BY Maria H. Loh in Features | 07 SEP 16
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Issue 5

Time out of Joint

Looking at Caravaggio in the 21st century

BY Maria H. Loh in Features | 07 SEP 16

An aristocratic banker holding a micro-thin gold pocket calculator; an exasperated art critic slouched before an old-fashioned black typewriter; a young man tending to a dilapidated red motorbike: these are among the anachronistic intrusions that jolt the audience of Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio (1986), a fantastical biopic based on the tenebrous art and life of the Italian baroque painter. Gazing at Jarman’s film stills creates a vertiginous sense of collapsing time that pulls us every which way; of all Caravaggio’s followers, Jarman, it would seem, was the one who understood him best. Gold. Black. Red. Darkness. Light. It is a cinematic distillation of the artist’s visual world. The British filmmaker was, however, more than just a simple caravaggista: that is, he was more than a stylistic emulator. As theorists Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit commented in their book Caravaggio’s Secrets (1998), what Jarman was able to grasp was the ‘politically explosive potential in Caravaggio’s implicit insistence that we recognize the present in the reconstruction of the past’.

Derek Jarman, Caravaggio, 1986, film still. Courtesy: BFI, London

The unexpected appearance of Jarman’s forlorn objects, out of place and time, disrupts a suspension of disbelief in the historical drama. We are left, instead, with a sense of history that has become dramatic. Jarman (following Caravaggio) experimented with, and manipulated, shifting temporalities in order to build a lasting image — one in which art, history and politics came together in silent eloquence. The solar-powered calculator, so contemporary in the year of the film’s making, might strike us now as the kind of useless office curio buried in a forgotten back drawer, languishing with floppy disks, cassette tapes and a splattering of wayward paperclips. The Royal Model 10 typewriter, already dated in 1986, seems even more like a relic of a bygone era when writing was still a demanding, physical act. But perhaps it is the face of the man behind the rusty old bike that most disturbs a linear sense of historical time, for this is the face of Sean Bean, the actor who would one day play Ned Stark, the virtuous and beloved lord of  Winterfell in the HBO series Game of Thrones (2011–ongoing). It is impossible to watch Jarman’s Caravaggio now without seeing what has not yet happened to Bean. Looking at Jarman’s filmic re-creation of Caravaggio’s paintings of distant Christian histories, time indelibly folds in upon itself like the edges of the painter’s canvas. 

A similar effect occurs when we look at the gorgeous tableau vivant in Jarman’s film, which he staged to replicate Caravaggio’s towering canvas, the Death of the Virgin (1601–06). In spite of the director’s meticulous attention to detail, today it is Tilda Swinton who we see lying upon the bier at the centre of this scene. Our inability to unsee her fame or to suppress the intrusive knowledge that this is the actress who will one day become the muse of Wes Anderson, the Cohen Brothers, Luca Guadagnino and Jim Jarmusch disrupts the solemnity of the religious narrative (of the Virgin’s death) as well as the pseudo art-historical tale (of Caravaggio’s painting of it) unfolding before us.

Caravaggio, Death of the Virgin, c.1601-06, oil on canas, 3.7 x 2.5 m. Courtesy: Scala Archives, Florence

Caravaggio’s original painting caused a disturbance in 1606 when the artist — commissioned by the criminal lawyer Laerzio Cherubini — completed it as an altarpiece for a chapel in the church of Santa Maria della Scala in Rome. The priests blocked its installation on the grounds that Caravaggio had used a working woman as his model, so that the Mother of God looked like a prostitute from the slums; it was noted, too, that the woman in question was Caravaggio’s lover. In another version of events, it was even alleged that the Virgin was based on a swollen corpse that had been pulled from the River Tiber. While these accounts were probably unfounded rumours, or half-truths at best, they point to the ripple in time that rendered everyday life all too present in the sacred space of religion and art. Like the calculator, like the typewriter, like the motorbike or the famous actors in Jarman’s film, the figure of the Virgin in Caravaggio’s painting belonged to the urgency of the here and now.

