and from their self-classification.

Each participant in Raphael’s The Entombment, for example, is not only there for the event but also, as themselves, for the viewer. Thereby, however, he is at the same time confronted by the viewer as someone who is worth viewing, who demands recognition, who takes pride in himself. Being confronted with someone and being-for-oneself belong together.

In contrast, Rembrandt’s figures never think of the viewer, and precisely, therefore, do not think of themselves. The proportion of self-assertion and self-denial, which somehow determines each human existence, stands in the case of these figures between atypical individuality and the dedication to the events and inner reactions thereto; while in the Italian work those elements stand in the design, on the one hand, within the common style of a general law that requires a viewer, and, on the other hand, in a proud representation of individual self-awareness and self-control. Clearly, though, the latter design of those basic proportions is endowed with a certain grace and refinement that is lacking in Rembrandt’s figures. It is not as if they display the opposite of these qualities in any sort of positive sense. They are simply completely untouched by the whole polarity of refinement and lack of refinement.

I still don't agree that "the portrait figures of the Renaissance always appear to be somehow typical, while Rembrandt's give the impression of individual uniqueness." But I do feel as Simmel does about the figures in these two paintings. He doesn't credit these observations to anyone else -- but then, he doesn't credit any of his observations to other pundits.

Raphael's 'Entombment' feels like a collection of look-at-me cameos of beautiful people - which makes sense for an altarpiece in a princely family chapel, commemorating a murdered kinsman. While Rembrandt's folk are enveloped by the sacred drama of their situation.

And Raphael's piece feels like a decorative tapestry meant to enhance the stately room in which it is hung --- while Rembrandt's feels like a profound, imaginary special world that one is invited to enter.

Is self-regard in the presence of a viewer a characteristic that distinguishes the Italian from the Germanic peoples, as Simmel suggests ?

It seems absent from Durer's "Feast of Rose Garlands"

While it seems present in "Miss Harriet Clements" (1805) by Thomas Lawrence.

Perhaps that's the effect that the recently acquired Elgin marbles had on the English personality.

The portraits of Frans Hals in which the represented person is almost always in a relationship to a third person who is not depicted have a quite different meaning again. This is because this third person stands completely in the ideal space of the picture. Therefore, one has associated the special talent of Hals for group portraits precisely with this feature, just as if only the otherwise invisible correlate of an individual is made visible in them. Indeed, the ideal viewer in classical-Romanesque art is not the living individual standing in front of it — because to involve the viewer always means a sort of coquetry with him that constitutes one of the crudest, inartistic effects — but in turn stands in a totally separate transcendental stratum: the figure not an individual within the work of art, as in Hals, nor an individual outside the work of art, as in the latter case, but an absolute universal related to that “idea” of the depicted person of which both its empirical reality and artistic representation are specific forms.

I like that effect of having other unseen people in the pictorial space which the portrait inhabits. It diminishes the presence of the viewer, making the viewer's interaction more casual.

But how can one tell whether those handsome boys in the Elgin marbles are posing for the sake of some "absolute universal" or flirting for the eyes of the viewer ? Perhaps they stopped flirting when they left Greece and took up residence in the British Museum.

For the next several pages Simmel pursues a philosophy of "individualization and the general" as it relates to the following assertion:

Rembrandt made clear that out of the innermost life of a person appearance can be developed into a convincingly necessary form that in no way borrows this development from a general law. The form is, moreover, so completely identical with this individuality that its repetition in another individuality may well be possible by chance, but makes no sense as a general principle.

And yet... Rembrandt's portraits are distinctly identifiable as his (or his school, as if some general law had been applied to the depiction - or, as if the "innermost life" behind the appearance was his own.

Simmel eventually returns to painting as follows:

With many Italian portraits one gets the impression that death would come to these people in the form of a dagger thrust. With Rembrandt’s portraits it is as if death were the steady further development of this flowing totality of life — like the current with which it flows into the sea, and not through violation by some new factor but only following its natural course from the beginning. Rubens’s figures have seemingly a much fuller, less inhibited, more elementally powerful life than do those of Rembrandt, but at the cost of representing precisely that abstraction out of life that one gains if one leaves death out of life. Rembrandt’s figures have the half-light, the muteness, the questioning into the darkness; exactly that which in its clearest, finally, absolutely dominating appearance is called death, and which, regarded superficially, precisely to that extent appears to contain less life. In reality; they contain precisely thereby the whole life.

It certainly is fun to compare the flesh of Rubens with that of Rembrandt. Antwerp is only 82 miles from Amsterdam, and they were born about 29 years apart, but their flesh is worlds apart. Rubens' is so youthful, light, and airy, while Rembrandt's knows the weight of the world.

Simmel feels that the presence of death is the difference. That works for me -- but shouldn't that lead into a discussion of the schism in Christianity that separated the two and defined the European history of that period ?

