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The magnificent assembly of Caravaggio's paintings on display at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City through April 14 is embedded in an exhibition designed as an upper-level course in its subject who, with characteristic unruliness, blows this edifying format sky high. So the Met furnishes an experience inadvertantly at offs with the museum's pedadogic intentions, but very close, I think, to this historical reality of Caravaggio's impact on the world he swaggered into in the early 1590s.

Here is the way one is supposed to see the show. First, one studies fourteen works by Northern Italian artists which Caravaggio is presumed to have seen in his formative years in Lombardy. These were not his "precursors," as the catalogue describes them, for he had none, any more than Thomas Hart Benton was a precursor of Jackson Pollock, who also had none. In any case, having digested these putative influences, one passes among Caravaggio's contemporaries and competitors in Rome in the exciting period from 1590 to 1610, when the overpowering example of Michelangelo had been tempered by Mannerism, and the High Baroque was getting under way. Rome at the dawn of the seventeenth century was like New York at the dusk of the twentieth, the place to make it, the place that reduced the remainder of the country to so many artisitc backwaters. Here are the Carracci--Annibale and Ludovico--whose age this was, if anyone's, since it was their eclectic, classicist style that prevailed as the result of major commissions. Here, too, is Guido Reni, a major painter but not the creator of a dominating style, whom we see showing the unmistakable influence of Caravaggio. Then there is the Cavaliere d'Arpino, at the height of his success in 1600 and for a brief period Caravaggio's employer. And a scattering of others: Gentileschi, Domenichino, even Rubens (working in Rome just then), and a number of fine painters who have disappeared from the consciousness of all but specialists. Now, after absorbing the artistic context from forty-six paintings by these figures, one reaches at last the Caravaggios, equipped to appreciate them diachronically and synchronically and detect the influence of this and that, here and there, more or less. One is meant to leave the exhibition (picking up the catalogue for further study), one's pwoers of connoisseurship enhanced, with a keen sense of where Caravaggio fit into his age.

Here is the way one in fact sees the show. The viewer is almost immediately afflicted with the glazed eyes familiar to those who have trudged the provincial museums of Italy--the first rooms almost smell damp and cold through awakened associations. Out of a sense of cultural duty on reads a label or two, noting with alarm that among the paintings one might have passed by is a Tintoretto, and one tries to summon up an interest suitable to this fact. Interest quickens somewhat when one comes to the Roman segment of the show, perhaps because the juxtaposition convey the air of aggressive competition--of style wars that livened the Roman art world at a time when painters vied to define a style suited to the majestic reassertion of Catholicism. And now one crosses the threshold into a room of paintings so luminous and powerful that one is knocked off one's horse. Whatever painting is supposed to be, one has been seeing it through a glass darkly in those preparatory galleries. The glaze dissolves, the spirit lifts, and for the rest of the show one has just that feeling the paintings show: of some mysterious light cutting through the darkness of the soul with the fury of a spiritual sword. And one leaves exhausted and exalted, as though coming down from some mystical high.

It might have been anticipated that an artist with this degree of visual drama would subvert the format that justified the show in the minds of its organizers, but the museum teaches a higher lesson by making it possible that this should happen. Very few of Caravaggio's words have come down to us, and most of those that have appear in the transcript of a trial, in which he is accused of slandering the artist Giovanni Baglione. Caravaggio's testimony is a series of sneering remarks about other artists. They are not, and Baglione certainly is not, what he terms valenthuomini, i.e., those who "have a real understanding of painting." He could have been more conciliatory, but only if he were a different order of man. In fact he was a punk and a knife-fighter, vain and irascible, intemperate and mean. But he was on history's short list of valenthuomini, and the show is cruel to those bracketed with him who were not. I walked through the show three times, and each time I re-entered the first room of Caravaggios, I felt the same exhilaration.

The pictures in that room are mostly of unmistakably carnal boys, fingering pieces of fruit, tendering a wine glass, recoiling from a lizard, holding flowers, banging at lutes, usually draped in low-cut ambiguous garments with pretty sashes. I expect that Caravaggio's reputation for homoeroticism derives primarily from the visible evidence of these paintings, in at least one of which--not shown here--he used himself as a model, posing as Bacchus, grape-leaves wreathing his curls, his surly muscles contradicting or perhaps enhanced by the feminine, off-the-shoulder garment, leering at the viewer over a bunch of grapes he pretends to require both hands to hold. But these were done when he was struggling to maintain himself in the first difficult Roman years, and may have less to do with his own proclivities than the tastes of a special market: I see them as fantasy objects for corrupt cardinals to moon over, high-class pinup boys. This may be confirmed by a painting of Saint Francis, lying prone after receiving the stigmata, being conforted by a pleasure boy disguised as an angel in a provocative chemise, an image which connects the religious vocation and erotic preference which co-exist harmoniously in the same ecclesiastical breast.

