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, January 12, 2013

Simmel : Religious Art

(this is Chapter Three 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)


Objective and Subjective Religion in Art

The nature of religion appears throughout human history in two basic forms. Because there are religious facts (God and facts of salvation, cult and church), and because the religious individual behaves receptively or creatively with respect to these — — a double current of religious nature is initiated that can converge on an almost perfect division. On the one hand, there is the objectivity of religious or ecclesiastical facts: a world enclosed within itself and constructed in conformity with its own laws

Simmel loves sharp, clear, oppositional distinctions.

Just as he kept any consideration of Rembrandt's religious art out of his last chapter on individuality, now he wants to make a 'perfect division' between religious institutions and the individuals who participate in them. Perhaps he is too distant from such institutions to be aware that their 'facts' are continuously in flux just as their sacred texts are continuously re-interpreted.

He even claims that "Were subjective religiosity truly to be realized .. then it would consist in the life process itself in the way the religious person lives each hour — not, however, in any specific contents, nor in the belief in any specific realities."

As if 'subjective religiosity" could possibly be less than 100%, even in one who is trying as hard as he can to believe exactly what he has been told.

Byzantine art begins with the objective representation of the transcendental world. In the mosaics of Ravenna the figures and symbols of the Christian mysteries are presented in their metacosmic solemnity, with complete disregard for the human subjects experiencing them. The human beings of this religiosity, including the artists, have completely desubjectified themselves. Before them stands a heaven of the gods; enormous self-sufficient powers of being to the envisioning of which individual feelings and inner fates have no relationship, neither as the starting point nor as the point of convergence. Thus, their so-called lifelessness means that the fact that they are separated from the life process (as that which is earthly) is not a deficiency that could be remedied by some supplement. Rather, it characterizes, despite the negative expression, the extremely positive religious-artistic nature that must reject its logical opposite, namely directedness toward individual life.

"complete disregard for the human subjects experiencing them."


I can't believe that Simmel actually looked at the above images -- but then these buildings in Ravenna are dark, the pieces are high up on the ceiling or walls, and I'm sure the printed reproductions available to him were black-and-white and not very detailed. E. Gombrich had a similar response to Byzantine art, contrasting it as formulaic compared with the naturalism of the Renaissance.

As noted above, I also believe that it is utterly impossible for an artist (or anyone else) to "desubjectify" himself -- but perhaps Simmel was responding to the mediocre art which can be found in Ravenna as well as everywhere else.

Mediocre art does seem to exemplify an artist trying to follow rules rather than make them.

With the Trecento another point on the scale is reached. With Duccio, Orcagna, and some of their lesser contemporaries, a tone of lyrical humanity flows into the self-contained solemnity of the painting of the saints. The transcendental not only is and, as objective power, controls human beings, but, rather, out of the transcendental, a movement of its own approaches human beings. The expression of religious life, however genteel and reserved, has found a way into the representation of transcendental facts.

I certainly feel the lyrical humanity here -- but no more so than at Ravenna.

Especially if we consider the portrait of goofy queen Theodora.

Even where the pure painterly interest has not rendered all other inner agents imperceptible, the religious intent is still exclusively directed toward the representation of a heavenly or historical existence that is determined from its own center, according to its own inner laws, but not by the piety, or the longing, or the devotion of a soul. The peculiar ability of the human mind to think and view things from some way off — in a sense, disregarding itself — is also powerful in the sphere of religion, and in the Renaissance this power proved itself without reservation. I include Rubens in this. His Ildefonso Altar, precisely because of its complete worldliness, perhaps raises religious objectivity to its highest point.

The goddess of heaven displays the same noble representative existence as does the prince who pays tribute to her. Between them there is really only a graduated difference within the same dimension, isolated, s it were, from that which lies below. And that the representation of the divine should be determined by a human-personal religiosity would appear just as inappropriate here as, according to the views of the time, would subjects directly electing the Emperor.

Obviously, Simmel is going to contrast Rubens' religiosity with Rembrandt's -- and the contrast would indeed help explain the political history of 17th C. Europe (as Simmel suggests with his remark about "subjects directly electing the Emperor")

But does worldliness raise religious objectivity to its highest point? Can't it be a strategy to make religious doctrines and institutions more popular?

Isn't it possible that some "human personal religiosity" involves the worship of saints and divinities visualized as a kind of royalty surrounded by splendor? Is that somehow less pious than those who pray with their eyes closed?

Apparently Simmel cannot accept that -- possibly due to his own iconoclastic Jewish background.



At the other end of this scale stands Rembrandt. All his paintings, etchings, and drawings have a single theme: the religious person.

He does not make the object of belief visible, and, in his representations of Jesus, Jesus never has the character of a transcendent reality but rather that of an empirical human one: the loving and the teaching, and, in Gethsemane, the despairing and the suffering, Jesus.