If one looks carefully at the Dresden self-portrait with Saskia, his unadulterated joy of life appears a little artificial, as if it came momentarily to the surface of his nature, whose depth, however, is malformed by grave, inescapable fates reaching from afar. This becomes almost frighteningly clear when, by way of comparison, we look at the laughing self-portrait of the Carstanjen collection (of thirty- four years later). Here, the laughing is unmistakably something purely momentary having, so to speak, come about as a coincidental combination of life-elements, each one of which is quite differently tuned. The whole is as if infused by, and oriented toward, death. And yet, between them exists a quite uncanny similarity: the grin of the old man appears only as the further development of that youthful joy and as if the element of death in life, which in this joy had withdrawn itself into the deepest, most invisible, strata, has now been driven up to the surface.

One comment on the Saskia self portrait suggested that it mocked the artist's inlaws by showing him living it up on the income that he had taken them to court to provide. And Saskia does not seem to share that "artificial" joviality that Simmel noted. The disparity between their social and economic status pretty much wrecked the artist's personal life after Saskia died and left a will that kept him from remarrying.

Regarding the laughing self portrait, the presence of death is credible since it was done a year before the artist's death, and was the last self portrait he would ever paint.

But I sure don't see any death in the painting.

It looks, to me, like a stooping, merry old wino, chuckling to himself for reasons that I possibly could not comprehend even if he told me.

Though, up close, the powerful, tumultuous surface gives me a feeling of bemusement at a full life, difficult but well lived.

And he doesn't look all that healthy.

Skimming over the pages where Simmel takes the opportunity for more philosophy concerning life and death, we next find some artists mentioned below:

Our life course — its activity as well as its passivity seems to us to be determined by the mutual workings of this invariable factor of our quality of being in interaction with peripheral or external events. The direction of the art of portraiture, culminating in Titian, continued by the portrait busts of Bernini and Houdon, and taken up again especially by Lenbach, seeks to read this “character:’ this subjective a priori of the life course, from the total appearance, and to make this into the actual object of representation.

Lenbach ? I confess this name was unfamiliar to me (as well as to the Google Art Project), but Franz von Lenbach (1836 – 1904)did portraits of the leading Germans of his day - including several of Otto Von Bismarck, one of which is shown above.

Here's two portraits he did of Richard Wagner.

In these three pieces, Lenbach seems to be a real dramatist. The people he represents are actors striking a pose -- not just to show them as members of a certain class, but as participants in a stirring narrative. I don't think the same could be said about the portraiture of the other artists Simmel mentioned.

An Italian art historian of the seventeenth century praises the practice of important artists of particularly highlighting one specific trait of the character of the portrayed persons, as Titian did with Ariost the Facundia. For Rembrandt, however, this solid, continuous, relatively atemporal feature of the personality is dissolved into the flow of its total fates. The multiplicity of life, for whose development its whole temporal extension is required, is not for him divided up into that solid and the relatively random element of mere, more-or-less exterior, “fates.” Rather, even were one to describe it as a succession of fates, psychological twists and experiences, life transforms itself at each moment, but remains at all times a unity in which character and history are not internally divided (as Goethe puts it: "The history of the human being is his character")...... Titian draws the more characterlogical foundation of the whole life; Rembrandt more its culmination.

Would we still think of this fellow as 'facundia' (eloquent) if we didn't identify him as Ludovico Ariosto (who is no longer, by the way, thought to be the subject) ?

As I shall have to mention elsewhere, in this regard The Staalmeesters displays a slight deviation from the other portraits of his late period. If Rembrandt, as it seems to me, wanted to bring forth here a more strictly portrayed similarity than elsewhere, then this could be the reason for the impression of the somehow more descriptive characters that they create. For where similarity is to a degree sought from the outside — that is, has a touch of the mechanical about it — one does not penetrate down into the stratum of ultimate individuality but only to that where something common and comparable with others still exists; in brief, to that possibility of conceptual expression that adheres to the human being that is grasped as “character.” The traditional “humors” are indeed nothing other than such fixed characters in a stratum of very high generality, and are therefore very clearly denotable. Because, however, a quite different structure is thereby given than that of the vitality grasped from within — that is, in the unity of the real individuality — as a consequence the figuration in accordance with the latter (if one wishes to express it in character categories) always appears to be composed out of manifold characters. Thus, it has been said of the humors as applied to Hamlet that the melancholic Hamlet fumes cholerically at his phlegmatic nature, and bursts out into sanguine pleasure at the successful ruse. It is evident that it is impossible to approach the real individual as such (in the way Rembrandt and Shakespeare form it out of its innermost singular focus) with such describable, comparatively exterior, characteristic features; as if one sought to draw a curve out of nothing other than straight lines added to one another.

I wish I could have asked Simmel to identify the variety of humors in these faces, because I have no idea who is sanguine and who is phlegmatic.