And yet, we cannot consider Caravaggio a simple Modernist in the sense of answering Charles Baudelaire’s call ‘to be of one’s time’. Nor was he like the Futurists, rushing forward while demanding the destruction of museums, cemeteries and other monuments of the past. His admiration for the art and artists of the past is evident in what he gained, above all, from the Venetian Masters: from Giorgione he learnt the art of sfumato; from Titian he borrowed the figure of the fallen saint from The Death of St Peter Martyr (1527‒29), recasting him as St Matthew; while from Tintoretto he took the incidental details of everyday life such as the broken straw chairs that lurk on the edges of his religious and genre scenes. Like Jarman, Caravaggio was comfortable as a time traveller. His art unsettled its initial audience because it was too contemporary or, perhaps, it was too soon in its embodiment of time as a surplus of disjointed chronologies. 

Caravaggio, Boy Peeling Fruit, c.1592-93, oil on canvas, 63 x 53 cm. Courtesy: Royal Collection Trust, London © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2016

‘Time’, as Shakespeare’s Hamlet lamented, ‘is out of joint. O cursed sprite, that ever I was born to set it right!’ The lines invoke an image of history as a dislocated limb that needs to be violently reset by the man of today. What, then, did historical viewers make of all the well-dressed young men who crowd into the Calling of St Matthew (1600), Caravaggio’s first major public commission in the French national church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome? How did the late-16th-century viewer respond to the presence of all those stylish hats with elegant plumes, shapely legs sheathed in fine silk stockings and torsos encased in brightly coloured brocade and fur — fashions that had wandered into the religious narrative from the streets outside? (In Jarman’s eyes, Caravaggio wanted to knock the ‘saints out of the sky and onto the streets’, but here, it would seem, the streets have found their way into the skies.)

In his analysis of the Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, the art historian Todd Olson pointed out that Caravaggio, the painter of tavern scenes, had to teach himself to become a painter of religious scenes. Did viewers search among these five contemporary bodies (as art historians and tourists still do) for the tax collector, Matthew, who would leave behind this worldly scene and follow Christ and St Peter who have come for him? Is it the young man with his back to us who teeters forward on his stool or his companion who pulls back slightly in order to determine the intention of the two intruders? Is it the bearded man who points (and at whom exactly does he point, at himself or the men behind him)? Is it the older man who adjusts his reading glasses so as to better see the coins on thee but is blind to the truth that stands before him? Or, finally, is it the figure at the far end of the table with his head down and his arms crossed, folded in upon himself and unaware of everything in front of him? Is the point here that they are all — as are we — potentially St Matthew and will we recognize Christ and St Peter when they arrive dressed in the robes of an ambiguous past calling us to action? This is, to return to Bersani and Dutoit’s phrase, the ‘politically explosive potential’, the unstated ethical proposition at work in Caravaggio’s heterochronicity.

Caravaggio, Ths Supper at Emmaus, 1601, oil on canvas, 1.4 x 1.9 m. Courtesy: © The National Gallery, London

What does it mean, in the end, to follow Caravaggio? To come after him is to see the artist as the potential in that which follows. To follow Caravaggio is to understand the creative possibility of what Mieke Bal referred to in her book Quoting Caravaggio (1999) — a meditation upon how the historical anachronicity of Caravaggio’s art relates to contemporary art — as ‘preposterous history’, an interpretive frame that conjoins the prefixes pre- and post- in one swift adjective. To follow Caravaggio is to recognize the ghosts of the past in the bright light of day while also acknowledging our own blindspots. To follow Caravaggio is to call upon us to balance chiaro with scuro, hope with fear (the two elements in the painter’s motto nec spe, nec metu) and to reconcile the past with the future through the urgency of the present. Time for Caravaggio and his followers is always already out of joint.

Lead image: Caravaggio, Calling of Saint Matthew, 1598–1601, oil on canvas, 3.2 × 3.4 m. Courtesy: Scala Archives, Florence

Maria H. Loh lives and works in New York, USA, and London, UK. She teaches art history at Hunter College and is the author of Still Lives. Death, Desire, and the Portrait of the Old Master (Princeton, 2015).