Simmel on Rembrandt

by johnmccreery

Someone, I seem to recall that it was on OAC, mentioned that Georg Simmel wrote a book about Rembrandt. Now I’m reading Georg Simmel, Rembrandt: An Essay in the Philosophy of Art. It’s being an interesting experience. To me Simmel was, first, the author from whom Lewis Coser took his ideas about the role of conflict in social life. Then he was idol of social network analysts, for whom his essays on the dyad and the triad are the origin of all sorts of notions about such topics as structural holes and brokerage. But here is a new Simmel who suggests a new twist on the old distinction between naturwissenschaft (natural science) and geisteswissenschaft (spiritual science), the latter being the intuitive, interpretive, inside-out understanding that assumes a subjective perspective instead of objective understanding of natural law grounded in scientific method.

But, no, that’s not quite right. Both Max Weber, with his ideal types, and Alfred Schutz in The Phenomenology of the Social World wind up (at least in the straw man versions that pop into my head) saying that there is no direct understanding of the ceaseless flux and flow of reality, the endless becoming that is life. To understand requires concepts, and concepts are at best snapshots that purport to show something timeless while reality is all about time: Parmenides’ infinite solid purporting to explain Heraclitus’ river in which the observer never stands twice.

And here is Simmel making a case that Rembrandt’s paintings, especially his portraits and, in particular, his self-portraits embody an intuitive understanding of becoming that is visibly distinct from the ideal typing of Renaissance portraiture. There the background is fixed and stable; the actors who appear on its stage are portrayed as types, personalities conceived as timeless essences. In Rembrandt’s portraits, the spaces are defined by the interactions of the personalities who, according to Simmel, are captured in moments of becoming, realizing inherent potentials, which are real but not timeless and determined by pre-existing forms.

Part of me wants to write all this off as metaphysical blather; but when I look at the paintings (most are available on line if not via my iPad’s Art Authority app), I can see what he’s talking about. Are his words shaping my perceptions? My perceptions confirming his words? Very unsettling, this; but interesting to think about.

Any thoughts?


27 Comments to “Simmel on Rembrandt”

  1. Interesting, because Simmel is recapitulating the usual lit-crit discourse of novelistic realism, with its individuated characters, in the realm of art criticism and portraiture. It seems like a plausible argument to me. I agree that the individuation of his portraits puts him at odds with the more type-based paintings of contemporaries (history painters, allegorical painters, etc.). But surely, as Greenblatt has suggested, the Renaissance is one of the moments where cultural self-fashioning is explored? I do think that Simmel is observing that there is a deep interiority hinted at in these portraits that is unique and inscrutable: that’s what gives them their appearance as psychological studies. But yes, his words are shaping your perceptions, in the way that you describe concepts operating on the flux of reality.

  2. Given that Simmel’s _Rembrandt_ was published in 1918, I suspect that he preceded most of what we now think of as the usual lit-crit discourse. As for the point about the Renaissance, Simmel suggests that the figures in Renaissance portraits project types that represent an idealized persona, the Lord, the Lady, the Priest, etc. We may suspect hidden depths behind them, but these are precisely what the ideal-typical representations are designed to conceal. Am I on anything like a right track here?

  3. P.S. I won’t deny some influence of words on perceptions; but I don’t see that as the whole story. It is easy to point to characteristics of both types of portraiture on whose presence unbiased critics would agree. I think of the distinctions articulated in Heinrich Wöfflin’s _Principles of Art History_, i.e., from Wikipedia, changes

    From linear (draughstmanly, plastic, relating to contour in projected ideation of objects) to painterly (malerisch: tactile, observing patches or systems of relative light and of non-local colour within shade, making shadow and light integral, and allowing them to replace or supersede the dominance of contours as fixed boundaries.)

    From plane to recession: (from the ‘Will to the plane’, which orders the picture in strata parallel to the picture plane, to planes made inapparent by emphasising the forward and backward relations and engaging the spectator in recessions.)

    From closed (tectonic) form to open (a-tectonic) form (The closed or tectonic form is the composition which is a self-contained entity which everywhere points back to itself, the typical form of ceremonial style as the revelation of law, generally within predominantly vertical and horizontal oppositions; the open or atectonic form compresses energies and angles or lines of motion which everywhere reach out beyond the composition, and override the horizontal and vertical structure, though naturally bound together by hidden rules which allow the composition to be self-contained.)