"loving, teaching, despairing, suffering" --- yes, Rembrandt shows Christ doing all that.

But the above Rembrandt is more like Christ in His Glory, similar to this Cranach:

This soul may be stimulated by otherworldly powers, embraced and determined by divine being. But it is not this that Rembrandt displays, but rather the condition that this soul, presupposing all this and with its specific powers, brings forth; a condition that can only exist within human souls and express itself through human, earthly bodies.

Even if all the objects of belief in the hereafter exist, and even if the individual with his qualities were merely a windblown grain of sand within their absolute power and objectively an irrelevance, religion can only ever emerge in the relationship between the human soul and this hereafter, and religion is in all circumstances the moment in which this soul enters this relationship, and in which this relationship exists for the soul. This is, in theoretical terms, the basic precondition of Rembrandt’s religious art.

For the first time in the history of art, this torrent springing from the source of religion is brought to complete domination so that, irrespective of the belief’s contents, its metaphysical basis, its dogmatic substance, as religion it is an act or a specific state of being of the human soul.

Only Fra Angelico might be mentioned as a comparable case, because for him, too, the pious person as such becomes a problem of representation. Religious content is likewise for him, in the last instance, something general that hovers above the individuals and merely inspires them. They experience it as something received. Nevertheless, dogma is here still too narrowly woven into the pure inner process of pious existence to offer more than a premonition of the quintessentially trans-historical structure of piety in its Rembrandtian expression.

I have no idea which Rembrandt or Fran Angelico pieces Simmel has in mind here.

At first, I thought he was referring to the depiction of piety, so I found an image of praying donors by Fra Angelico.

But since Rembrandt does not depict that kind of thing -- I suppose Simmel may be referring to images that provoke a sense of piety in the viewer. And who can that viewer be other than Simmel himself?

Perhaps he responds more to the vulnerability of Christ than to depictions of His power and glory --- so I've guessed that "Christ before the people" might have given Simmel a pious feeling. (especially since that's what it gives me)

But shouldn't claims about "the first time in the history of art" be substantiated by more than just a personal feeling ?

Instead, shouldn't Simmel have written "the earliest piece in the history of art that makes me feel this way" ?

On countless occasions he presents biblical scenes that, given the absence of all dogmatic elements of belief, one would probably not wish, to take for religious art at all: Erlebnisse des Tobias, The Good Samaritan, The Return of the Prodigal Son, and the Jugendgeschichte Jesu, envisaged in a completely petit bourgeois manner. Here the religious aspect accrues to these people from within, in the same way in which they are clever or stupid, lively or indolent. They may believe or do as they wish; they have piety as a determination of their subjective being as such, which stands out as a coloration of their personalities all the more clearly in their completely earthly conduct.

Religiosity, as the basic form of personal life as such, makes every scene of this life the place in which a religious tone or value can exist

This same point was made more evangelically by H. R. Rookmaaker in Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, as that author decries the diminished Christian religiosity of modern life and art, sharing Simmel's (and Islam's) connection of religiosity to "the relationship between the human soul and this hereafter"

Though not every kind of 'religiosity' is greatly concerned with a hereafter, including the Jewish tradition of Simmel's ancestors.

Here is Tobias -- looking rather pious.

Why was Rembrandt so concerned with the Book of Tobit? It must have been popular in 17th C. Amsterdam. Italian artists had been covering it for 200 years. What could be more appealing than traveling with a guardian angel ?

It certainly does fit the criteria that Simmel has found in Rembrandt's paintings - i.e. it celebrates piety, but in Protestant Netherlands it would have been non doctrinal since it was considered apocryphal.

It's also quite appropriate for a visual artist, since the restoration of eyesight is the divine reward for piety.

Here's a version by Pieter de Molijn (1595 – 1661)

And here's a version by Joos de Momper (1564–1635)

In these two nearly-contemporary versions, Tobias and his angelic companion are rather smaller, so the emphasis is on the the world in which they are traveling. But still they would comply with Simmel's characterization of the "modest life circumstances of Rembrandtian figures", where "religiosity is not something that would be added to a different independent quality of their actions and experiences; rather, from the beginning, these actions and experiences of theirs proceed sub specie religionis."

And it is appropriate to this inner, simple unity of life’s mood that no one moment is singled out above another; rather, what is illuminated is everyday life as a whole. Light does not come from outside (such light would inevitably fall unevenly); rather, in order to illuminate its ordinariness, from within, shining through equally in each path that leads from the core of life to life’s appearances. This is why, just as this religion clings internally to all contents, so externally it clings to none.

Looking at another one of Simmel's selections, 'The Good Samaritan', we might query whether it shows light coming from the outside or from within.