This is one of those pieces that seems to me to do little more than raise some cash from the paying customers who posed for it.

Though in detail, each of these heads is truly wonderful - expressive and full of life.

And they seem less contemplative than the solo portraits - befitting this social situation of sitting at a table together.

I fear that if I owned this painting, and if it were not recognized as a treasure of world culture, I would cut it up so that one portrait would not interfere with another in the delectation of each.

By the way that Rembrandt would display his models as “character- less” is in need of no defense, because being characterless would be, in the quite general sense at issue here, a very distinctive characteristic of the person. It is only relevant here that Rembrandt does not emphasize separately or especially that abstract entity taken away from the movement of life that we call the character. It may be correct that this abstraction in a way points to the iron background of subjectivity — to the element that keeps its unchangeable effect throughout all the toing and froing of total existence. More powerful, however, seems to me Rembrandt’s undertaking to display precisely this total existence; the “fate” in the undifferentiated form of its changeable and unchangeable elements, at the appearance formed by fate that is now not simply the symbol of the eternal equality of this individuality. If one seeks to take account of all elements in their singularity, so the probability that they will not coincide at the same point of being, and thus their individuality, increases in proportion to the immeasurable multiplications that determine appearance.

Simmel never refers to painterly devices or compositional elements -- and since he's neither an art historian or a visual artist, perhaps that's appropriate. But without that kind of discussion, how can he distinguish Rembrandt's display of 'total existance' and individuality from the nearly infinite catalog of detail available in a high resolution photograph.

... like an original print of this one, for example.

Even in the diminished condition of this jpg, can it be anybody other than Winston Churchill ?


Beauty and Perfection

Is beauty a "frame or schema into which a human being is put" ? This "classical ideal of form" would not contradict "the peculiar fact that of all the great values with which our mind gives meaning to existence, only beauty realizes itself also in the nonliving"

Or.. does beauty develop from the "innermost source of human nature in the course of life"? This conception recognizes that"Where the specific quality of life seeks its immediate expression, as with Rembrandt, there is something too broad, something that reaches too far beyond life as such, to bind the object to it.

I have two problems with this development.

First, Simmel does not query whether these two conceptions must be mutually exclusive.

Obviously, a beautiful rainbow or waterfall did not arise from an innermost source of human nature. But perhaps that is the source of our recognition of their beauty.

And we hardly recognize as beautiful everything that has arisen from such sources. Even if it were intended to be so recognized, very little of what people make is widely celebrated as beautiful.

And then, there's the problem of "we - our - us".

Simmel avoids declarations of subjectivity. He never says something like "*I* think this painting by Rembrandt is beautiful because....."

He doesn't want to speak only for himself -- he wants to speak for *us* - which is presumably the community of well educated, sensible people.

But he doesn't quote anybody else, either -- so it's as if all these ideas that he presents are his own.

Perhaps he assumes that his well educated audience will be familiar with his sources.

But since he neither presents those sources (so that we might study their original context) or present himself as an authority, his statements do not lend themselves to further study.

Jeremiah, detail, 1630

no one will fail to recognize in Rembrandt’s pictures a pleasure (of course varying considerably according to epoch) at the colored appearance as such. His passion for the beauty of beautiful things — for arms and jewelry, for old fabrics with their dull and their glowing colors, for the sensuously exciting exotic curiosities — also demands from the picture surface, as a symphony of colors, a beauty that is indifferent toward all “meaning:’ toward all meaning of the objects expressed by it. Here, a pure artistry asserts itself, independent of the central or total value of the work. Here he seeks the beauty gliding above the abysses, totally absorbed in the phenomenon.

Philosophers should be locked out of art galleries until they sign a pledge not to separate the meaningful from the sensual.

'Jewish Bride' - detail,1665-69

In the first place, however, it seems as if, with advancing age and growing intensification, this direction has lost its way — at most living on in the form of changing, technical artistic special problems, and finally dissolving into the vibrant life of total representation, rejecting all singular quality and without leaving a trace in pictures like the Jewish Bride and the Family Group (in Braunschweig). In Saul and David (in the Haag), though only a little earlier, these elements display a certain dualism. Here effervescence and an exhilaration of fabrics and colors is, so to speak, a eudaemonistic beauty and purely artistic perfection that appears to be sought for its own sake. And with it there is now a deepest inner shock — a naked breaking through of the innermost life from which all that splendor is flooding and in front of which it fades. Regarded merely in terms of principle, the conflict is thereby given that rendered Michelangelo’s life asunder: the fact that the passion for sensuous beauty in being and the pervasiveness of life’s inner and transcendent values, which in the last instance rescue or destroy life, leave each other untouched — yes, that the way toward that which appears beautiful diverts from and paralyzes the other (namely, that path leading toward the soul and its decision).

Family Group, 1668

below: Jewish Bride 1665 (detail),
above: Man with Gold Chain 1631

The above details would seem to exemplify the reverse - i.e. a sensuality for the rich things in life, undiminished after 35 years of painting.