    From multiplicity to unity: (‘Classic art achieves its unity by making the parts independent as free members, and the baroque abolishes the uniform independence of the parts in favour of a more unified total motive. In the former case, co-ordination of the accents; in the latter, subordination.’ The multiple details of the former are each uniquely contemplated: the multiplicity of the latter serves to diminish the dominance of line, and to enhance the unification of the multifarious whole.)

    From absolute clarity to relative clarity of the subject: (i.e. from exhaustive revelation of the form of the subject, to a pictorial representation which deliberately evades objective clearness in order to deliver a perfect rendering of information or pictorial appearance obtained by other painterly means. In this way instead of the subject being presented as if arranged for contemplation, it avoids this effect and thereby escapes ever being exhausted in contemplation.)

    Simmel’s Renaissance examples visibly stand on one side of these oppositions, Rembrandt’s portraits on the other.

  4. Bingo. I turn to Ian Watt’s classic Rise of the Novel (1957), which these oppositions remind me strongly of, and I find on p.10:

    ‘Realisme’ was apparently first used as an aesthetic appreciation in 1835 to denote the ‘verite humaine’ of Rembrandt as opposed to the ‘idealite poetique’ of neo-classical painting; it was later consecrated as a specifically literary term by the foundation in 1856 of Realisme, a journal edited by Duranty.

    Watt was in contact with Adorno while writing this, and I don’t doubt that he was familiar with Simmel as well. It’s interesting to me to see the interactions between art and literary criticism happening here between the 19 and 20th centuries. But I think the oppositions of Wofflin are easily transferable to verbal as well as visual art, centering on the importance of the development of aesthetic of realism in the 19c.

  5. Dave, thanks so much. What a lovely example of the power of the Internet to connect people who know things with others who need illumination. Where can we take this if we want to dig deeper?

    Carl, what can you tell us about how these developments looked from a Marxist, especially Gramscian, perspective?

  6. What I would take from this convergence of concepts–Rembrandt/becoming/individuation/realism–is that the (modernist?) sociology that analyzed the pulling apart or knitting together of societies in time would also be interested in the formative process that produced human personalities, and that one of the inspirations for this process-orientation was the post-Romantic aesthetic of “realism.” Does that make sense?

  7. John, I can’t – I’m finding this discussion very interesting, but I don’t have much to add to it. I suppose someone ought to mention Soviet realism, but that’s from a much later moment of the trajectory, nor do I know much about it. I guess in some ways SR seems ironically like an aesthetic reprise of the communitarian idealizations of the Renaissance, with workers replacing the nobility of course but similarly abstracted as exemplars rather than wallowing in all that bourgeois individualism?

  8. Client just dumped a big job on us, so I’ll have to be quick. Carl has made an important point that speaks directly to the issue that Dave raises. What sociology shares with Renaissance and Socialist Realist art is, if I’m right, precisely the abstraction from the particular against which Rembrandt’s portraits react. Isn’t it a typical bourgeoise individualist reaction to say, “You can’t stereotype me!”?

  9. There the background is fixed and stable;

    This sounds sensible, for looking at Rembrandt in Dutch musea you are captured principally by the ”chiaroscuro” effect of the light, which renders the foreground-background distinction fluid. Rembrandt’s clinical Dutch mentality also testifies to the idea that he wasn’t very interested in humans, which is why I am indifferent to his work even while being fascinated by his technique. He’s a lot like Stanley Kubrick that way (”The Shining”).

  10. Carl have the machines now become so sophisticated that they can actually produce the exact avatar of one’s character, as in WordPress spontaneously producing an ambisexual BRAIN WITH TITS to reflect my unique brand of lusciousness and intellectualism? My God we may yet be saved by technology.

  11. Dear center of parody, first, how may I address you? Having to type “center of parody” over and over again is going to get old fast, but neither “center” or “parody” alone seems right. Would it be all right if I wrote, “Dear CoP”?

    But, turning to what you have written about Rembrandt, I am intrigued by your remark about his “clinical Dutch mentality.” Could you say a bit more about this?I ask because, as I read him, Simmel is making a case for Rembrandt’s portraits representing a kind of intuitive understanding supposed to contrast with conceptual understanding involving the use of ideal types, as in Renaissance portraiture and later sociology. The difficulty with this sort of thing has, of course, always been how to reconcile different intuitions. This makes me wonder what you see that makes Rembrandt’s gaze seem so chilly to you.

    P.S. Carl, having the comment field pop up in a way that obscures the text to which one is responding is not good. Damned annoying in fact.

