Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Painterly Influence

Michael Fried's new book, The Moment of Caravaggio, is based on his A.W. Mellon Lectures delivered at the National Gallery of Art. The writing is dense and splendid, where most of the books on Caravaggio (currently one of art history's trendiest figures) are slick and sensationalistic. Fried talks at some length about the revolutionary qualities of Caravaggio's florid Death of the Virgin (above) which caused a scandal at its unveiling in 1602 by representing the Mother of God as an ordinary mortal corpse – but then the discussion veers off toward a painter of the next generation after Caravaggio, and one who interests me even more. That is where I will start quoting Fried –

The decisive figure in the new developments was of course Nicolas Poussin, who famously detested Caravaggio and his art, going so far as to say that the latter had come into the world "to destroy painting" a statement that testifies to the radicalism of Caravaggio's achievement. An early key work in this vein is Poussin's magisterial Death of Germanicus (1626), which Dempsey has suggested should be seen as the first true tableau in the French tradition.

I find Dempsey's suggestion attractive, and would add that the Germanicus, for all its reduced figural scale relative to Caravaggio and the Caravaggisti, absence of strong chiaroscuro, clarity of mise-en-scène, respect for the primacy of the picture plane, and overriding concern with dramatic coherence, remains marked by the taste for multiple overlapping bodies, persons seen from the rear, obscuring of faces, and density of figural "presences" that I have been tracking both in Caravaggio's painting of the 1590s and early 1600s and in the art of various of his followers. Note too the suggestive resemblance between the two standing, sorrowing soldiers at the left of the Germanicus and the two grieving disciples toward the right of the Death of the Virgin. Indeed, it seems within the realm of possibility that the figure of Agrippina with her hidden face may have been intended as a gloss on and "classical" correction of the grieving Magdalen in Caravaggio's canvas.

The later painting by Poussin that turned out to be talismanic for Denis Diderot as well as for numerous French painters of the 1750s and after the moment of the rise of the antitheatrical tradition that eventually, by a dialectically circuitous route, would lead to Manet's modernism is the Testament of Eudamidas (1643), a radically stripped down (five figures instead of sixteen, as in the Germanicus), architecturally and coloristically spare, compositionally rigorous, and intensely absorptive work. (Eudamidas, a soldier of Corinth fallen into poverty and dying, dictates his last will and testament in which he leaves his mother and daughter to the care of two wealthy friends. A doctor standing at his side places a hand on the dying man's chest to track his heartbeat; a notary seated by his pallet transcribes his last words. To general surprise, his friends will carry out his request.)

Simply put, the Eudamidas more than any other painting by an earlier master epitomized the tableau for Diderot and like-minded contemporaries, including a much younger man who came into contact with Diderot at a formative period in his own life, the foremost French painter of the late eighteenth century, Jacques-Louis David.

I refer here not only to David's Poussin-scale Death of Socrates (1787), whose adaptation whose virtual citation of the Eudamidas is indisputable, but also to its monumental predecessor, the epoch-making Oath of the Horatii (1784), which, although not resembling Poussin's painting in obvious respects, amounts in my view to a brilliant reinterpretation of the latter's division of its dramatis personae into two seemingly disconnected but in fact intimately related groups, one male, the other female, in both of which intense absorption reigns on the part of the men in swearing a mortal oath, on that of the women in anticipatory grief.

My larger claim at this juncture is that the chronological span that I suggested near the beginning of these lectures finally comes to a climax with Manet should be understood as having opened not with Chardin, Greuze, and David (with Diderot as master theorist and critic), though it is only in the 1750s and 1760s that the issue of antitheatricality decisive for subsequent developments came fully to the fore, or even with the Eudamidas, Diderot's great exemplar of a dramatically effective, because persuasively absorptive, tableau, but rather with Caravaggio and the Carracci and their thematization of absorption and address as well as their especially Caravaggio's radical reimagining of the emerging gallery painting.