Saul and David, 1655

Regarding the above, the "effervescence and an exhilaration of fabrics and colors" seems to contribute, rather than stand apart from whatever "transcendent values" I would associate with this painting of the sentimentality of age versus the fire of youth. Age has the power of riches - youth has the power of hope. I don't think we're waiting for either of these two souls to make a decision.

Beauty, in the unity of its form across which the stream of life as such ebbs away, apparently stands in relationship to that which one calls the perfection of the work of art. For aside from its quite general meaning, in which it describes only a rank without any characteristic qualification, it also has a more specific meaning — one in which certain highest works of art nevertheless do not partake.

......there exists a perfection in works of art with which it does not achieve the deepest impression of empathic experience and appropriation. Perhaps some of the Greek works of the so-called zenith for us correspond to this aspect; perhaps, too, some of the High Renaissance works such that this is the reason why our times now and then display a certain reserve — yes, aversion — toward these undoubtedly “perfect” art objects.

If only Simmel had offered even one example of an ancient or High Renaissance artwork that was perfect "in the unity of its form" but did not "achieve the deepest impression of empathic experience and appropriation"

Can't such pieces be found in every period of every culture - including the school of Rembrandt ?

And if a piece as a whole displeases us - do we still want to say that it has achieved perfection?

Titian,"Venus with Organ Player", 1550 (detail)

Rembrandt’s style of painting, while it may be puzzling and inimitable in technical respects, nevertheless creates the illusion that one could follow the movement of his hand, the single strokes, how the work, in all its supra-subjectivity and unity, grows together, as it were, out of the inner artistic impulses or even imponderables. In contrast, even with Titian, the last trace of the work’s coming into being disappears; is completely absorbed into the formality of its representation. The perfect works, in the above sense, lack a moment that, however unconscious it may be, seems to be necessary for the deepest human shock created by a human work, namely, the possibility of failure

If 'perfection' is achieved by sharply defining forms or "self contained smoothness", I don't think either the middle or late periods of Titian's career would qualify as well as the first decade of Rembrandt's.

the whole depth, power of impression, connectedness toward which Rembrandt develops the human being (here his religious pictures especially come to mind) does not drive this development toward that form we call beauty. Beauty, in our common conception of the word, is simply in no way a completely abstract concept, realizable in each mode of conception of human appearances. But with their beauty we understand, quite continuously, classical design. And all other types of beauty that we characterize with embellishments like “interesting,”“piquant,”“demonic,” and the like, are marginal phenomena and mixtures containing other directions of meaning. ..... Therefore, beauty cannot be Rembrandt’s ultimate intention: for him the point of individuality is decisive for the human phenomenon, and he develops this out of the flowing liveliness of the whole personality. It is as though beauty (which is valid for sculptural passive viewing) had to appear therefore, as it were, as an abstraction, in a sense that in no way means a judgment of value, but rather a judgment of being.

Simmel doesn't mention Immanuel Kant in this chapter, but as a European philosopher, his discussion of Beauty must respond to Kant's "Critique of Judgment". So he sets Rembrandt apart from that kind of beautiful which is "a question merely of the form" (CJ 13).


The Individuality of the Renaissance and of Rembrandt

in Rembrandt’s last period, from time to time this connection between life and individualism appears to be suspended. Life now is no longer directed through the strongly individualized movement of a soul, but spreads beyond the singular being as such toward a vibrancy that completely overwhelms all limitations of this particular human life (even those of the psychological interior), or it withdraws into such dark depths that the exterior appears stiff, impersonal, or masklike. If one compares the Titus in the Youssoupoff Palace with The Staalmeesters (with which it is undoubtedly continuous), so one sees attained therein a further stage developed beyond that which one is inclined to call individualization; a stage in which, of course, the peculiarity of Rembrandt’s individualization perhaps first attains perfection. One might think on Goethe’s remark that everything that is perfect of its type transcends its type. In The Staalmeesters it becomes apparent how much singular character there is in Rembrandt’s figures, while they of course remain utterly Rembrandtian, but nevertheless reminiscent of the classical principle. One can still say “this one is proud,”“that one rustic,” the “third of superior intelligence’ and so on however little such typological concepts dominate the representation for Rembrandt. In Titus, this falls away completely: everything is flowing, vibrant life with no conceptually fixed, specifiable point therein.

I assume that the Titus now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum was once seen in the Yusupof collection -- so that's the one I pasted up next to one of the Staalmeesters.

With those shadows across his face, Titus is certainly a different kind of portrait - and perhaps was not intended to be a portrait at all so much as an experiment in lighting.