It seems to do both --- since there are indeed shadows beneath that horse -- but it's torso, just like the injured man's back, seems to glow from within.

Isn't that how things appear in the mind's eye when reading about them?

Simmel offers this quote regarding the piety of everyday life:

"servant [Knecht] and maidservant [Magdj, when they do as their master and mistress bid, serve God, and, insofar as they believe in Christ, God is more pleased by them sweeping the parlor or cleaning shoes than by all the monks’ praying, fasting, holding mass, and whatever else they boast they do in God’s praise.” -- Martin Luther

(but I can't find it anywhere on the internet)


Concrete Existence and Religious Life

Simmel takes a few pages to discuss the potential religiosity of day-to-day ordinary life, finally arriving at the following discussion of "the greatest classical religious painting (with the exception of the Sistine Chapel)":

In order for simple piety to represent itself as the continuous state of being of a person, closely bound into each single situation, in Rembrandt’s religious painting the specific warmth of life is given to religion: a warmth that can easily desert it when art adheres either to those objects of this piety that have acquired autonomy, or to the strongly emphasized events and culminations that transpire, as it were, in the external contact of life with these objects.

It is instructive to clarify the inner structure of Leonardo's Last Supper. The incomparable here is this: an event that is to a degree external - the words "I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me" - occurs simultaneously for a number of quite distinct persons, thus releasing an effect that brings precisely each individual peculiarity of character to its highest and most unmistakable expression. It is as though, despite all differences, the spiritual-corporeal element in them is so ordered that this shock going, so to speak, through them, without resistance, drives precisely their diversity to the surface.

In Raphael’s cartoon Christ Handing over the Keys, it is also a word that calls up an expressed answer from, the Twelve. This answer, however, does not converge in the revelation of the individual ultimate nature of each one, but stops short of that expression that objectively suits the situation, at most with a division of roles, while the situation with Leonardo is merely the causal occasion for the unfolding of individuality. The outcome is that in Cenacolo di Santa Maria delle Grazie (location of Leonardo's Last Supper) these appear much more decisive and more nuanced than in Rembrandt’s religious paintings. But again it is only in the build up to this moment, or in statuesque timelessness, that the most external, most isolating, characterization of the individual is achieved.

Since it's in such poor condition, I admit that I have never been thrilled by Leonardo's 'Last Supper' until I joined Simmel in following the "shock" of the revelation of betrayal around the table. I can see why its focus on individuality is important to his discussion of Rembrandt - and how that individuality is different, since its been provoked by an external event.

I don't feel anything like that shock in the Raphael - but that would be appropriate for its setting which is pastoral in more ways than one. Does it "not converge in the revelation of the individual ultimate nature of each one, but stops short of that expression that objectively suits the situation' ?

That's also how I feel about it -- but I'm not sure how I would feel if I didn't know the story and was only looking at 12 men standing in an open field on the outskirts of town.

Simmel hasn't yet discussed it, but the light in these two Italian paintings is so different from the light in Rembrandt's imaginary world. It's as if Rembrandt's characters never stepped outdoors, and if they did, the sun was never shining. That seems to contribute to that feeling for inner spirituality that contrasts so sharply with the Italians.


The Type of Unity in the Religious Paintings

The sociology of such group paintings in Rembrandt poses a subtle problem. Where a number of persons are gathered within a frame (in both a literal and a figurative sense), we generally experience a unity that is something higher and more indivisible than the sum of its parts, just as the state is something other than the sum of its citizens, the will of the collectivity more than the addition of individual wills. And in art even those groups that are in all respects as divergent as Orcagna’s Paradise and Titian’s Assunta in each case form a unity that somehow lies beyond the participants’ individual qualities. Where a meaningful unified geometrical form is to be abstracted from the groups, it becomes the most external symbol of that totality which is formed and borne by the elements, but not pro rata to be found within them.

Since Simmel is most renowned as a sociologist - and since he has just mentioned the "sociology of such group paintings" -- I'm wondering why he hasn't mentioned the peculiarities of the above social groupings.

There appear to be no peasants, laborers, or artisans in Orcagna's heaven -- and there is only one female attending the Assumption of the Virgin: the Virgin herself.

And though there's a unity of focus in Titian's crowd -- the folks entering Paradise appear to have broken off into small conversation groups as people might do during intermission at the opera.

So I think the primary unity in these two paintings is formal and does not depend upon any speculation regarding what the depicted people are doing.

The unquestionable discernibly of this unity is often difficult to interpret. Rembrandt’s paintings do not display this, in a narrow sense sociological, unity of form. We have already established that in The Night Watch unity weaves itself immediately out of the living spheres of the individual acting persons; that it is not an autonomously all-embracing whole mingling the figures, as it were, merely as limbs.