  12. I’ve not noticed any problems, myself on my laptop and desktop. Are you using a mobile device, possibly John?

  13. Same question – I’m typing this in a ‘leave a reply’ box fixed below the comments, as usual, but I also only have laptop/desktop experience of the layout.

  14. Jacob made the right guess. I was using my iPad. On it, the usual comment box does not appear. If you click the comment button, a new window appears that covers the text to which you are replying.

  15. Dear McCreery, I like it when people suck up to me by calling me ‘The Master of Parody’ (MoP is alright as well, although one concedes to the annoying American tendency towards abbreviation)

    The difficulty with this sort of thing has, of course, always been how to reconcile different intuitions.

    Yes that one sounds like a subjective variable, though I can’t see how on Earth anyone could argue that Rembrandt’s paintings are either especially human-oriented, or emotional. I see ‘Dutch mentality’ as very Calvinist, on the one hand, and very social on the other hand, because the Dutch have a developed sense of the collective. (I suppose this is why you always see so many groups in their Rembrandt-era painting) Their preference for the darker color palette I associate with the design of Holland in general, but also, with a certain sobriety, sombreness, fatality perhaps (Calvinism is all about fate).

    But what seemed on the mark about this book you’re describing, is that I think Rembrandt’s special use of light, which I shall laconically deem ”illuminated from within”, renders the borders between the foreground and the background porous. This you can already pick up from a casual glance on google images, but it’s even more obvious in a museum. It’s as though he were interested in the invisible ”social forces” governing the life of his characters, not so much in the inidividual characters themselves.

  16. Hmm, this discussion seems to be running in two directions at once. If I understand Simmel’s initial distinction between Renaissance type-painting and Rembrandt, then the point was that Rembrandt rejected the types and produced individuals captured in their moment of becoming. CoP, however, has observed (correctly in my view) that the extraordinary backgrounds out of which Rembrandt’s figures emerge seem porous enough to render their boundaries, and therefore their boundaries, indistinct. Both interpretations seem plausible. Can they both be true? (I think this illustrates one of the dangers of art criticism, which is the way that visual images can be translated pretty arbitrarily into different kinds of meaning)

  17. produced individuals captured in their moment of becoming.

    But I understood due to the use of the word ”becoming” that these ”individuals” are more like ”singularities” (in the Deleuzian-Foucaltian sense of the word) which then by extension also means that they are simultaneously particular, and determined by the social forces. I suppose one could read this into the paintings, but I would need more explication and evidence for the thesis, before I consider it seriously.

  18. If it were me, I’d prefer “C of P,” which has a nice churchy ring about it, appropriate for a critic don’t you think, to “M of P,” which brings to mind either “Mother of…” or an implement for washing floors. But, everyone to their own taste.

    When I read the comments about porous boundaries, it occurred to me that I would take this as visible evidence of the painterly quality of Rembrandt’s brushwork and, thus, for Simmel’s reading of Rembrandt’s work as a rejection of types. What, after all, is more characteristic of types than the ascription of hard-edged boundaries?

    I think, too, of the phrase, “Rembrand rejected the types,” and a different problem arises. To me the word “reject” has a strongly intellectual, a.k.a., cognitive flavor. I wonder, then, if this phrasing is right for describing Rembrandt’s art, which, if Simmel is right, is a work of hand and eye that transcends the logic-chopping involved when we intellectualize a topic.

  19. I remember Milovan Danojlic, a great Serbian novelist-parodist writing about abbreviations, and how girls from the village, when they move to the big city, not only wear shorter skirts, but also, shorten their names, thinking that this makes them ”hip”, which often results in hilarious names.

    Somehow in the 1980s-1990s this distinctly American pragmatism conquered the whole world, and is now conquering it even more via Twitter and the like.

    is right for describing Rembrandt’s art, which, if Simmel is right, is a work of hand and eye that transcends the logic-chopping involved when we intellectualize a topic.

    don’t flagellate yourself too much for being a sociology egghead, or you’ll end up as obsessive as dr. Sinthome; just as the ”cognitive” is overrated, so, too, is the ”irrational” of art. The truth is somewhere in between – perhaps in one’s analysis, one should embrace the possibility that multiple interpretations are possible, which however doesn’t mean that it isn’t possible to interpret. For me, the best criticism EXTENDS the life of an art object, making it even more meaningful, by suggesting all these new dimensions.

    I am saying this because I spent half my life doing science, and the other doing art, and I feel that it’s quite possible to comfortably combine the two.