For the painter, however, who has only the dead juxtaposition of paint spots at his disposal, bringing the features into that interaction and combination through which it alone represents the unity of the person and its condition turns out to be a problem of considerable magnitude. What we feel as the “inner necessity” of a portrait is nothing other than this unconditioned connection that allows a valid conclusion to be drawn from the mutual interrelation between each feature of the appearance; this, of course, perhaps only on the basis of an integrating unity of the sum of the features. That this appears to decisively varying degrees is not merely the result of differing levels of skill, but also of stylistically different intentions.

Palma Vecchio (?) 'Self Portrait' (?)

Botticelli: Portrait of Giuliano De' Medici

There are a number of Italian portraits in which a certain self-sufficient being—for—itself of the individual facial parts is unmistakable. Quite remarkable examples here are the Giorgione portrait in Berlin, the Palma Vecchio self- portrait in Munich,and Botticelli’s Giuliano de’ Medici in Bergamo. These master portraits nevertheless reach a complete unity of impression of the corporal-inner personality in that each, in this way individualized, feature of the face presents the same expression as every other.


It seems to me to be easiest to establish this in the case of the Giorgione portrait mentioned above. I at least do not know of any other portrait head in which the mouth and the forehead, the eye and the nose, each for itself evinces so clearly the same character, even if this is not translatable into words.

The basic prerequisite for this is naturally still that functional correlation of elements. Only on its basis does the individual form and self-accentuation of each feature become perceptible. However little one of two principles can dominate alone (on the one hand equality of expression of the single features that are treated like autonomous individualities, on the other hand cooperation of totally dependent features into a unity of expression emerging only out of their common relation), they nevertheless still signify different basic tendencies, and each portrait finds its definitive place on the scale in the proportion in which these principles are mixed.

At the one end [of the scale] stand those Italian portraits, at the other end stand, most definitely, Rembrandt’s late portraits (Velasquez’s Pope Innocent X is perhaps a good example of a midpoint appearance). In the late portraits, the unity of the individual life as a whole is so dominating that it completely absorbs the individuality of the separately formed features. Instead of the, so to speak, substantial character that consists of the homogeneity of the expression of individually formed parts, has been attained a pure functional unity within which each part no longer possesses special meaning, boundedness, comparability of its characteristics with those of any other part.


I don't want to look at a painting (or part of a painting) unless "the unity of the individual life as a whole is so dominating that it completely absorbs the individuality of the separately formed features" , and all of the paintings shown above appear to qualify (though the reproduction of the Palma Vecchio is too poor to get a good feel for it )

And the facial details of the late Rembrandt shown above seem as dedicated to the same personality as the detail areas in the Botticelli or the Giorgione.

So while I appreciate Simmel for raising this topic, I can hardly agree with his conclusions, which he then summarizes as follows:

There seems to be a kind of formal law: to the extent that a construct as a whole has a strong, unified individual life, its parts forfeit their individual emphasis, and likewise their evenness of form. As soon as both latter moments decisively emerge, the object will have more of a mechanistic character that, where we are dealing with works of art, can only be overcome by the ingenious vitality of the creator. Otherwise, however, one will observe in ornaments, as in state constitutions, religious communities, and phases of personal existences, that typical association, namely, that the strength and vital unity of the whole stands in a relation of inverse proportion to degree of individual differentiation, and to the formal or inner equality of the parts.

Simmel has created an escape hatch from his 'formal law' of paintings : the "ingenious vitality of it creator"

But who cares about painting that does not exhibit ingenious vitality? Has anyone ever published a book titled something like "Mediocre Art of the Renaissance" ? (BTW that phrase does not get even ONE hit on Google)

Simmel's 'formal law' only applies to mediocrity, as found in art works as well as ornaments, religious communities, and phases of personal existence.

Which is a nice way of saying that art works exemplify vitality, for better or worse, in our personal and social lives.


The Art of Old Age

As I have indicated, the turn in the depiction of individuality that took place in his last period is clearly connected with the condition of the art of old age, [and] not merely that of Rembrandt. “Old age’ says Goethe, “is the step-by-step withdrawal from appearance.” The older we get, the more the multicolored experiences, sensations, and fates that populate our path through the world mutually paralyze themselves, as it were. All this forms our “appearance” in the widest sense in which each line is a result of our actual self and of the things and events around us. As I have said, in that the latter balance their antagonism through their increasing abundance, such that nothing singular any longer becomes a decisive impression, a dominating power over our life, the more the subjective element of our being emerges precisely because it steps back from appearance — that is, emerges out of its entwinement with the world.

Actually.... I've been noticing this lately about myself (I'm currently a year older than Rembrandt when he died)

When I look at them, things just don't grab and hold me as much as they used to. I'm less "out there" and more "in here" -- even as I'm looking outward more than ever.

