Caravaggio: More than a “Moment” (Review of The Moment of Caravaggio by Michael Fried)

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Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Judith and Holofernes, oil on canvas, Galleria nazionale di arte antica, Roma

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Judith and Holofernes, oil on canvas, Galleria nazionale di arte antica, Roma


Caravaggio: More than a “Moment”
Review of The Moment of Caravaggio by Michael Fried.
Princeton University Press, 2010. Cloth. 328 pp. $49.50.
ISBN: 978-0-691-14701-7

Everyone agrees that Caravaggio was a revolutionary painter, but the reasons we give often tend toward the superficial: he was a realist, he was provocative, he was theatrical, and so on. The fact is that there were many realist, provocative, theatrical artists before Caravaggio, and many endowed with these qualities after him were influenced by someone else. So what makes Caravaggio so special?

Michael Fried claims it was the extraordinary presence of “absorption” and “distancing” in his work. Although Caravaggio was not the first to explore these themes (cf. Michelangelo’s prophets and sibyls in the Sistine Chapel), Fried argues that the Lombard genius was the first to bring them to the fore. He also believes that the (not necessarily chronological) moments of absorption/immersion and distancing/specularity tell us something about the philosophical milieu in which Caravaggio worked. Skepticism challenged the certainty that other minds exist, and Caravaggio responded with a psychological realism more powerful and sophisticated than any philosophical argument.

Employing the same interdisciplinary analysis he used in his study of Courbet, Fried explains that Caravaggio’s “moments” are more structural than temporal, more psychological than spatial. In order to understand either Caravaggio or Courbet (or, it seems, any painter), we must keep in mind the primordial relationship between the act of painting and the painter. Certain clues indicate how this relationship plays out for individual artists and allows us to compare and contrast them in interesting ways. Both Caravaggio and Courbet filled the bottom part of the canvas with activity, both relied on chiaroscuro, and both were criticized for their weak depiction of human action. But there is also a crucial difference between them. Whereas Courbet “strives to achieve a relationship of quasi-corporeal merging with the painting on which he is working, Caravaggio in the second, more conspicuously thematized ‘moment’ … finds himself compelled to dramatize the very shock of separation and withdrawal from the representation, thereby establishing the latter … in a new and highly polarized relation to the general issue of spectatordom” (p. 48).

If this strikes you as highly psychological, then you already have good taste of what the book is about. By the end, when he arrives at Caravaggio’s Judith and Holofernes and Peter Paul Rubens’s Juno and Argus, Fried seems able to interpret virtually any work by placing it under the immersion-specularity lens and throwing in a few pieces of extra-pictorial evidence. Even a non-expert begins to suspect that he is stretching the immersion-specularity theory beyond what can reasonably be expected of it. Theory starts to determine how we view, and how we view begins to serve only theory-building. Besides missing the richness of Caravaggio’s oeuvre, an approach like this risks caricaturing the artist as a man whose sole ambition, either consciously or unconsciously, is to embody a single idea in a hundred different ways.

His thesis is not completely without historical warrant, however, for he occasionally provides supporting evidence from personal correspondence and philosophical essays published at the time the artist was working to support his psychological interpretation. In the case of Caravaggio, Fried suggests that we might better understand him against the backdrop of Denis Diderot’s idea that the viewer should fade away as if he or she had nothing to do with what is happening in the picture — a project that eventually failed since subjects began to look as if they were consciously trying to be alone. To counter this, the painter, in Fried’s estimation, must immerse him or herself in the painting precisely as the picture’s first “beholder.”

Originally presented as the 2002 A. W. Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery of Art, the thesis deserves a fair hearing, for despite the apparent psychological exaggeration, Fried does manage to cast a sufficiently different light on Caravaggio that can help us spy something we probably missed before. He begins with the elusive Boy Bitten by a Lizard, a picture often taken as a (subpar) photograph in paint. Fried proposes that it is actually a self-portrait made with the help of a mirror. Indeed, right-angle mirror representations were in use in Rome by the time Caravaggio arrived, and they were highly esteemed for opening new technical and intellectual vistas. Fried compares Boy Bitten by a Lizard with Rinaldo’s “love mirror” in the legend bearing the hero’s name. Rinaldo immersed himself in the beauty of his beloved Armida only to be roused from his infatuation by a feminized reflection of himself in his shield. The Uffizi Bacchus (ca. 1596-97; not a right-angle mirror representation) shows how Caravaggio tried to conflate these two “moments” of immersion and specularity. The ripples in the folds of Bacchus’s toga and in his wineglass evoke the repetitive act of applying paint, thus protracting the “moment” of immersion. The specularity emerges from a miniature male figure reflected in the convex surface of the carafe to Bacchus’s right, alluding to the painter. Fried subjects Salome Receiving the Head of John the Baptist to the same analysis, though he admits that it presents a more difficult case in that it is unclear whether Salome has already looked down at the severed head and whether the maid is engaged in an initial moment of immersion or a re-gazing at the spectacle. Fried believes this painting hovers on the brink of specularity, “as if only with reluctance delivering itself to the viewer” (p. 65).