Simmel's notion of "sociological unity" continues to baffle me. Here he clearly distinguishes it from formal unity. Is it contingent on how we feel these characters might socially relate to each each other if they were to come to life?

Rembrandt ... requires no leveling reduction or elevation of the persons, because, from the start, they all live in the same mood. In this way he is able to draw the represented moment much more into the flowing temporal entire life of the persons, thereby clearly omitting all emphasis achieved in the encounter with the situation. What is, however, achieved in this way is an incomparable increase in the religious character of the work. It is most noteworthy, that in Cenacolo — despite the coherence supplied by the one word of Jesus that runs through the figures like a continuous surge, and despite the wonderful perfect rhythm of the whole composition — there is a failure to achieve that unity to be found in Rembrandt’s representations of Christ at Emmaus, or in the etchings of The Entombment of Christ and Christ Preaching. In the former case, the figures stand out from the totality due to the monumental statuesque culmination of their individuality. They are in the first place something for themselves, and only retrospectively are they seized by a shock emanating from a single source.





I've found the four above versions of the supper at Emmaus -- and they're so different, it seems hopeless to find some kind of 'sociological unity' they might have in common.

The earlier ones seem to depict a Nordic god traveling in disguise -- which causes great surprise as the common folk become aware of his great powers.

In the later ones, the divine guest is meek before the wonders of the narrative in which he has participated -- and the folks at the table look more like scholars than laborers.

And if I had to make the call, I'd say that the 1654 painting in the Louvre was produced by studio assistants - because it lacks the kind of unity that thrills me.

Here's the 'Entombment' etching of 1639

And here's the 'Entombment' from 1654 - where the tomb itself has become the principle character. It's as if the characters are there just to enhance the stage -- like the figures thrown into an architectural rendering.

Neither one of these visions feels anywhere near as compelling to me as ' Christ before the people" or the Hundred Guilder Print.

Regarding 'sociological unity' - the tall figure in the 1654 version seems to be attending a different kind of event - perhaps he's so confidant in the resurrection he's not concerned with the burial.

Here's 'Christ Preaching' from 1652 - and it seems to most exemplify the unity among individuality that Simmel finds in Rembrandt group scenes.

What all these characters have in common -- from the child playing to the joker laughing -- is their own, personal reaction to the words of the Savior.


Individual Religiosity and Calvinism

This religious individualism seems to be a continuation of a new emerging current within Rembrandt’s surroundings. In the circles of the Dutch seventeenth-century “Collegiants” one finds a strong distrust of the worth of the existing churches, to the point of complete rejection of the confessional form as such. A religious subjectivity emerges that grants the individual a considerable scope for discrimination. There is something of deeper significance in this absence of the objective general character of religious values out of which Rembrandt’s conception of the religious personality is so completely distant from any statuesque representability.

it is precisely the lawlike nature of religion — the magisterial about the church - they announce the truth and the absolute as the universal and as unity as such. It is precisely this unity that is so foreign to Rembrandtian figures because their religiosity is not the emanation of any content (however little it may reject [such a content]), but rather a life process, a function that can only take place within the individual. This appears most peculiar in some of his representations of Jesus. In several etchings, Jesus appears as a boy: needy, almost suppressed by the surrounding figures; or, in the Berlin picture of the Samaritan Woman, almost as a shadow, without substance in comparison to the powerful woman who is, as it were, solidly rooted in the earth. If one looks only a moment longer, however, this weak as well as swaying being is after all the one really fixed thing. All the other strong and substantial figures are, in comparison to him, insecure and as though uprooted; as if not they, but only he, had that ground under his feet on which people can really stand. And this is not achieved via a ray of transcendence; not via any suggestion that the Redeemer is shown to belong to another order in an objective-metaphysical sense. He only has the stronger, the strongest, religiosity; that absolute security as a quality of his human being that is only given to people as a consequence or an aspect of their religiosity.

I won't guess which etchings Simmel thinks show a boyish Jesus -- but above is the Berlin 'Samarian Woman' from 1659.

It is certainly odd to put the 'light of the world' into such a deep, mysterious shadow.

I share Simmel's reaction that the seated figure on the right is "after all the one really fixed thing." - but that might be because the artist could not paint a securely standing figure.

The 1655 version at the Met gives Him more light - appropriate for the gesture of explanation that lies at the center of this episode.

(The Met's painting is no longer attributed to Rembrandt's hand -- but then I'm doubting that Rembrandt touched the Berlin painting either.)