Something more than luminousness and lubricity transpires in these paintings, however, and in a way that takes us to the heart of Caravaggio's vision: we must see these youths as situated at the intersection of two orders of reality. They really are street boys, endowed to turn a scudo or two in hot and sordid encounters, and it is essential to anything else their representations may be that they are what they appear. But they are also what they stand for in fantasy: incarnations of angels or mythic gods or godlings. Caravaggio does not paint himself with the emblems of Bacchus; he is, at once, really Bacchus and really himself--a divinity and a tough, existing on two planes. Exactly this mode of transfiguration may be seen in Rembrandt, one of the true caravaggisti. In his painting "Saskia as Flora," Saskia is unmistakably Saskia, but she is also the flower goddess, her identity as Rembrandt's wife not swamped but penetrated by her other identity. Hendrijke Stoffels really is that dumpy, sagging and used woman--but she is also Bathsheba, possessed of a beauty radiant enough to drive a king to treachery for possession of her. The thought that persons and events of the most extraordinary import and dimension are present, here, in commonplace people--that innkeeper is Jesus, that porter a martyrizer--is the deep conviction of Caravaggio's paintings, derived perhaps from his own sense of himself, brawler as valenthuomo, Saint Luke as an assassin, artist as monster. Even a basket of fruit a irradiated by angelic possibilities.

The thought that some sullen boy might have a second identity, that he could be Bacchus or a cherub, answers a very ancient aspiration for art. Tragic drama provided a circumstance in which the hero, played perhaps by a youth very little different from these, could be possessed, at the climactic moment, by Dionysus himself. That the saints should be literally present in their icons made painting, in Byzantium, a dangerous and magical endeavor. The primordial meaning of re-presentation is that of a second presence. What was Baroque Rome but the theatricalization of common life in the constant hope of just such interventions? The members of the Cornaro family are depicted by Bernini in the chapel they dedicated, watching from box seats the transaction of a miracle, Saint Theresa pricked by a grinning angel as in an act of cosmic vaudeville you too could witness. In Caravaggio's own great chapels, the viewer of the painting--"The Conversion of Saint Paul," "The Calling of Saint Matthew"--is also the witness of the event. In all or almost all the paintings here, real people are vessels of exalted personages. There is a young woman, for example, who seems to be represented as both Saint Catherine and Mary Magdalene but who is also Judith hacking off the head of Holofernes with just the right expression of girlish squeamishness and womanly resolution. When Caravaggio abandons nature and derives a profile from some antique motif, as in the angel who arrests Abraham's sacrificing hand, he degenerates into Mannerism.

We must surely refer to the premises of deep theatricality to understand the dark into which he sets his luminescent figures. The Renaissance painting, it is trite to say, was meant as a window through which we see more of the same reality we ourselves occupy. If it creates an illusion, it is an optical rather than a spiritual one, as the preoccupations with perspective and orderly recession imply. The Caravaggian blackness is not a naturalistic representation of night or shadow, but marks instead a metaphoric division between our space and the space in which the martyrdoms and ecstasies and the violent adorations of Baroque art take place. It is a reversal of what we take for granted in theater, where the audience sits in darkness while the characters enact a drama in a space of encapsulated light. Caravaggio's are spaces of encapsulated dark. It would have been beyond the technical means of the Baroque theater to control lighting with an exactitude sufficient to suggest a parallel, but lighting in Baroque painting is a visual analogue to music as the accompaniment of action. Think of the extraordinary effect of a performer spotlighted not against but inside a surrounding darkness, and you will, I believe, have some sense of what chiaroscuro means in Caravaggio. The spaces are neither shallow nor deep. They have no proportion to lived space and are defined less by a geometry than a metaphysics.

In the climactic position, on the far wall of the final gallery, is a depiction of David holding and beholding the head of Goliath. It occupies the position in this show that Van Gogh's self-portrait with severed ear did in the show that preceded it. Here we have a self-portrait as severed head, for Goliath's head is the artist's head, trailing gore. The eyes are not yet dulled by death, the brow is knit in powerful concentration, the mouth is open in meditation and astonishment. David gazes obliquely downward at this trophy. His expression, too, is meditative. The lips are softly pursed, the sword is lowered. He is of the same breed as the boys shown in the first room, but utterly diseroticized: the flesh is luminous but opaque, the garment exposes his chest but is coarse. Victor and vanquished are locked together by the same mystical light and occupy the same enveloping darkness. All the elements of the art come together in an image heightened by its position in the exhibition. It is the image you will carry with you as you leave.

I would pass up the erudite catalogue when you do leave, unless your interests are quite scholarly, and pick up instead Howard Hibbard's lucid fand sensitive study Caravaggio (Harper & Row). Hibbard did not live to see the exhibition, and we all are poorer for not having his responses to it. If reviews could be dedicated, I would dedicate this to his memory.
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Title Annotation:Caravaggio, Metropolitian Museum, New York
Author:Danto, Arthur Coleman
Publication:The Nation
Date:Mar 2, 1985
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