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Back to barbarism

Dusseldorf stages a major exhibition of Caravaggio, the inventor of modern art. A tribute by Georg Seeßlen

The fellow plainly led a colourful life. He seems to have thrown himself, charged with lust and anger, into risk and danger – in palaces and slums, with influential patrons at the top of society and the worst sorts at the bottom, driven by diversion, sexuality and a passion for work – until he was murdered before the age of 40 on a beach north of Rome, in the no-man's land where Italy's holy sinners meet their deaths: Wilma Montesi, the "pure creature" killed at the hands of the aristocratic dirty old men of the post-fascist economic boom, or Pier Paolo Pasolini, the artist in search of his "ragazzi di vita." Such a life of lust, revolt, escapism and struggle usually conjures up the stereotype of the artistic outsider. After all, this brawler and drunkard must have cared for nothing but his personal autonomy and his art. The rebel hero par excellence.

"The Supper at Emmaus", ca. 1601. Courtesy of Adelson Galleries, New York

Someone like that has no choice, we like to say, but to be free. And that is how we see him in the major Caravaggio exhibition that has just begun in Dusseldorf: a depraved genius. It takes someone of that calibre to explore the subject of the subject. Our last hope.

Caravaggio paints desire. Not only objects or subjects of desire, not just situations of desire, but desire itself. How does one do that? For example by rigorously liberating the painting from the constrictions of representation. Sometimes you just have to shift a table. In Caravaggio's Supper at Emmaus, we are looking not at the long side of the loaded table – as conventional composition would dictate – but at the narrow end. The question now is not how the figures position themselves; what matters here is how they relate to one another. What they want from each other. And how much wine they've drunk. The fruit basket is already hanging precariously over the edge of the table; really it should have fallen at our feet already. Caravaggio's picture does not represent, instead it comes directly out at the viewer. It opens up the space to strange games and reflections. Isaac – just about to be slaughtered by his father – is looking right at you as you look at the dreadful image, and even in his fear there is temptation.

"Taking of Christ", first quarter of the 17th century
Replica. Courtesy of the Odessa Museum of Western and Eastern Art

You cannot look at a Caravaggio painting without being perpetrator or victim. It is the old Hitchcock trick: If you look you can no longer claim innocence. Medusa's head of snakes, bloodily separated from the torso; she too dead and undead, an image and still more an insight of something that lies below her and below us, that fateful mirror or the last step of an impossible approach. The same strands of blood emanate from the severed neck in "Judith Beheading Holofernes" as if they wanted to make the last (eternal) link between death and life (whereas Judith's expression speaks of the heavy, barbaric labour of killing). Caravaggio paints the body not as being, but as happening. But the happening body is just another word for desire and decay. Blood and gore.

Neither capturing one moment for eternity nor bringing the eternity of heaven down here to earth, the Caravaggio painting instead contains time itself. And that was (and still is) – quite apart from all the lasciviousness, all the gruesomeness, all the "tastelessness" – certainly scandal enough. It is not hard to imagine why Cardinal Del Monte broke down in tears before Caravaggio's "Basket of Fruit." Before a picture that shows fruit in various stages of putrefaction, threatened by decay, insects, putrefaction. Until then death was the other. A merciless certainty, but not a part of life. Caravaggio paints time, and in so doing he shows, perhaps for the first time, death not as the end of the subject but as a part of it.

Saint Francis in Meditation, 1606. Courtesy of Museo Civico Ala Ponzone - Pinacoteca, Cremona

So Caravaggio paints desire in time. On the one hand his desire (to call it "homosexual" would probably be another of those bourgeois rationalisations), his passion for the "ragazzi di vita" who as lutenists have very different tunes in their heads, who are bitten by lizards, who also otherwise feel pleasure in pain and pain in pleasure, still in the ailing Bacchus (a direct report by the painter). It is a desire indeed – how could it be any different in a painter of the body and the moment – that circles a narcissistic catastrophe. In Caravaggio's "Narcissus" this awful yearning for the self as other is certainly not to be mistaken for a triviality like "vanity", and even his "Penitent Magdalene" does not simply put jewellery and perfume aside. She closes her eyes and collapses.