This is all the more moving because in the very early paintings, in which he had not yet attained the feeling for this religiosity, Christ appears, conversely, precisely as a mighty personality — as the great, beautiful, magical person who dominates his environment from without. How far the deviation from this line to that other must from the very start have been immanent within his innermost nature is illustrated by the fact that this tendency was also capable of being developed toward the ultimate religious depths. In a particular, if also modified, sense Grünewald has demonstrated this. In the crucifixions — in Colmar just as in Karlsruh and in the predella, Christ is the giant elevated beyond human measures — untouchable for all that surrounds him due to his greatness, and yet felled by human powers: a totally contradictory and the most inconceivable fate. Here we no longer speak of the soul or an individual inner affect. Here the greatness of existence as such is represented, and the secret or the absurd that underlies it may be religious, but really only insofar as the darkness of this event is so impenetrable that it appears to reach into the ultimate depths of the world. This existence symbolizing itself in such exterior measure and its fate stand in such a paradoxical relation to each other that a solution from within is out of the question. It is, rather, only a metaphysical idea, a divine council, which can reach across this enormous gulf. Nothing of the sort is the case with Rembrandt. In his most profound religious paintings, the appearance of Jesus’is brought into such a proportion that it is fully permeable for the soul; rendering its life and its fate perfectly determinable by the soul. In the types of painting with which I am concerned here, Jesus is merely the most heightened of Rembrandt’s religious figures whose dissimilarity to the nonreligious is determined exclusively by their respective individual inwardness.

Christ seems to be a "giant elevated beyond human measures" in both Rembrandt's and Grunewald's version. The principal difference above is that Grunewald's Savior is much more fleshy - and much more dead.

With a certain paradox, one can characterize religious nature that is abstracted (if naturally not emerging in abstract isolation) from all mysticism as from all theism thus: they would live in this state of piety even then when no God existed or was believed in. Piety has peeled off its relational character as the latter exists in other phenomena.

This is how I feel about all my favorite religious paintings regardless of the specific religion. I love the the piety despite being an atheist.

Here we have the fundamental difference between conceptions of life: whether one draws up the sense and meaning of actions and relations out of the deep dimensions of the individual (whether their subjective life gives the real value of existence, forms the root as well as a center of interest), or whether all these accents (the values’ final from whence and where to) adhere to the objectivity of the conditions — to the trans-individual — without delving into the individual’s own life. In that Calvinism, according to its decisive basic motif, is on the latter’s side, the religiosity of the Rembrandtian figures stand decisively opposed to it.

Simmel continues to focus on Rembrandt's individualism, contrasting it with the objectivity of Calvinism - though I find none of this goes very far to make sense of either one.

the classical-Romanesque spirit is nonetheless different from the Calvinistic. The latter goes beyond the former with respect to both: the side of transcendence and that of earthly practice, as well as the unique tension and unity of each. For the former, the metaphysical basic tone lies in the form that had an effect directed toward the exterior (not only toward the physically exterior), and developed into general conformity to a law. With the latter, it lies in the objective powers of the divine will and the earthly, planned successful orders, and ways of behaving. They have their common counterpart in the value in itself of the determination of life that follows purely from within; from out of the point of individuality of the ultimate metaphysical cause of formation and value authority.

I'm not sure whether Simmel is thinking about Raphael or Autun when he mentions 'classical-Romanesque spirit' -- but then most of this section is incomprehensible to me. It seems to be a solitary, verbose voyage into his own mind.

The making or enjoying of any imaginative artistic project is outside the realm of Calvinism, isn't it ?

Inner Quality ****************************************************************************

In contrast to all this as well as to mysticism, I interpreted the living religious attitude in Rembrandtian art as appearing in his work neither as an aspect of, nor as a special climax to, life, but rather as the way in which these people live as such, and that, however, this subjective religious being does not exhaust its meaning in its psychological reality, but rather is itself something metaphysical (a value outside time that is borne exclusively by the inwardness of these temporal individuals).

The rendering of painting and drawing has the inner style, the movement, the solemnity, the mix of dark and light, the inexpressibility and the self-evidence all of which must be called religious. This rendering itself is religious. It does not simply have religion, either as the profession of a real personal belief, or as an account of an observed religiosity, or as representation of religious contents as such (although all of these may also be present). I know of no creator of religious works of art with whom the religious moment was located within this layer; so free of all that is merely conditional, a design law of creation itself, which is thus visible as “general and necessary” in the created [object].

I find an inner religious moment (i.e. solemnity, inexpressibiltiy, and self evidence) created by many artists. Simmel may be unique among widely traveled art lovers in only getting that feeling from Rembrandt.