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Penitent Magdalen, oil on canvas,Galleria Doria Pamphilij, Rome.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Penitent Magdalen, oil on canvas, Galleria Doria Pamphilij, Rome.

In more extreme examples of “immersion” we find subjects so deeply engrossed in what they are doing and thinking that they are completely unaware of what is happening around them. The Penitent Magdalene (1596-1597) exemplifies how this can be accomplished with minimal physiognomic and gestural means. Giovanni Bellori considered this picture an experiment in realism with an economy of color. Fried, surmising that Caravaggio wanted to show his subject wholly absorbed in painful thoughts and feelings, counters Helen Langdon’s interpretation that Mary is caught in the very moment when she perceives the temptations of this world. The bowed heads of the mourning apostles in the Death of the Virgin represent an even more restrained depiction of absorptive emotion. The inwardness of the subjects is intensified by their collectivity and their obliviousness to the large, red drapery looming above them. The Incredulity of Saint Thomas is a special case in that the upward movement of Thomas’s brow contrasts with the downward-moving, immersive expressions on the faces of the other two apostles, thus giving the composition a tight unity in a relatively small space.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Christ Crowned with Thorns, oil on canvas, Scuderie del Quirinale, Rome.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Christ Crowned with Thorns, oil on canvas, Scuderie del Quirinale, Rome.

Fried gives the Crowning with Thorns (ca. 1602-5?) a surprisingly original interpretation, one not without theological merit. The expression on Christ’s face shows his awareness of being scourged in order to fulfil the Old Testament prophecies. Yet his passion is more “active” than “passive.” Fried sees this in Christ’s right hand which willingly reaches for the broken reed as a mock scepter. Even more striking is the proximity of Christ’s hand to that of the seated, armor-clad figure to his left. Contra Peter Robb, to whom this figure appears bored (because the model must have been bored), Fried persuasively argues that he is rather deeply “immersed” and “absorbed” in what is going on before him. “Recognizing another to be Christ for oneself is … the very content of the Crowning” (p. 106).

If absorption was so central to Caravaggio’s artistic endeavor, why have we not noticed this before? Fried thinks that he personally has been able to perceive this feature largely because of his study of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French painting. Moreover, because these pictures hang in crowded public or inaccessible private galleries, few have the luxury to take a long, hard look at them. Most interesting, however, is the author’s suggestion that we have not yet given sufficient consideration to the philosophical climate in which these works were produced. Absorption presumes that other people have minds just like us. This presumption was on rather tenuous ground in the age of skepticism. Fried considers Stanley Cavell’s thesis that Shakespeare’s plays are actually the dramatic working out of a response to this skepticism. Cavell, however, arguing against empathetic projection as a satisfactory response to skepticism, proposes that our response does not consist in seeing the other person as a human being, but in seeing a human being. Fried, on the other hand, does not want to dismiss empathetic projection too facilely when it comes to painting (which cannot respond in the way human beings can). Something like empathetic projection helps us to understand how the art of painting became fraught with new significance in the 1590s and early 1600s in ways not dissimilar to Shakespearean tragedy.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Head of the Medusa, Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Head of the Medusa, Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence.

The ideas of immersion/absorption and distancing/specularity also force us to rethink Caravaggio’s use of self-portraiture. This is perhaps the most creative aspect of Fried’s theory. Caravaggio places himself in his pictures — subtly and not so subtly — within the mutually entangled “moments” of immersion and specularity. This is particularly striking in pictures that use frontal address (e.g., the Uffizi Bacchus, Saint John the Baptist with a Ram, The Lute Player at the State Hermitage, and the Medusa). It is rather odd, for example, that the Gorgon in the Medusa (which Fried thinks has elements of self-portraiture) does not look squarely at the viewer. Fried hypothesizes that her expression of shock and dismay is the result of having seen Perseus’s reflection in the mirror rather than her own. According to this interpretation, it is not she who turns herself into stone; she is rather turned into stone after having seen the menacing face of Perseus. This collapses the moments of immersion and specularity such that “absorption and address constitute two poles of a single representational or rather pictorial regime” (p. 117).

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and her Maidservant (1613-14), oil on canvas, Palazzo Pitti, Florence.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and her Maidservant (1613-14), oil on canva,s Palazzo Pitti, Florence.

Given its appearance at several shows during the 400th anniversary of Caravaggio’s birth, a word is in order about Judith and Holofernes (ca. 1599). Much scholarly analysis heretofore has concentrated on the three “separate” models used to make the picture — a concentration Fried finds distracting. In accord with his absorption-distance theory, he thinks it is imperative that we notice a parallel between Judith and the artist. Her sword parallels the artist’s brush and Holofernes’s head, his palette. Rather than betraying a weakness in Caravaggio’s ability to paint from live models, Judith’s awkward stance and expression mark an intense specular moment in the artist’s production of the painting. Her distance from Holofernes’s body parallels the distance the painter wishes to take from his product. Perhaps Caravaggio wanted to balance this distance by depicting Abra, the maidservant, as absorbed in the spectacle. Fried contrasts this painting with Orazio Gentileschi’s Judith and Her Maidservent (ca. 1608-1609) in which both figures look outside the picture frame, emphasizing the severance of a gallery picture from its immediate surroundings. According to Fried, the theme of absorption can also be seen in the works of the Caravaggisti (e.g., Manfredi’s A Reunion of the Drinkers (ca. 1612-1614) and especially in works by Valentin and Régnier). Fried asserts that “the evident lack of concern for pictorial unity on the part of many of the Caravaggisti has been a factor in the collective tendency of modern scholars to underestimate the significance of their artistic project” (p. 174). The new paradigm of absorption was eclipsed in the 1630s by the affetti and vehemently opposed by Nicolas Poussin.

