14 February, 2011Issue 15.3The ArtsVisual Arts

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Internal Structures of Meaning

Austeja Mackelaite

The Moment of CaravaggioMichael Fried
The Moment of Caravaggio
Princeton UP, 2010
328 Pages
ISBN 978-0691147017

The Moment of Caravaggio marks the unexpected encounter of two greats within the history of art: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571 – 1610), whose violent realism transformed the scene of late 17th-century Italian painting, and Michael Fried (1939–), renowned for tracing the development of modern art in his trilogy on French painting, which includes the iconic Absorption and Theatricality (1980). Fried is the first to admit his position on the fringe of Caravaggio studies. His humbleness, however, might be overstated. The book, based on the A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts that Fried delivered in 2001, marks the climax of his interest in an artist on whom he first lectured in 1993.

While The Moment of Caravaggio—a book preoccupied with the emergence of autonomous “gallery pictures” in the 1590s and onwards—historically predates Fried’s celebrated trilogy, it is positioned against the background of these earlier texts. For that reason, devotees of Caravaggio alone have to bear with large sections of text discussing artists both historically and geographically remote, among whom Gustave Courbet, the leading 19th-century French realist, is the most dominant. Such digressions, however, are essential for anyone intending to understand the origin of the internal structure of meaning in Caravaggio‘s art. Devotees of Fried, on the other hand, will not be disappointed, as the book carries the famous stamp of his art historical brand. By coming to new conclusions it validates old discourses. Yet in an age when micro-claims to truth are increasingly becoming the only claims that art historians feel comfortable making, the suggestion that Caravaggio and Courbet “may be seen as belonging to a single, overarching historical development” is not only brave but, indeed, refreshing. It is in such bold suggestions as these that we glimpse Fried’s greater ambition to create a grand art historical narrative, ranging from the Early Modern to the present.

Nevertheless, a sense of scepticism regarding the possibility of such a project is woven into the very fabric of the book. In discussing the impassive figures that dominate Caravaggio’s canvases, Fried adapts Stanley Cavell’s argument that Shakespeare’s plays are structured around “interpret[ing] and reinterpret[ing] the skeptical problematic—the question whether I know with certainty of the external world and of myself and others in it”. Fried would suggest, then, that the minimalist, often simply unreadable expressiveness of Caravaggio’s personages places his works in a very similar dialogue “with the skeptical doubt”. Such a claim, while well-argued and historically plausible, has immense implications for Fried’s own project, which is so often based on reading “the unreadable” in specific ways. Its shortcomings become particularly evident in his discussion of Caravaggio’s Crowning with Thorns. Dismissing Peter Robb’s claim that the man in armour occupying the left side of the foreground is depicted “in a pose of deepest boredom”, Fried argues that it is “unquestionable” that he is “utterly fascinated, spellbound, transfixed.” Yet, as Fried seems to admit, the “necessary separatedness” between the viewer and the viewed, a separation upon which Caravaggio’s paintings are arguably structured, prevents him from offering a persuasive basis for this interpretation. It thus becomes obvious that Fried does not occupy a privileged position of authoritative insight, but is simply another viewer denied access to the internal states of Caravaggio’s figures. His attempt to explain Caravaggio’s epistemological fluidity by placing him in the company of Shakespeare, Descartes, and the like, theorising the doubt in order to neutralise it, can be understood as an effort to escape that uncomfortable position.

Fried’s “moment” of Caravaggio is a nexus of relationships, both painterly and social, that enabled the rise of gallery pictures in Bologna and Rome between the 1590s and the first two decades of the 17th century. Neat binary oppositions are the trademark of Fried‘s art history, and this book is no exception. He theorises the production of Caravaggio’s canvases as based on two distinct yet often temporally simultaneous instances: immersion being a “moment” of continuity between the painter and his canvas, while specularity is a “moment” of ferocious separation of the two. Although the images often blur the tidy polarities that Fried projects onto them, the result is a captivating reimagining of Caravaggio’s violent realism based on the instance of pictorial production rather than the facts of the artist’s lurid biography (which get a reluctant glance).

While Fried defines his own interpretative strategy as “avowedly historical”, it soon becomes clear that he believes in close looking and in the pleasure of visual analysis more than he does in archival excavations. His descriptions epitomise the necessity of looking at the canonical works anew, and of offering seemingly awkward or accidental details a second chance. “Does anyone seriously imagine that Caravaggio could not have depicted [the jets of blood] more veristically had he wanted to?” he asks, while musing about Judith and Holofernes. The question is clearly rhetorical. Fried constantly scavenges for instances of mismatch between viewer expectations and the painting itself, taking these disjunctures as starting-points for new, predominantly image-based conclusions. While many will struggle with his unorthodox reliance on visual intuition (I remain unconvinced about the “abstractly ‘emotional’ character” of the folds in Jesus’s shroud in the Incredulity of Saint Thomas), the invitation to look closely, further supported by around 200 colour illustrations, is perhaps the book’s greatest merit.

The unearthing of the Caravaggisti, a group of artists who modelled their works on the example of Caravaggio, marks another of Fried’s contributions to the field of 17th-century studies. A large part of Lecture Five focuses on works by Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi, Giovanni Serodine, Bartolomeo Manfredi, and others, aiming to expose the imaginative ways in which these artists adapted and reworked Caravaggian tropes. The oeuvre of the Caravaggisti, Fried concludes, is expressive of a collective effort “to formulate a new paradigm for gallery painting, one extrapolated from Caravaggio’s canvases…but not, in the most developed instances, parasitic to them.” The attention given to the Caravaggisti expands the “moment” of the book’s title and moves beyond Caravaggio’s iconic figure, which has dominated other recent publications on the subject (I am particularly thinking of Andrew Graham-Dixon’s 2010 portrayal of an isolated genius in Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane). Paintings like Narcissus or the Toothpuller, whose attribution to Caravaggio’s hand remains contentious, fit comfortably within this extended “moment”, allowing Fried to discuss the relevant images and largely ignore the technical authenticity debates.

Overall, Fried’s ability to connect the worlds on both sides of the picture surface is admirable. Yet while the book succeeds in revealing the “density of depicted and implied relationships” that Caravaggio’s art contains, the unsystematic nature of Fried’s explorations makes it very difficult for him to arrive at a single concluding remark. Instead, Fried structures his final chapter as a collection of post scripts and afterthoughts. Misleadingly labelled a “conclusion”, it contains a series of comparisons that—perhaps frustratingly—open more discussions than they close. This openness, both structural and conceptual, does not earn Fried an established position within the community of Caravaggio scholars. It does, however, provide another testimony to the elusive character of Caravaggio’s art, so inviting of yet so resistant to interpretation.

Austeja Mackelaite is reading for an MSt in History of Art and Visual Culture at St Catherine’s College, Oxford.