Profanity in Art Criticism

February 7, 2011

This weekend past I was in Milan, following the excellent ifbookthen conference. I went to the Pinacoteca di Brera, and the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, two of Milan’s most famous galleries, because I have a thing for Caravaggio, and he is twice represented in the city.

While at the former, I tweeted: “F**k Yeah Caravaggio”. As much as I enjoy the creative constraints placed upon the writer by Twitter’s 140 character limit, I would like to expand on this, by quoting from my notebook of the day.

I am sitting in front of Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus, the second version from 1606, and the real reason I came to the museum. It is, of course, the best work in any of the gallery’s 30-something rooms, its circumstance explicit, its Christ, after so many pure and beaded blondes, so many adoring gazes, so many long white fingers and staring blue eyes: Caravaggio’s—M’s—Christ is so unassuming and so real, so the centre of the room’s attention.

M’s Christ is tired. He has been on the road all day, his face is dusty and his eyes, crucially, are downcast, no part of them visible. One hand rests on the table, the other is raised, one-fingered, but not, as elsewhere, in defiance or in argument, not as symbol but as gesture. He is tired of walking and he is tired of explaining, but this, more than the pain of martyrdom, the whips, the crown of thorns, the rivulets of blood that stream from the Christs behind him and spread throughout the gallery, this is the ultimate effort of M’s Christ: to go on explaining; to make a point; to make, with infinite patience, things right.

Christ’s followers, turned away from the viewer, are the least interesting, but like the kneeling peasants of the Madonna of Loreto, or the great arse in the Crucifixion of St Peter, they allow us to ingress, give us permission to walk up to the table too, and listen as Christ, once again, states the infinite, immeasurable truth of his belief.

He wants nothing more than to eat. He has already broken the bread that sits in front of him, cracking the hard crust with an unwashed thumb, but, because it is necessary, he raises his hand again to make the point, in order that we should fully understand.

The innkeeper who stands at Christ’s shoulder is sceptical, unconvinced by the wild claims of his companions, his thumbs hooked into his apron, his shoulders rolled back. But he too is transfixed by Christ’s weary yet unbending resolution, his calm manner, his utter sincerity. He will stand there for some time, listening intently, until he realises he has forgotten time itself.

Only the old servant to the right, her plate filled with the dinner she has been prevented from placing on the table by the innkeeper’s immobility and the wild surmise of the companions; only she is not looking towards Christ, but, head tilted down into the light, eyes lowered, she too waits her turn. To her M grants an attitude most like that of Christ. She works, she has worked hard and she will do do unto death. Only she is permitted to receive Christ’s message with the same calm with which it is offered, because she suffers, and it is to her that Christ has come.

Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit—one of only two extant still lifes. I had forgotten it, and was expecting one of the early portraits of drunk boys—but still, it leaps off the wall. In the dimly-lit room, its off-yellow background glows and recedes, producing a trompe-l’œil. It has incredible depth, as though the fruit bowl is in a tank, recessed into the wall. Although the application is different, one of lightness surrounding rather than darkness shrouding, the yellow background produces the the same effect as M’s usual swathes of black: a field of colour, of shade which enhances and focusses in on the subject.

Hologrammatic is the word-effect I’m looking for. The basket defies physics, curving away from the viewer, its one, flung-out tendril of vine receding then pushing back into focus.

It might just be me, but there seems to be a particular intensity of corruption, more of the stigma of death, in this still life (which the Italians call ‘natura morte’) than is common. Three or four different types of grape exhibit a range of mistings, moulds and blight, from pearl-grey opalescence to soft, black rot. The black mouth of a wormhole in a fleshy apple winks obscenely at the viewer. The plum’s skin splits. The pear is pitted like a smallpox victim, while the leaves, where not eaten away, are dry and twisted.

The final evidence is this: the bare stalks that protrude, almost unnoticed, from the foremost bunch of grapes, a handful torn away and eaten, the artist hungry to taste.

It is a vision of ageing, corruption and death. Also of stillness: the stillness not of death but of unemployment, of frustration, of talent restrained and wasted. As a last painting, even as part of a slow middle period, it would be unbearably depressing. But as an early work; as a piece of juvenile anger; as a shout against dead traditions, of training and apprenticeship, of practice and technique over lived life, boys and wine: it promises the world.

Caravaggio obliterates everything else.

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