Individuality and Mortality in the Philosophy of Portrait Painting: Simmel, Rousseau, and Melanie Klein

Contrastes: Revista Internacional de Filosofía 23 (3):27-52 (2018)
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This paper explores some connections between depictions of mortality in portrait-painting and philosophical (and psychoanalytic) treatments of our need to be recognized by others. I begin by examining the connection that Georg Simmel makes in his philosophical study of Rembrandt between that artist’s capacity for depicting his portrait subjects as non-repeatable individuals and his depicting them as mortal, or such as to die. After noting that none of Simmel’s explanations of the tragic character of Rembrandt’s portrait subjects seems fully satisfactory, I then turn to Rousseau’s writing on our need for the recognition of others in order to argue that (1) it is at least as sources for the satisfaction of this need that other persons figure for us as irreplaceable (in a way that contrasts with the kinds of satisfaction that intersubstitutable things afford us); and that (2) it is exactly this kind of irreplaceability that Simmel is gesturing at in connecting the concepts of individuality and mortality in his writing on Rembrandt’s portraits. For the remainder of the paper I argue that the foregoing ideas are in fact central to the psychoanalytic writing of Melanie Klein, and in particular (a) Klein’s understanding the infant’s apprehension of other persons as internally related to their anxieties about the possibility of those persons’ irretrievable loss; (b) her understanding that it is as sources of recognition that others’ personhood is made salient to us; and (c) her treatment of portrait-painting as an activity for working through those aforementioned anxieties.

Author's Profile

Byron Davies
Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey Campus Ciudad de México


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