Donatello, age 61-69, The Penitent Magdalene

Regarding older artists, Simmel writes:

we do not find here an artistry that realizes itself through constriction from the living totality of the human being. Rather, what is decisive is the organic synthesis that can be expressed simultaneously from two sides: that his whole and ultimate nature is completely absorbed in his artistry, or that his artistry has transformed itself completely into the subjectivity of his life. We feel this unity in the late works of Donatello, and in those of Titian, of Frans Hals and Rembrandt, of Goethe and Beethoven.

Titian, age 82-87, 'Nymph and Satyr'

Frans Hals, age 82-88, portrait of Willem Croes

Do these later works exemplify "organic synthesis" or diminished powers ?

I find no diminished power in the late works of Rembrandt, Donatello, or Beethoven -- but then these later works were done by men in their fifties and sixties.

But it's tough not to grow weaker past age 80, even if you're a giant like Titian and Hals.


The Aspatial Gaze

That flooding of life’s represented totality over all that is determinate is exemplified and symbolized at another specific point that can be demonstrated most clearly in the very late pictures, but frequently also in the earlier ones. Its interpretation demands a somewhat wider context. If one observes exactly the difference between the gaze of deep and significant persons and that of shallow and insignificant ones, then the former appear to look not only at the object (which they may fix sharply and attentively), but yet further beyond it, not further in the linear sense but somehow into the trans-local, to some place that cannot be limited that, however, does not have a spatial meaning.

In the case of people of a more limited life, the gaze fixes exclusively upon the object that they are looking, at any given moment. For the energy flowing out of the gaze, the object represents a doorless wall. The gaze is simply reflected back. With that of others, it is as if the living power of the gaze would not find its place in the direction determined by the object, indeed in no “direction” at all, but proclaim merely an essentially aspatial [raumlos] intensity, not attachable to a particular thing. The corresponding [phenomenon] can be found in certain gestures within art, and perhaps these make it most apparent what is peculiar to that sort of gaze. St. John [the Evangelist] in Grunewald’s Crucifixion and many Buddha figures, the figure with the arm stretched high in Rodin’s Burghers of Calais and the central figure in Hodler’s Day

In the three examples that Simmel has chosen, it does not appear that the characters are looking at anything at all - so there is nothing for them to look "yet further beyond it". They are not looking out - they are looking within.

A better example might be John the Baptist on the other side of the Isenheim altarpiece.

The Baptist seems to looking (and pointing) at the contorted figure of Christ on the cross - but he is also looking at the significance which lies beyond it, as if he were a teacher presenting a display to his class.

Those gestures, however, do not merely run their course in something spatially and objectively indeterminate, they also originate from the latter. They are not enticed by this or that purpose or feeling, but borne by the movement of life as a whole.

This is where Simmel and I are on the same page, as lovers of various religious art from around the world.

We respond not specifically to Jesus or Buddha or Apollo - but to "the movement of life as a whole"

And although a professional art historian might also feel that way -- he might also feel that it was not professional to engage art outside of historical context.

The gesture of the hand of Rembrandt’s Homer, even though he is supposedly scanning verses with it, seems to me to belong to this class. This peculiar situation of a specifiable direction surrounded by a purely immanent stream of life (that can only be externally characterized via its negation) amounts to the same thing as looking in those ways. And this is unmistakably displayed in certain Rembrandt portraits.

It is already discernible in the Portrait of a Preacher’ in the Carstanjen collection,

in The Portrait of Nicolas Bruyningh, many Titus pictures, and in the self-portraits. The looks may each fix on one point, but at the same time they see something that cannot be fixed.

What is meant here is something other than the gaze of the Christ child of the Sistine Madonna° that is likewise not directed toward a given object because it is directed into the infinite, but not toward the nonspatial. The former, in comparison, fixes something finite, and at the same time has a purely interior quality that is just as little oriented towards its outside as is — according to its ultimate meaning — Rembrandt’s religiosity, or, just as little as his light comes from somewhere other than the picture itself (on which more later) which means an immanent transcendence.

It does appear that the gaze of Raphael's infant is quite different from the adult gazes in the Rembrandt portraits - but it seems a bit arbitrary to call it 'infinite'

I've never thought much about the variety of gazes that artists have portrayed. I do seem to prefer what Simmel has called the 'nonspatial' as it suggests that something profound and mysterious lies beyond the scene being portrayed.

The gazes in the portrait of Cornelius Claesz Anslo and his Wife seem to be so wonderfully composed. I really feel the drama of that moment of proselytizing with the enthusiastic preacher and his attentive audience of one.

I hope that Simmel eventually gets around to discussing Rembrandt's remarkable composition of psychological drama.

I wonder how Simmel would have characterized the other gazes depicted in the Sistine Madonna.


In Rubens it is especially noticeable how often he keeps the eyes in a flat generality. The Baroque did not have a sense of the eye's depth-dimension that becomes absolute, as it were, with that aspatial gaze of Rembrandt's figures.

Here's some more of Rubens' eyes pulled off the Google Art Project.