The inner meaning realized by a Madonna is irrelevant for Raphael. That realized by a descent from the cross does not interest Rubens. In each case the painting, so to speak, is left to its own devices such that its impression is not affected if it contains the object in its inherent meaning merely as though it were a foreign body. With Rembrandt, by way of contrast, the painting itself draws its sustenance from the general basic motif of the represented event; its religious being, and it is through the medium of the artistic process determined in this way that the event is in turn drawn into religious being. The subject is formed and animated in the process of becoming art in such a way that it becomes completely absorbed into the character of the artistic process whereas precisely this character of the artistic function is fed by the most general meaning of the subject, far transcending its individual details.

Even if Simmel is not writing as an art historian, still he should have prefaced the above assertion with a phrase like "I feel as if the inner meaning realized by a madonna ...etc" -- because there are some things that may safely be said to be irrelevant to Raphael. But the "inner meaning" of one of his Madonnas is not one of them.

Light : Its Individuality and Immanence ****************************************************************************

When one looks at the Dutch as they appear in peasant and bourgeoisie paintings — with their zest for life, deeply rooted in the soil, inclined in their hearts toward good food and drink — it is a shocking prospect that precisely these people are prepared, without a second thought, to face death, and fates worse than death, for their ideals, for their political freedom, and for their religious salvation. This almost appears to be symbolized in many of Rembrandt’s religious paintings and etchings: simple characters lacking any subjective imagination, earthy, gruff — and in themselves already participating in that immanent religiosity they are once more embraced by light in order to bear a totality that manifests the same character of a pure inner transfiguration — an earthiness that is transcendent without reaching beyond itself.

Pictures such as Ruhe auf der Flucht in the Haag Museum,’ or the grisaille of The Good Samaritan in Berlin, are quintessential unique manifestations in the history of visual expression - ---we find each particularity of the almost unrecognizable figures, [and] each specification of the occurrence completely dissolved in the drama of light and darkness through which the most general metaphysical and inner interpretation of the event profoundly moves us as vision. This light is religious solemnity, the sign of divine origin in the atmosphere, in the spatial world around us, whose pure inner quality alone thereby finds expression.

"unique manifestations in the history of art"? That's a rather strong assertion for a painting that is a line drawing framed by tonal curtains.

Here's a Ming Dynasty landscape by Shen Zhou that also features an almost unrecognizable figure set into a drama of light and darkness.

Closer to home, here's a night scene by Adam Elsheimer done in 1608.

Many other examples can be found among Rembrandt's Dutch contemporaries.

It is as though light itself were alive; as though struggle and peace, contrast and relation, passion and gentleness immediately bore this play of the struggle between light and darkness not as something existing behind it that finds its first expression in this play, but rather in the same way as we in the statics and dynamics of our individual conceptions and affects think we perceive the deeper rhythm of inner life in general. This deeper rhythm, however, is not the puppet master, or the “thing in itself” of those phenomena, but is rather its power, its living animation itself, and is divided from it only in reflexive expression. The ever more apparent “warmth” of Rembrandtian light is identical with this living animation. In contrast, the light in Correggio’s The Holy Night, for example, has something mechanical about it.

There's "something mechanical" about that entire painting - it feels more like a puppet show than a vision of sacred events.

But it's tough to make a monumental painting as thrilling as a much smaller, quicker pen and wash drawing. Most of these 16th C. Italian masters were more successful with their drawings.

toward the enclosed individuality of this realm. With this, light, speaking metaphysically, attains the same form of animation that the portraits display.

What is there tangible as soul is not a component or a pulse of a mystical animation of the universe (in the way that we experience it in figures in east Asian art), nor is it the appearance or representation of the most general human fate in the full breadth and depth of tragedy that is born with the nature of humankind itself (as illustrated in Michelangelo’s figures); rather, it is the soul that originates and is lived out within the boundaries of this personality with it fate. It is merely that this individuality presents itself in its most general form insofar as no individual detail of a describable content becomes visible, but rather only, so to speak, the functionality of the soul in its purest inner life, in its composition and fatelike determination. Thus, Rembrandtian light is restricted to the space and action of each respective painting, but this means (at least in the case of those compositions with almost unrecognizable details consisting actually only of light and shadows) the elevation of the picture over each particularity into its own highest generality; into the highest possible expression of its pure and sublime nature.

I wonder whether Simmel would say the same about the above 1640 painting by Rembrandt's contemporary and one-time studio mate, Jan Lievens. Does the above paragraph apply to the aims of 17th C. Dutch religious painting, or only to Rembrandt?

Whereas in other cases an object is to be found that could exist as such just as well in the light as in darkness, but now is darkened because it happens to be night, in the Rembrandtian night pieces, darkness is an immanent quality of the content of the painting itself. Because darkness creates itself only in and through it [the content of the painting], it cannot darken beyond the boundaries of the latter, just as Rembrandtian light — because it is born in and with the painting — cannot shine forth beyond it in order to appear in back projection, as it were, as if emerging from a surrounding world of light (as in Manet’s or in Liebermann’s paintings).