One who paints desire and time rather than pictures cannot allow himself to be distracted by trivia. Nobody should try to study anatomy in Caravaggio's paintings; his bodies neither seek the heroic pose, nor are they willing to obey any kind of scientific clarity. They writhe in all their ambiguity, turn to their opposite, to the viewer, but at the same time in on themselves. And if something does not interest Caravaggio he does not paint it either. He does not fill out his paintings. He does not drop into his time-picture the anchor that allows, for example, the enduring and eternal to appear in the background. His windows are empty light sources, his backgrounds boundaries. The world is everything that touches the subject. The great syntagmata are missing. Caravaggio's sky is comparatively empty. Desire and time are almost naked. I fear that Caravaggio's visual world is quite godless. His saints suffer without any external evidence of mercy.

"John the Baptist", 1602. Courtesy of Pinacoteca Capitolina, Rome

Caravaggio collected his models from the gutter, and the idea that he modelled his Virgin Mary on a prostitute is the gloating culmination of our pulp-fiction fantasy of this painter. That, too, is perhaps more than a provoking and moving filling of the mythology with bodily truth. There is the great paradox. The saint with dirty feet. And only sinners can be illuminated and delivered. And then these figures: vagabonds, murderers, gods and saints are not seen in the discourse of rulers and ruled. Not until Pasolini do we again find figures who are people, who fall short of the social code of power, but conversely are not touched by it either. People beyond classes. The subject in its barbaric form consists of pure desire and pure time. And it expires in narcissistic catastrophe as soon as it discovers itself, in the painting for example.

The "filmic" in Caravaggio's work has almost become a cliche. The staging of movement, always suggesting a next shot, the use of "keylight", the "actor-oriented" emphasis of the present, but above all a form of mise-en-scene that captures a situation in its entirety. If we compare Caravaggio's paintings with those of his successors, centuries later, the backslide into the theatrical is particularly conspicuous. Every figure in Gericault for example, appears to be performing its own drama, isolating itself from all others in the heroic, desperate gesture. With Caravaggio everything is joined up, it is life itself. And you are part of it, do not pretend otherwise.

David with the Head of Goliath. Courtesy Staatliche Museen Kassel, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister

But the next shot never comes. And that is perhaps the fourth element in Caravaggio's construction of the subject. The picture does not contain whatever is going to happen in the next moment (and of course not what will always happen either). Even a Biblical scene, whose outcome is laid down by the Word, remains open-ended. With Caravaggio I am not sure whether Isaac really will be saved. I am not even sure whether the eyes of the beheaded Goliath are definitively empty, or if they are going to open properly for the first time. The uncertainty of the image combines with the radical realism of the body to an at least equally radical invention. And the image is opened a second time – after space now in time too.

Just as one can ask what began with Caravaggio – perhaps nothing less than modern art: as Berne-Joffroy puts it, the search for the subject in the world – one can also ask what ended with him. The idea of a whole perhaps. The direct experience of the sacred in life. Not despite but because it has dirty feet. Not although but because it is trembling with desire. Caravaggio the very break that separates the modern from what came before. Lustfully the subject smashes up the puzzle that is the world simply because he has the right, namely desire and time. Full of pain and fear, the subject reacts in panic to the broken and disappearing world. Caravaggio did not, I believe, paint one single "pretty picture". And not a single untruthful one.

So it is no wonder that Caravaggio is being rediscovered. Not because he shows what we could have become, but rather what we have lost. The subject returns – wonderingly, fascinated and a little shocked – to its barbaric roots. Before taking its leave of history with a weary smile, pale and exhausted like the ailing Bacchus. Tomorrow is humdrum and discourse again.

"Caravaggio – Auf den Spuren eines Genies" (Caravaggio – On the Trail of a Genius). Until January 7, 2007 at Museum Kunst Palast, Dusseldorf.


The article originally appeared in German in Die Zeit on September 21, 2006.

Georg Seeßlen, born 1948, is a freelance journalist and author. He has published more than twenty books on cinema.

Translation: Meredith Dale. - let's talk european