Sometimes I see a 'flat generality' in these eyes of Rubens - sometimes I don't, as with the example shown just above (Meleager and Atalanta, 1635). But it may be necessary to see the actual painting so one can look back and forth from the details of the face to the design of the painting as a whole.



With respect to the above context, is it now possible to speak of the “mood” in the appearance presented by Rembrandt, because mood is something interior, personal, perhaps something individual for each, which has nevertheless extinguished all particularity of contents, of conception, such that the pictures with several figures even more clearly characterize this late development. Because now those perceptible qualities of life that are no longer differentiated mix, within them individualization once more gains a higher form dissolving its earlier clarity as though into a floating layer of air. In The Jewish Bride, the figures are like the tones of the chord that are clearly not external to the individual tones but they are merged in the chord into a construct that cannot be displayed pro rata in each separate tone. A tender, so to speak, motionless, life contained in each of the two figures nevertheless continuously extends into a shared atmosphere wafting around them. A higher unity has absorbed the being-for-themselves of the individuals whose singularity falls away in the face of this unity, which yet nourishes it with the ultimate generality of their life.

------- The Staalmeesters still displays a movement adhering to the moment of the individual figures. In The Jewish Bride, however, the gestures of the man and the woman are of a completely different character, although they are, viewed externally, merely transitory. How the man leans toward the woman and embraces her, how her hand touches his — at once encouraging and calming — this is not a transitory movement. At the same time, it is not a typical gesture that, as in classical art, would indicate something general beyond these personalities. It belongs entirely to the individual, but it forms itself initially in that stratum in which the life of the individual arises like a homogenous sphere from the appearance, dissolving all determinations tied to singularities. Now, here this life encloses two related figures and achieves its zenith, even over the earlier forms of Rembrandtian individualization all the more impressively as it fused them, in a way that is logically inexpressible, into a shared life without abandoning its source in each separate figure.

But what are the couple staring at ? Not at each other -- and not at the same thing -- and not, apparently, at any thing -- but just off into empty space with a kind of resignation as if they were each, independently, contemplating mortality. Did they just lose a child ? They each seem lost in the lonely distance -- even if they are affectionately touching each other.

I feel more joy in the Staalmeesters' board room, where at least these businessmen seem vivacious and busy.

But again - the mood that one gets from a screen size reproduction might be completely different from the mood created by the presence of the actual painting.


Human Fate and the Heraclitean Cosmos

That in Rembrandt it is the individualized and successive stream of life that uniquely bears the specific impression of his portraits clearly means a certain limitation of his conception of the human being that, for instance, contrasts sharply with two types of style: that of Michelangelo, and that of Rodin.

In Michelangelo, the classical type grasps the totality of life in a unique way, whereby the concept of life is not understood as the historical sequence of becoming of an individual existence, but has humankind as its subject and as its content; all that which one could call — in the broadest inner and exterior sense — fate.

Could not the same be said of the portrait of Augustus at the Met and the figures on the portal of Reims Cathedral?

Certainly, the physiognomies of Michelangelo’s figures have the classical general character, which is nowhere personally accentuated. The whole figure, in all its formal unity, tranquility, even gravity, pulsates with life in general; with life as fate, in all its enigmatic intertwining — yes, in that solidarity in which the concept fate places our innermost life, and which external forces impose upon us. These figures are merely like the channels through which life’s destiny in general runs. Their life is the life of humankind, which here is grasped through a very definite woridview and way of feeling for which, however, this single individual form is only a vessel or a symbol without individualizing human life into the peculiarity of precisely this stream of life.

And does Rembrandt's 'Flora' feel any more individualized than Michelangelo's Delphic Sibyl or of St. Elizabeth from Reims ?

The individualization of Rembrandt's portraits seems to contrast no less sharply with his own non-portrait figures.

Belvidere torso

As Michelangelo's figures and their Hellenistic antecedents are naturalistic like flesh, bone, and tendon, they feel mortal. Unlike ideas, they can't live forever. The Fates will eventually cut them down. But as their forms display a stylized, heroic, inner dynamic, they resist that demise.

That pre-Christian tension would seem to me to be what most distinguishes them from the transcendent world of Rembrandt.

Simmel offers a similar contrast in the following:

But it is precisely this that Rembrandt’s figures display: a heretofore never represented unity of person and fate. The reference to one’s own inner meaning of life, through which the objective process becomes fate for and within us, presents itself here in such a way that the person appears completely manipulated and fashioned by fate, but not thereby loosing individuality nor being leveled out, but rather in such a way that being-for-oneself— the inner incomparability of their existence — unfolds........ the fate of Michelangelo’s figures must be of a general, impersonal nature drifting in from those cosmic grounds and distant parts that the person, as soon as he has found the center in himself, banishes into an antagonism and ultimate strangeness. And therefore, individuals themselves, bearing and defying such fate, can only be something trans-individual, extended into a symbol of humankind. The parties have to be formed in such a way as to display the Promethean defiance and the Promethean shackle.