Since their founding in 1949, the A. W. Mellon Lectures have been at their best when the invited speaker integrates the practical and theoretical aspects of painting with the history of ideas. Fried certainly moves in this direction. He believes that excessive attention to techniques of lighting, modelling, and painting can distract us from the conceptual core of Caravaggio’s vision. Yet his psychologism heads for the other extreme and opens up a host of further questions. For example, was Caravaggio’s use of immersion and specularity conscious or unconscious? If both, when was it conscious and when unconscious? Does it matter?

In reasoning with Fried on these questions, I would grant him two things. First of all, there is no doubt that Caravaggio inserted himself into his paintings, especially in moments of deep anguish. Secondly, it is true that painting is a profoundly subjective, personal act, regardless of whether one explicitly inserts himself into the picture or not. But there is one possibility Fried does not consider which would present a serious challenge to his theory: perhaps Caravaggio was just as interested, if not more interested, in distancing himself by capitalizing on the interrelationships within the frame as he was on climbing into the frame himself.

The French Jesuit philosopher Joseph De Finance (1904-2000) elaborated a theory of “otherness” that might help in this regard. “Every type of human action,” he wrote, “is a typology of our attitudes towards the other, and more precisely towards the ‘otherness’ of the other,” such that “the full meaning of art emerges only at the level of interpersonal relations.” According to his model, art is a non-conceptual objectification in an external work of that which is either active or latent in the consciousness or subconsciousness of the subject and which very often escapes oral expression. In this light, perhaps Caravaggio was not as concerned with responding to skepticism through solipsistic experiments in immersion and specularity as he was with maximizing intersubjectivity in his paintings, even in the case where there is only one subject as in the Penitent Magdalene. If we look carefully at the picture, and if we are attuned to the artist’s ingenuous use of light, we see that Mary is anything but alone. It is precisely in her moment of solitude that she fully recognizes the impact of having encountered an “other” in Christ. The amazing achievement of Caravaggio is that, unlike his predecessors, he captures the intense intersubjectivity of this moment without the presence of any other figure. How his subjectivity fits into the picture is anybody’s guess. How his subjectivity fits into to a picture like Judith and Holofernes takes an even wilder guess, and Fried’s suggestion that Judith mirrors the artist holding a brush and palette is perhaps the wildest guess I have ever heard. If true, then the “immersion” can only be subconscious or unconscious, for I see no reason why Judith’s posture and expression have anything to do with Caravaggio’s posture, let alone his subjectivity. From the viewpoint of the intersubjectivity of the three characters, the picture is bursting with energy, which is why I think it rivals paintings of Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi of the same episode.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Martyrdom of St. Matthew, Contarelli Chapel, S. Luigi dei Francesi, Rome.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Martyrdom of St. Matthew, Contarelli Chapel, S. Luigi dei Francesi, Rome.

To his credit, Fried’s analysis does help to elucidate paintings in which Caravaggio does include a self-portrait such as the Crucifixion of Saint Matthew. The posture and expression of Caravaggio, who is the figure furthest in the background, is ambiguous. Is he reluctant to leave? Did he participate in the act? Does he wish he had done something to save Matthew? The same ambiguity probably tormented Caravaggio’s soul, yet he could not have captured that anguish in paint if not for the poignant intersubjectivity of the characters around him. That is why Fried’s hypothesis that this painting is a study of “the internal — that is, psychic, physical, procedural — dynamic that went into its making” (p. 206) can be even more distracting than any attention we might devote to lighting, models, or artistic technique.

Hence my own ambiguity toward Fried’s conclusion: “For Caravaggio, not always but often enough for it to be one of the characteristic features of his art, the act of painting involved an attempt to establish the final self-sufficiency and autonomy of the work on his easel by cutting the work free not only from its surroundings, its immediate and indeed its prospective environment, but also — much more painfully and problematically — from himself as its creator” (208). Fried views this as Caravaggio’s response to Leonardo da Vinci’s claim that the worse thing an artist can do is reproduce himself in his paintings. I agree with Fried that, in some sense, Caravaggio did want to distance himself from his painting. Yet I think he was able to achieve that goal much more effectively by exploring the theme of intersubjectivity than by striving to unite immersion and distance in a single “moment.”

About the author

Daniel B. Gallagher

Daniel Gallagher has taught philosophy and theology and is the author of numerous articles in metaphysics and aesthetics. He is particularly interested in the overlapping issues of classical, medieval, and modern theories of beauty and art. A catholic priest, Monsignor Gallagher is currently stationed at the Vatican.

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