Monday, August 8, 2016

After Caravaggio: Michael Fried on the painter's enormous influence


After Caravaggio: Michael Fried on the painter's enormous influence

The art historian examines the long legacy of the Baroque painter
by Michael Fried  |  26 July 2016
After Caravaggio: Michael Fried on the painter's enormous influence
Valentin de Boulogne, Concert with Bas-Relief (around 1624).
The art historian Michael Fried's new book, After Caravaggio, which has just been published by Yale University Press, looks at the painter's followers and the long shadow he cast over the 17th century.

It follows Fried's 2010 publication The Moment of Caravaggio, where he focused on how the Italian Baroque artist propelled the emergence of the "gallery picture" as a distinct genre that moved away from traditional altarpieces and religious commissions.

"Part of the larger argument of both After Caravaggio and The Moment of Caravaggio is that in the first decades of the 1600s, Rome saw the rise of marvellous private galleries owned by nobles and cardinals, who bought and commissioned works by artists like Caravaggio," Fried says. "Artists became aware of the natural competition that took place in those galleries, because if you hang pictures alongside one another, they will fight among themselves to find out which is strongest. Caravaggio was the big winner here."

The new book elaborates on many of the themes that have animated Fried's work since his spirited attack on Minimalism in his 1967 essay Art and Objecthood. But this new work, he says, is not an attempt to lay an absolute bedrock for this history of Modernism. "The direction I always want to go is not, here is something happening for the first time—there's nothing that ever begins like that, there is always something before. But instead, if you think about these pictures this way, this is how you can make sense of them."

The below excerpt is taken from the book.

Valentin de Boulogne, Fortune Teller (1620s).

Let me begin by looking briefly at Valentin de Boulogne’s Fortune Teller (1620s) in the Louvre, a representative work by the artist and also, equally to the point, a representative example of a certain sort of Caravaggesque painting. In what follows I want to use Valentin’s canvas as point of reference for a series of remarks about what I take to be a distinctive Caravaggesque pictorial “system” or, perhaps more accurately, pictorial poetics, one which I want to suggest possesses an internal consistency and rationale such as have never, to my mind, been fully acknowledged.

To launch right in: Valentin’s canvas, slightly under five feet high by slightly over five and a half feet wide, depicts in a naturalistic manner derived from post-1600 Caravaggio, which is to say in a style based at once on strong local color and powerful chiaroscuro, six figures (four men, two women) in a shadowy but otherwise unspecified interior space. The central figures are a standing young woman – by her red and blue dress and dark coloring, as well as by her actions, a gypsy – who is engaged in telling the fortune – reading the palm – of a seated young man in expensive clothes and a feathered hat. At the right, a young woman plays a guitar while a seated older man with an unruly gray beard and piercing eyes plays a smallish harp. The harpist appears to be singing and the young woman may be doing so as well.

Neither looks at the two principal figures or toward the viewer standing before the painting. Instead the young woman gazes off into space toward her right (our left), and the bearded man gazes abstractly albeit intensely before him, as if lost in the music. Between the two principal figures and a few feet beyond them a boy sits at a table covered with an oriental carpet, his left elbow resting on the table as he supports his head with the back of his left hand; he seems to be looking at the gypsy but it is possible that he too is lost in thought or even that he is gazing off somewhat indeterminately. At the left, behind the gypsy a character in a dark cloak and hat, almost wholly in shadow – a bit of light touches the crown of his hat – carefully extracts (that is to say steals) a chicken from the pocket or sack at her side. The depicted space is shallow and all the figures appear to be situated in close proximity to the picture-plane, including the boy: the table under its rug has almost no depth.

So much seems plain. What is not so plain is whether or not art historians, with a few rare exceptions, have yet taken Valentin’s Fortune Teller and other paintings like it with full critical and intellectual seriousness. What I mean is this. It is true that Valentin is today widely recognized as a painter of impressive achievement, a superb colorist and wielder of the brush, one of the key figures in Roman Caravaggism. At the same time, there has been a widespread tendency to misconstrue, and in effect somewhat to caricature, the specific aims and ambitions of paintings such as this one. The subject is inevitably regarded as hackneyed (not just the theme of fortunetelling but also the related themes of card playing, music making, and pocket picking); no strong narrative or dramatic thread binds the various characters together, and each personage conveys the sense of having been drawn from a common repertoire of stock figures of a popular sort.

As Helen Langdon in particular has demonstrated, the great source work for these pictorially speaking was Caravaggio’s Cardsharps, along with a large later 16th- and early 17th-century popular literature featuring card players, bravi, prostitutes, and similar types. She writes: “The spell cast by Caravaggio’s Cardsharps intersected with the growing popularity of the picaresque novel, and art and literature united to produce a genre which, between 1599 and 1620 [a somewhat early closing date, I think], spread, with astonishing uniformity, throughout Europe”. In painting “[t]he first to establish a vogue for this kind of subject matter was Bartolomeo Manfredi. . . . His Cardplayers [1618], with its opening up of the game to the spectator, and the players so close to the frontal plane, is indebted to Caravaggio’s early genre paintings, but it has lost their bright light, and the figures, wrapped in darkness, are lifted from the master’s Calling of Saint Matthew and Martyrdom of Saint Matthew in San Luigi dei Francesi... Manfredi, and a group of painters around him, built up a repertory of figures that they used over and over again in increasingly complex compositions”. As for Valentin, Langdon sees that he characteristically depicted “a darker, more realistic underworld,” evoking, in a painting like Soldiers Playing Cards and Dice (around 1618–20).