Max Liebermann

Edouard Manet

But the way which Rembrandt contains the light within the painting and uses its infinity only for the painting’s interiority — in that the light appears to originate exclusively from within the painting and does not flood from some other point beyond it — so he captures all that is transient — that which bursts beyond the outline of his objects —strictly within the realm of the painting directing it in each of its turns and meanings toward the enclosed individuality of this realm. With this, light, speaking metaphysically, attains the same form of animation that the portraits display. What is there tangible as soul is not a component or a pulse of a mystical animation of the universe (in the way that we experience it in figures in east Asian art), nor is it the appearance or representation of the most general human fate in the full breadth and depth of tragedy that is born with the nature of humankind itself (as illustrated in Michelangelo’s figures); rather, it is the soul that originates and is lived out within the boundaries of this personality with it fate. It is merely that this individuality presents itself in its most general form insofar as no individual detail of a describable content becomes visible, but rather only, so to speak, the functionality of the soul in its purest inner life, in its composition and fatelike determination.

Sung Dynasty

Tang Dynasty

Above, I've posted some examples of figures by Michelangelo and historical Chinese painters. I can see that "Adam and Eve" as relating to the destiny of humankind itself (as does its subject), but regarding "east Asian art", it would have been helpful if Simmel had mentioned a specific artist or school of artists. Where can't the "pulse of a mystical animation of the universe" be found, if that's what you're looking for.

Thus, Rembrandtian light is restricted to the space and action of each respective painting, but this means (at least in the case of those compositions with almost unrecognizable details consisting actually only of light and shadows) the elevation of the picture over each particularity into its own highest generality; into the highest possible expression of its pure and sublime nature. It replaces, so to speak, the external generality with the inner one. It displays, as I have already said, not the unity of the painting with something that is external to it, but the final and simplest unit of the painting itself.

Yes, I think this applies to Rembrandt, but also to every other painting that attracts me -- and might serve to distinguish fine art from illustration.

This individuality of the painting’s totality must, just like the relationship to the surrounding world, also relinquish the specific emphasis on the painting’s elements, because only in this way does such a unity, which cannot be broken even from within, emerge. The degree to which Rembrandtian light bears this [unity] becomes clear in comparison with Caravaggio. In that the latter uses light and darkness to the highest degree, but basically in order to bring out the individual pictorial elements, there emerges really only a cutting contrast in the mutual restriction of light and dark. In contrast, Rembrandt, who renounces the emphasis on the part to the advantage of the individuality of the whole, never allows it to come to this kind of separation.



Here's Rembrandt and Caravaggio presenting the same theme -- and it is a bit daunting to compare two of the greatest achievements of European painting.

Yes, I see how Caravaggio distinguishes pictorial elements - and delivers dramatic emphasis -- through contrasts of light and dark -- but does the Rembrandt version do so any less ?

It does seem, however, that Caravaggio's figures emerge from darkness, while Rembrandt's emerge from a middle tone. And Caravaggio has used a light/dark contrast to establish a very deep, outdoor background, while Rembrandt's action seems to be occurring within a small room.

Even such a fantastic light as that in Correggio’s The Holy Night appears to be a reproduction of light that belongs to the whole real event reproduced by the painting, even given the limitation that it does not even light up the room, but rather only the surface of the actors. It is first with Rembrandt that we find a light that originates entirely from within the painting, only relating to that which is pictorially visible [and]without — as though looking through the painting - being induced to imagine a corresponding event in the real world.

This Correggio is once again singled out for contrast with Rembrandt.

The infant Christ is, like a torch, the apparent source of light for most of the figures (though I wonder how it reaches the figure of Joseph who is standing behind the Virgin ) Simmel suggests that such light seems to have originated in a scene for the which the painting is a reproduction -- rather than in the painting itself. But I have no idea how to make such a distinction.

I'm baffled.

In a famous etching of his mother (supposedly dated 1628) Rembrandt added a fur collar that is a true miracle of the art of etching. The unique materiality of the fur is absolutely convincingly achieved with a couple of dozen minimal little strokes, apparently added rulelessly. A very small sketch represents a rustic drive leading toward a copse. Here the extension of the fenced path, the distance to the wood, the immeasurably of the atmosphere over it are brought into view with unimaginably few strokes. The landscape stands there in all its solidity and without ambiguity. What do we find in these (naturally, arbitrarily chosen) examples? Do I see with my inner eye a real fur collar and a real landscape again made present to me like the memory of such an image after I have glimpsed it in empirical reality? The aim of the work of art would then be to somehow call up from within an inner vision of reality, and with that it would in its immediacy be as insignificant as a bridge is as soon as its function of being crossed has been performed. Then the work of art would really be an “appearance” receiving meaning, value, and substance from a reality beyond it, because a similarity of form binds it to the latter and gives it the right, as it were, to the inner reproduction of reality.

