Awkward Family Photos

December 25, 2012

On my last day in New York, I went to see the three paintings by Caravaggio on display at the Met: The Lute Player of c.1597, The Musicians of 1592-3, and The Holy Family with the infant St John the Baptist, of 1602-4. Consider this part of an ongoing series.

The Holy Family is a strange one. Long lost, known only from copies, it was not known at all to M’s contemporary biographers. On entering the gallery, it’s the least prepossessing, sinking into darkness beside the bright boys of the other paintings.

But it’s all there, after a moment, the tension, and the pain. This is an awkward family photo. Mary cradles her child, Joseph embraces them, and John reaches up to touch the infant Jesus with a wondering, curious hand. His upturned face, half-hidden, has the quizzical concentration of every exploratory toddler.

Joseph gently restrains John’s hand. It’s a powerful gesture: this, child, is not for you to touch. Gentle, but firm. Joseph has the solemn, careworn face of so many of M’s old men and women. He is very old and tired; his other hand, reaching around to enclose his family, holds a tall stick: Joseph is a traveller, his hands are dark and dirty.

In fact, Joseph is wholly dark, obscured by thick grey hair and brown cloaks. Only enough light catches his face to illuminate his gaze: away from his wife and the child, downward to John. Even his grip on John’s plump arm is shadowed, serving just to break that line of sight and highlight John’s eyeline.

Joseph fades into the background, as he fades from the story. He is loving and protective, full of care, but he is a traveller, and will move on, and out of frame.

The infant Jesus is a little bit too clean, too rounded, to be believable. He’s too cherubic for M’s family, but that’s convention. He too looks down at John; he doesn’t want to go to him, like one child to his playmate: they are strangers, and he wraps his arms around his mother’s neck, presses his cheek to hers.

The greatest discomfort, the tragedy at the heart of the painting, is Mary’s, of course. Of all the subjects, only she bears the full weight of what is to come. John can merely point, heedless of what he does, like a child staring at a cripple or a beggar on the subway, an act that makes adults uncomfortable. Children don’t know why they stare, but they’re good at it.

Joseph is resigned: he knows the child is special, accepts it like he accepts his own burdens, knows that when the time comes he’ll be out of the picture. Jesus is, as ever, too perfect, too unconcerned: he is not of this world, in full awareness of his own immanence, retaining only enough semblance of a child to cling, for now, to his mother, from habit and affection, not from fright.

But Mary knows. She knows why this picture is being made; knows what will happen to her child, whom she loves for himself and not for any other reason, loves in fear of him and what will happen to him, loves with all the pain of a mother who will bury her own son, and sees the inevitability of this end in the oblivious attentions of the infant John, and in the careful attention of the painter. She can meet nobody’s eye—not John; not her, strange, absent, assured child; she cannot even touch her husband, nor he her; she cannot look at the painter; and she cannot look at us, the viewer, complicit in all of this, voyeurs and sinners, responsible for all that will happen to her family. Jesus’ necessary death is on all of us: Mary knows this, she knows what John does, she knows this picture too is necessary, but, with her arm wrapped tight around her child, she gazes down with all the stoic, half-broken sadness in the world.

The Musicians is a bit of a mess—poorly planned, cramped, damaged and restored. It’s all about Mario of course, the centre and focus of the painting; it’s always about Mario. His limpid eyes; his high, wide brows; his full lips; that cleft in his chin; deep dimples under the lip and nose; impossibly pale; pink skin and thick hair. M throws a lush red cloak over him; everything else just crowds Mario really, but there is much else.

The boy at the front, his face turned away, is clearly beautiful. Smooth back, a suggestion of muscles in the arm, one soft, blushed ear. He’s more beautiful than Mario, in fact, but although you can bet they’re fucking, you know M likes the difficult ones, the mean, spoiled ones, the best. Mario has tears in his eyes but he’s not crying about the madrigals they’re singing; he’s just in a mood again.

M’s self-inclusion is breathtakingly bold—not a little rude, even. He paints these beautiful boys, and paints himself between them. He sets a place for the viewer in the foreground, music and instrument laid out for us to pick up, but he’s right there, possessively crowding the frame, his shoulder pressed to Mario’s. His lips are parted, but not in song: it’s a lascivious look, half invitation and half threat. Unlike vacant, bored and moody Mario, he stares straight at us. M even corrupts Cupid. His arrows are sheathed; he reaches for the grapes.

The Musicians is mostly study, but a wonderfully personal, revealing one. Look into M’s eyes, and see what he sees.

Finally, The Lute Player—and guess what, it’s Mario again, although identified by the Met as the castrato Pedro Montoya. I mean, seriously, he’s right there, not six feet away, with the same chin, same eyes, same hair, same mouth.

He is singing here though; he’s not in a mood. The backdrop is barely there, just a dim birdcage for something to do, and a beam of light for contrast, but the foreground is bright and alive. The lack of tension between painter and sitter allows M to focus on the still life, on the music and instruments—particularly the violin—on Mario’s hands instead of his face, on the rich detail of the tablecloth and the clothing.

The Lute Player is the most immediately beautiful of the three paintings, it’s the one that draws the eye on entering, but it’s really the least interesting, least complex and involving. M’s great still lives show his extreme, extraordinary craft, but his passion is revealed in the chaotic, loaded sexuality of the musicians, and the raw depths of emotion, portraiture, and care, of the the Holy Family.

Caravaggio’s paintings are all there: they emerge, breathlessly, out of an art history that has rarely, truly looked at them. I became obsessed with them thanks to Peter Robb’s iconoclastic M, a book widely despised by art critics and praised by literary ones, but you don’t need to read it to get Robb’s point of view; you just need to be lucky enough to spend some time with these canvases, to stand before them, to look into the sitters’ eyes, to share a space with them, and the artist, and it all comes tumbling forth.

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