The atmosphere of the dark taverns of Rome, where the threat of violence was constant, and where so many bravi and unoccupied soldiers, decked out in odd bits of armor, looked for wine, women, and adventure and played cards and dice. His figures – the dupe in elegant but bedraggled dress; the cheat, his poker face stiffly expressionless; the dice players, grimy, drunkenly flushed, and clad in scanty tatters – are the mournful cast of a gloomy tavern scene, close in spirit to the descriptions in contemporary picaresque novels. Valentin’s later tavern scenes continue to evoke a picaresque habitat . . . and, increasingly melancholy, sugggest the transitoriness of earthly pleasures. In the years around 1620 there developed a craze for such scenes, by such artists as Simon Vouet, Nicolas R├ęgnier, Leonello Spada, and Nicolas Tournier . . . until, in the late 1620s, the motif began to pall.

All this is true as far as it goes – though the notion that tavern scenes began to “pall” in the late 1620s, putting an end to the “craze,” is a bit unnuanced. But nothing is more striking, when one surveys the Caravaggesque corpus, than the recurrence in painting after painting of the same handful of characters, wearing similar costumes (young gypsy women invariably in red, blue, and white), engaged in the same limited range of activities. In fact the same models can be recognized from one painting to another. But what such an emphasis turns out to ignore is another range of typical features and characteristics, one that has an altogether different sort of significance – an essentially pictorial significance, if I may so put it.

Valentin de Boulogne, Solders Playing Cards and Dice (around 1618-20).

Returning now to Valentin’s Fortune Teller, one previously unremarked factor reinforcing an effect of “presence” on the gallery wall concerns the tables, or rather the central placement in Valentin- or Manfredi-type painting after painting of tables or, especially, marble blocks serving as tables, invariably massive, frequently carved, usually centered, and more often than not set at an angle to the picture-plane. This last point is important. In Valentin’s Louvre Fortune Teller the crucial such element is the bench (stone or wood?) on which the gypsy’s client sits (one’s attention is drawn to the bench by the fact that the central figure grasps its top with his left hand). More characteristic, though, is the tremendous Concert with Bas-Relief (around 1624), one of Valentin’s masterpieces, with its music makers and drinkers gathered around a massive angled antique marble block bearing a classical bas-relief on its nearest oblique face. The illumination of the block – the top face most strongly lit, the left-hand face in a raking light that brings out the bas-relief, the right-hand face in darkness – together with its central placement in effect thrust the block toward the viewer, giving it a salience that cannot be ignored. (The longer one stands before the painting, the more the conviction grows that the block is at least as vital a “character” as any of the figures.)

Nor is the device confined to works by Valentin; on the contrary, it was clearly a common property, in effect a convention, within the group. Thus in Manfredi’s destroyed Cardplayers (1618), the central table is skewed, a fact underscored by the way in which the bravo with the red sleeve grips its nearmost corner. Other such works include Manfredi’s Reunion of Drinkers (around 1619–20), with seven figures seated and standing around another angled carved stone table; Tournier’s Dice Players (around 1622–4) – the central young man’s right hand gripping the nearmost corner, the bearded, downward gazing older man casting the dice also gripping the table-edge – and even more emphatically his Drinking Party with a Lute Player (around 1623).

But probably the most revealing use of the angled table motif is found in a “single-figure” work, Cecco’s Flute Player with its broad wooden table-top skewed relative to the pictureplane, the nearest corner touching the bottom edge of the painting. As one encounters it here, the angling cannot be missed, in fact it is positively disturbing in that it seems so at odds with the viewer’s expectations, the oddness being further emphasized by the proliferation of pieces of fruit in the corner area. In other words, there is in Cecco’s use of the device a deliberate flaunting, an exaggeration, and possibly a parody of the Caravaggesque convention, which he plainly recognized as such. (Significantly, Cecco’s Musician takes quite another attitude to its foreground table.)

In other genre paintings by artists in the group – Valentin’s Fortune Teller, for example, in which the angle of the stone table relative to the picture-plane is unusually slight – it is easier to overlook such elements, or, if they are noticed, to minimize their importance. But they matter profoundly to the works we have just surveyed, and by virtue of their angledness they also stand in implicit contrast to the classical system of composition based on parallel planes, as in the later, Roman Annibale Carracci and his followers and, still in the future, post-1630 Poussin. (If one were seeking in Caravaggio a precedent for such angled elements, it would surely be the great stone slab toward the bottom of his Deposition [before 1602–4] in the Vatican.) Specifically, I want to suggest that marble blocks and tables of this sort function in the paintings in which they appear as a kind of internal ideal of obtrusive and substantial physicality, as if a truly satisfying density of “presence” – an effect of “presence” as density – on the gallery wall could best be achieved with the aid of a central depiction, amounting almost to an invocation, of massiveness and density as such. The Concert with Bas-Relief has somewhat the force of a manifesto in this regard, owing not only to the impressiveness of its particular angled and carved marble block but also to the strong sense of direct address of the viewer on the part of the central boy and perhaps also the lutenist at the right (the gaze of the young woman guitar player seems, in comparison, just slightly “off”).

Michael Fried is J. R. Herbert Boone Professor of Humanities and the History of Art, Johns Hopkins University.

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