Caravaggio and the aesthetics of meaning

Caravaggio and the aesthetics of meaning

Canestra di frutta, Still Life, 1599, Ambrosian Library, Milan.

Cornelius Sullivan-Rome

Why do Caravaggio paintings have such a profound influence on us? His greatness comes from two interdependent things. First, his paint is gorgeous, and secondly, he is a master storyteller using posed figures and objects bathed in his made up light. He helps us to believe what is hard to believe. Francine Prose calls him, “Painter of Miracles”.

I recall a lecture by the art historian John Spike, who lives in Florence and teaches in Rome, where he said that Art History is the study of “style” and the study of Christian Art History involves the study of “meaning”.

The depth and sense of truth in a Caravaggio fictional visual narrative separate him from his many followers and so many conventional painters. The meaning in one of his paintings comes from his showing us the way that things are in nature and his revelations of the way that humans act.

Don’t believe any art historian that tries to tell you that the Still Life above is photo realistic or that it is about life and death with some leaves vital and others sagging in death. It is about the way things are where the painter shows us how a vine knots, what it feels like. He tells us about gravity. He describes value and color that define geometric form and melds that color with local color. And like all the great painters he gives us a sense that this illusion is made out of paint. Caravaggio is like an early Modern artist because we marvel at what he has created with paint. Form and content are transparent and content remains representational but we are aware of the paint. There is never any thought that this is a photograph, the paint on canvas is part of the subject of the work. I like to contemplate that yellow white opaque background. It is an invention of art like a Van Gogh sky made from swirling globs of paint. The globs are not disguised as anything other than paint and yet we accept that they are also sky. That is the magic.

Even in complex compositions with figures and a story Caravaggio’s paint is tangible.


Abraham and Isaac, Ufizzi Gallery, Florence.

In telling how humans act, Caravaggio tells us more than other artists do. Remember all the depictions you have seen of Abraham and Isaac. Wooden gestures, maybe poses derived from Classical sculpture, are clear, readable, and balanced. On the other hand, imagine Caravaggio saying to the model, “No, put your thumb on his face and press, use some force to hold him down.” And “Little Isaac, don’t look so relaxed, he’s going to cut your throat, look at the knife.” And, “Abraham, look puzzled, OK, don’t move.” He gives us all that information in paint and the story becomes real.

Something special happens to viewers in front of a Caravaggio painting. Prose describes a tour guide explaining to students The Calling of Saint Matthew in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. “There is nothing she is telling them that they absolutely need to hear, and the power of the paintings is drowning out her voice.” And, “… it is possible to understand this painting without knowing much about art history, or Caravaggio, or even, perhaps, about the New Testament.”

As a former guide I know that experience and so I learned to talk and explain before hand. Recently, in Galleria Borghese I saw a ten year old boy and a seven year old girl stuck in front of David and Goliath. Their parents wanted to move on but the kids kept saying “Just another minute, please.”

David and Goliath, Galleria Borghese, Rome

Again remember the paintings or sculptures that you have seen of this story. Often Goliath’s head is a massive inert object while David poses triumphantly. Caravaggio creates a boy who looks at a loss to understand what has happened. He is not without sympathy. Goliath is also puzzled and his suffering and death are there to see. Goliath is a self portrait of the artist not so long before he died.

In July I wrote an article called “Rome’s Extravagant Celebration of Caravaggio” initiated because of the number of events, guided tours, books, articles, and exhibits about Caravaggio that I saw in the streets of Rome. Only now have I discovered Michael Kimmelman’s article in the New York Times of March 10, 2010 with a similar theme. He notes that Caravaggio has eclipsed Michelangelo Bounarroti as the most written about artist based on the charts of a Toronto based art historian.

Kimmelman correctly attributes Caravaggio’s popularity to the fact that he “… exemplifies the modern antihero, a hyperrealist whose art is instantly accessible” and that he is one who has “wrestled art back to the ground, distilled scenes into a theatrical instant at which time suddenly stopped”. I am not sure that the establishment art critic fully grasps the counter culturalism of Caravaggio. He says, “Out to ‘destroy painting,’ as Nicolas Poussin, the most high-minded of all French artists, saw it, Caravaggio connected with ordinary people, the ones who themselves arrived barefoot and filthy as pilgrims in Rome”.

Caravaggio was the artist in time, and place, and spirit that reflected the new classless faith lived by Saint Phillip Neri in the streets of Rome. This new spirit confirmed that the Church is indeed for sinners. And Caravaggio, never afflicted with any self righteousness, was able to understand that faith.

As one who knows art, Kimmelman, in his videos about art, describes the necessary elitism of the art world and has said that there are no fixed standards in art. “Only experts are allowed to tell you what is art or not.” And “We want to be told what we are supposed to think.” And he says that “All art is conceptual.” He says that White on White, the all white Minimalist painting by Robert Ryman from the sixties, is about a “conversation within art” that “pushes the conversation forward”. This conversation is a private conversation reserved for the cognoscenti whereas the almost universal appreciation of a Caravaggio painting is for everyone.

Modernist abstraction, a reflection of subjective reality, (everyone is an artist), where everything looks equal, (don’t worry we’ll tell you what’s good,) was bound to inevitably lead to the dead end that is Conceptual Art, art that is only an idea. The cellar of the Museum of Modern Art in New York is full of large abstract paintings that no one wants to look at. Maybe the conversation about art continues down there. To admit that they are worthless would topple the large financial structure that authenticates them.

Modern Art is based on the idea that all aesthetics are subjective. This comes from the Critique of Judgment of philosopher Emanuel Kant. Kant arrives at this disembodiment because he starts on shaky ground with the dualism of Descartes, where body and spirit are separated. The attack on the body and on matter comes from the will to power. Conceptual Art has succeeded in eliminating matter from art. Caravaggio is the antidote to Conceptual Art.

Caravaggio painted a unity of body with soul. Since the study of Christian Art is about the study of meaning, there is no such thing as Christian abstract art. Art Historian Rudolf Wittkower in Art and Architecture of Italy uses a nuanced Italian adjective to describe Caravaggio’s paintings, “tenebroso”. It means dark, but it also means mysterious. Caravaggio created an aesthetics of meaning, explaining the inexplicable and giving form to the mysterious.