  20. of the painterly quality of Rembrandt’s brushwork

    I don’t know what the official term is, I think ”sfumato”, but I’m talking about the haziness of the brush-imprint, its softness, it is not sharp, etc

    I have for a while been obsessed with this study of Brian De Palma’s cinema BECOMING VISIONARY, in which the author, Eyal Peretz, argues that the white light that De Palma uses – and in his (and Kubrick’s) films it has that Rembrandt quality, it plays a separate character role – is a portal, an opening, to other dimensions.

  21. Re: the Dutch national character, may I recommend Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer. It’s a great book that supports what Dejan is saying and nicely does the ANT thing of refusing to treat context as secondary or ‘merely’ explanatory.

    Re: multiple interpretations, how to interpret works of art, Rachel and I talk often about ‘layering’ her art to enable a variety of audience engagements at a variety of ‘levels’. I don’t suppose we invented this. And we dream of the critic who plays along by extending the art in many dimensions, as we are doing here.

  22. Dyke my only interest in soccer centers around the men’s locker room, so I won’t be reading this book, but would you care to regurgitate the main statement(s) on the Dutch neurotic genius, then I’ll tell you what of it I recognize in my everyday Dutch reality.

    The best stuff I read on the Dutch so far is Simon Schama’s ”Embarrassment of the Riches”, focusing especially on the Golden Age and explaining how many aspects of Dutch history were determined by their embarrassment (for having as much money as they do), or in other words their Calvinist self-loathing. I will look again in the Rembrandt chapters, to see if this connects well to the discussion at hand.

  23. Carl the Temptress is breast feeding that cat, and experiencing ANGST of the Partial Object (she sees her mother’s tit in the eyes of the kitten). She’s going to start breeding soon, I can tell, resulting in Lord knows what objectal monstrosities, not to mention that dr. Sinthome will probably have a nervous breakdown.

  24. No sociology egghead am I. Nor am I given to self-flagellation. Academically speaking, I have passed through degrees in philosophy (B.A., 1966) and anthropology (Ph.D., 1973). Stumbling out of academia, I stumbled into a modestly successful career in advertising in Japan and am currently an owner partner (my ever so sagacious wife of forty-one years is the other) of a small translation and copywriting company. Besides a successful marriage, I have one daughter of whom I am insanely proud: U.S. Naval Academy, Class of ’98, former Navy helicopter pilot (yes, she has pulled people out of the water), mother of two delightful children, set to graduate May 26 with a Masters in Public Policy from the Kennedy School at Harvard. She seems to be aiming to take over the world, which would then be, I am quite sure, in very capable hands. Now sixty-six and soon to be sixty-seven, I am happily at that stage in my life where I need worry about little except questions I find of intellectual interest because they keep the little grey cells active. I am frequently read as if I were either a young academic on the make or an old fart with an academic reputation to sustain. Happily I am neither.

    That said, I very much agree with, the proposition that “he best criticism EXTENDS the life of an art object, making it even more meaningful, by suggesting all these new dimensions.”

  25. Ditto on this:

    “the best criticism EXTENDS the life of an art object, making it even more meaningful, by suggesting all these new dimensions.”

    There’s been a lot of hand-wringing lately in literary criticism (Marjorie Garber’s book, for example, looks dreadful), but this is as good a description for the uses of criticism as I’ve seen. Once any work of art becomes historical (i.e. survives its initial moments of dissemination and reception) its endurance is completely dependent upon the quality and quantity of communications about it. The conversation is extended by this process of “suggesting all these new dimensions.” Thanks, CoP.

  26. In the spirit of suggesting new dimensions and spiraling back to Dave’s comments on the relationships of art and literary criticism, let me add the following.

    “That is the trouble with Plot, and its gloomy consigliere, Theme. They are, in many ways, the enemies of Character, of ’roundedness,’ insofar as our humanity as its convincing representation are constituted through contradiction, inconsistency, plurality of desire, absence of abstractable message or moral.”

    Michael Chabon (2008) Reading and Writing along the Borderlands. pp. 70-71.

    Dare we go so far as to equate Plot and Theme with Type and Character with the typical muddle of Becoming? What say you gentlefolk?

  27. “That is the trouble with Plot, and its gloomy consigliere, Theme. They are, in many ways, the enemies of Character, of ’roundedness,’ insofar as our humanity as [sic] its convincing representation are constituted through contradiction, inconsistency, plurality of desire, absence of abstractable message or moral.”

    That “as” should be “and.” Mea culpa.

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