Apparently it's the job of European philosophy to ponder the difference between reality and appearance, so Simmel is doing his best to raise this issue. (BTW - I believe I found the drawing of the woman in a fur collar, but am only taking my best shot at a landscape with "unimaginably few strokes"

This is in a section called "Excursus: What do we see in a work of art?"

As if asking what we see "in a work of art" would have a different kind of answer from asking "what do we see in anything we look at ?"

Simmel claims that the work of art is distinguished by "unity" - but unless the same unity is perceived by each of us in every piece, we might need to scale down his question to "What do I see in this particular work of art" -- which I think actually would summon an interesting answer from just about everyone.

As earlier on, with regard to a particular case, I now plainly deny that one “imagines” a “real” fur collar or country path when one looks at the respective prints. How should this real landscape look? Does it have, as one would at least expect, green vegetation and a blue sky? While I observe the black-and-white drawing, I can find no such thing in my consciousness. Apart from the strokes that I sensibly see and consolidate into a unity, I do not have the fantasy of extension and variety, the colors and the movement that an empirical landscape would have. I also do not know with what material this should happen, because I know of no landscape that corresponds exactly to this one in such a way that the drawing performs the function of a photograph for such a scene, and it would be senseless even to discuss the hypothesis that we synthesize elements from separate dispersed bits of memory. The object does not even psychologically come into being for which the drawing is merely the “appearance.” Aesthetic theory performs a strange contradiction when it sees in a work of art a gift to us that goes beyond our given reality, and at the same time presupposes that we supplement this image from within ourselves in order to complete the representation of reality. The saying “drawing is a process of leaving out” cannot possibly let the artistic language appear to be a kind of telegraphic style whose condensed structure we, without further ado, fill out into the complete form of a normal sentence. In fact, we see in each drawing exactly that which stands on the paper and we do not, in a far-fetched meaning of “seeing:’ lend it some substantial addition out of some other order of things.

I can't argue with any of this - I just don't understand why it needs to be said. Possibly Simmel is responding to an essay of "art theory" or a discussion that he had with one of his colleagues.

Once one has seen through the confusion of the preconditions and developmental stages of creation and perception with its material and definitive sense and content, then it is no longer paradoxical that we glimpse in works of art precisely the opposite and precisely the same as that which we glimpse in reality. It cannot absorb reality within itself at all because it is already a completely closed experience, completely self-sufficient according to its own laws and therefore excluding every other experience of precisely the same content that as “reality” has become no more and no less self-sufficient.

I suspect that nothing would have fascinated Simmel more than the post-modern practice of appropriation -- where objects are transported from the world of reality to the world of art simply by assertion.

The only "laws" distinguishing the log seen in the forest from the same log seen in a museum being the legal or social differences between those two kinds of spaces.



I know of no paintings in the whole of art, at least until the dawn of modernity, that belong so little to cult — that are so little suited to being church paintings. The totality, the scene in general, remains within the objectively holy tradition as long as the biblical event is still the real object of representation, even if its personal bearers completely transpose its ecclesiastically traditional meaning into the autonomous meaning of subjective religious being. But even this is now omitted where light is no longer there in order to illuminate that scene, but rather inversely: light in its self- sufficient dynamic, in its depth, in its contrasts, is the object of representation for which the human biblical event is, so to speak, merely the causal occasion. How this is expressed in the individuals, what reaches beyond all dogmatic particularities or even founds them [is] genuine piety, the inner existence in its religious meaning as such. So the event as a whole — its historical, religious fixed form — is now reduced to that which is most general: to light manifesting the whole atmosphere, as it were, of a trans-individual soul whose religiosity flows through this portion of the world; a religiosity clearly whose elevations and descents, sorrows and blessedness embraces this as well as every other confessional content because they underpin each as the generality of its nature as such.

Caravaggio, 1600

I've selected the Matthew/Angel story for a comparison between Rembrandt and another artist.

I would agree that Rembrandt's version does not belong in a chapel in an Italian church - but isn't that just because it wouldn't work well with its spaciousness ? it be fine for the priest's private office.

And is Carvaggio's light any more "there in order to illuminate that scene" ? We don't really need to know anything about the angels robes to comprehend the story - but those compositional elements establish a relationship between the two characters.

The big difference here is that Rembrandt's St. Matthew appears to be looking inward to hear the angel's voice, while Caravaggio's evangelist is staring directly at the angel as he receives the recitation and writes it down.

Is Rembrandt's version more saturated with some kind of "religiousity" ?

Both images might just as well be presenting a poet being inspired by his muse.

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