This focus on individual destiny corresponds to the predestined salvation of Protestant Christianity, doesn't it ?

If, in Michelangelo, it is the gravity, tension, and discontent of human fate in general through which the perceptibly participating figure extends itself beyond the individualistic limitation of Rcmbrandtian representation, so in Rodin the circle in which individuality dissolves itself stretches still further. Now the intention of the feeling no longer lies in the fate of humankind as such, but, rather, in the rhythm of movement of the cosmic process in general. Rodin’s art, insofar as it is creatively original, stands under the sign of modern Heracliteanism. For the woridview that can be described in this way, all substantiality and solidity of the empirical perspective has turned into movement. In restless transformations a quantum of energy flows through the material world, or, rather, is this world. No formation is accorded even the slightest degree of permanence, and all the seeming unity of its contour is nothing other than the vibration and surging movement of the exchange of forces.

It's only the last sentence that puzzles me, since I don't think that "the vibration and surging movement of the exchange of forces" accounts for how successfully the space has been organized and dominated.

Presumably Simmel is disagreeing with someone who wrote about Rodin's "unity of contour"

Rodin’s figures are elements of a world experienced in this way. Contours and movements of the body are here the symbols of souls that feel themselves being dragged into the infinity of emergence and destruction, and who constantly stand at the point where becoming and demise meet. Here form, in the sense of classical art, is therefore dissolved just as it is in Rembrandt. However, in Rodin coming into being and into process does not simultaneously accomplish consolidation into totally new meaning, nor the form of a single sequence of individuality.

Moreover, the oscillations and turbulence of the cosmic process do not allow for this (I speak here of the nudes, [and] not of those Rodin portraits that require a more complex interpretation). One can characterize the three types of style — which are here at one and the same time symbols of three quite general concepts of life — in terms of their relationship to time.

I described the form of classical art as atemporal because, as the abstraction of life’s contents or outcomes, it stands opposed to the sequence of the life process. After the development of movement or of life led to this form, for them, as something purely artistically formed, there no longer is a before and an after. In Rodin’s creations, however, time is eliminated for the opposite reason. In order for time to pertain to a creation, the latter has to be in some sense something unified in which a before and an after can somehow be felt. A time that simply goes by without memory, as it were, would not be time, but rather a moment without extension. Time exists only where a form presents itself in which the past arrives at a synthesis with the present. The world of Rodin’s figures, however, is (according to their idea, which visual intuition of course only points to from the distance) precisely such an absolute flow; the abandonment of all solidity in which a before and an after — that is, time — could mark itself.

Here, the fleeting moment of life is banished but in such a way that one really feels its passing, while the before, just like the after, remains sunk in impenetrable darkness. The absolute movement into which the souls and the quivering and struggling, tumbling and flying bodies in Rodin are dragged negates time, just as the withdrawal from all movement in the principle of form in classical art had negated it. Absolute becoming is just as ahistorical as absolute nonbecoming.

Simmel asserts that Rembrandt, on the other hand, presents us with individuality and "individuality for its part is only thinkable through the historical successive ordering"

And so is art history. In other words, I don't think its possible to avoid 'historical successive ordering' when looking at any art of the past, which cannot avoid being exemplary of its own time - and as it does so, we can't avoid relating it to what came before and after.

Rodin and Michelangelo may have been extraordinary, exceptional artists, but it's inconceivable that their work could have come from a different era. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel belongs to the early 16th century as much as the "Gates of Hell" belongs to late 19th.

While, I feel that timelessness is a rare achievement, the result of a level of balanced intensity, and our awareness of it in the works of Rembrandt, Michelangelo, and Rodin is the the reason their names have become so familiar.

But I think I'll subscribe to Simmel's description of Rodin's figures: "Contours and movements of the body are here the symbols of souls that feel themselves being dragged into the infinity of emergence and destruction, and who constantly stand at the point where becoming and demise meet"

Simmel concludes this chapter as follows:

The fundamental distinction is this: whether the decisive meaning of an artistic creation — which is not the same as the conscious intention of the creative personalities, nor any of the expressions of the depicted personalities (whose bearer is rather the creator of the total work as such; an ideal construct that has truth but not reality) — turns and devotes itself to the “great human themes’ or whether these appear to the artist to be a detour in the life which is lived for its own sake; a detour which life in its purest concentration avoids. This determines the place that Rembrandt holds in the intellectual history of humankind beyond his artistry and merely conveyed through it.

By "great human themes", Simmel means "the totality of the world with the eternity of its laws and fates".

He suggests that Michelangelo, Goethe, Dante, and Beethoven deal with them - while Rembrandt and Shakespeare do not.

But what about the Hundred Guilder print ?

Would it be more accurate to say that Rembrandt does not deal with 'great human themes' in his portraits?

But then -- whose portraits do deal with such themes ?

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