Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Lorenzo Pericolo reviews After Caravaggio

Michael Fried. After Caravaggio. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2016. 234 pp.

Review by Lorenzo Pericolo

In more than one sense, Michael Fried’s After Caravaggio (2016) is a sequel to his The Moment of Caravaggio (2010). In the latter, Fried credits Caravaggio with the formulation, if not the discovery, of a new pictorial mode predicated upon the conceptual dichotomy of “immersion” and “specularity.” Far from being mutually exclusive, immersion and specularity may alternate and thus coexist in the same work. In Fried’s opinion, Caravaggio’s paintings metaphorically operate like mirrors. The mirror image both engenders an effect of identification (the artist fully merges with his work by projecting himself within it) and arouses an acute sense of separation (the artist becomes aware of his physical and psychological disengagement from the work). In Caravaggio’s art, the trauma of separation often materializes as visual violence—for instance, the summoning of decapitation.

As pointed out by Fried, the notions of immersion and specularity “bear a certain relation” to “some psychoanalytic scenarios.” In Jacques Lacan’s theory of psychological development, the mirror stage is described as the moment in which the child discovers its own subjectivity: its separateness not only from the surrounding world but also from the mother. Transposed into a historical framework, the mirror stage becomes Caravaggio’s mirror image: a “moment” in history in which the primordial self-enchantment of art making ushers in self-awareness, with the artist celebrating the discovery of his detached artistic self and simultaneously expressing the traumatism this entails. In social and cultural terms, Caravaggio’s painting constitutes “the achievement of a new kind and degree of pictorial autonomy on the gallery wall.” In other words, Caravaggio’s paintings thematize their individuality within (as well as their unconditional impulse to sever themselves off) the supposedly all-encompassing context of the recently emerged picture gallery.

In After Caravaggio, Fried delineates the aftermath of this “pictorial poetics” by focusing on works by prominent followers of Caravaggio: Bartolomeo Manfredi, Jusepe de Ribera, Valentin de Boulogne, Cecco del Caravaggio, and Guercino (Guercino’s close interaction with Caravaggio’s painting had already been acknowledged in his own time). In Fried’s view, all these masters inflect, and more specifically intensify, Caravaggio’s idiosyncratic uses of the human figure as conducive to “empathic projection.” As a result, their close-up half-, two-thirds-length-, or full-size figures articulate “an ‘excessive’ mode of embodied subjectivity,” arousing the conviction in the beholder that the figures possess “sheer bodily presence”: a “physical and ontological presence” that “enlists empathically the beholder’s sense of his or her own corporeality.” This effect of presence is mostly figural, as figures in the painting appear immersed in what Fried defines “auto-affection”: “a mode of consciousness” or a “tactile apprehension of one’s own body.” According to Fried, it is “as if in figures of this kind . . . mind and body are imagined as inextricably mixed.”

Fried’s subsequent analysis of multi-figure tavern scenes by Valentin pursues this line of enquiry. According to Fried, Valentin’s coordination of figures across the pictorial surface is meant to unabatedly catch the attention of the picture gallery visitor as a consequence of the visual competition of works on display within that space. In Fried’s opinion, the “density of presence” deployed by Valentin should be considered a nimble strategy “to disperse the viewer’s attention across much of the pictorial field.” This “dispersal of emphasis” is obtained through the visual relevance of a “multiplicity of hands” arranged with great inventiveness and through “the near juxtaposition of motifs of absorption and address”: that is, the alternation of figures addressing the beholder or depicted as absorbed in their doings or states of mind.

Fried consecrates a whole chapter to Cecco del Caravaggio’s most impressive Resurrection (Art Institute of Chicago). In the painting, Fried discerns an increased polarization, indeed an extreme opposition, between figures of “address” and figures of “absorption.” More astonishingly, Fried suggests that the soldier asleep in the foreground personifies “the ‘moment’ of the painter’s immersion in the act of painting,” adding (with a certain hesitation) that the slumbering figure barely visible behind the radiant angel might be an alter-ego of Caravaggio, with the agitated scene around as the visualization of a dream experienced by both figures.

In his survey of Guercino’s work between 1619 and 1620, Fried argues that Guercino’s staging of the human body obeys a different, albeit related logic. Important in this regard is the theme of “disrobing”: the depiction of clothes removed, pulled at, put on, or taken off in Guercino’s painting. Associated with his pittura di macchia, the inflection of this visual motif allows the master to evoke “the sense of an encounter between painter and viewer”: an encounter that is “repeatedly affirmed and at the same time . . . distanced, deflected, and displaced.”

 Readers familiar with Fried’s oeuvre will find in this book the elaboration of themes explored in several, if not all, of his studies. In a nutshell, Fried’s hermeneutics assumes that art evolves in the wake of an existential drive (in Martin Heidegger’s sense): the artist’s progressive self-awakening to his contradictory engagement in and separation from the ontological experience of painting as crystallized in fluctuating “moments” of immersion and specularity displayed within the work through multiple visual strategies. Over time, Fried’s casuistry in sorting out these artistic devices has increased exponentially, with ever more intricate distinctions, as he moves from Caravaggio to contemporary photography. By corollary, painting becomes mostly self-referential: whatever its subject matter, what predominantly informs it is the painter’s urge to visually reveal, consciously or unconsciously, his or her complex relationship to the work. Predictably, Fried’s outlook on viewership presupposes an “ahistorical” beholder: one who is synesthetically taken in or pushed back, seduced or repulsed, intrigued or misdirected by the work.

No doubt, Caravaggio and his followers turn the depiction of the human body into a space of unprecedented experimentalism. By entrapping the figure (or a conglomerate thereof) within the shallow purview of the pictorial surface, these masters anthropomorphize the image, multiplying the scope of its agency. Empowered with bodily presence, the figure embodies the painting even as it mirrors, opposes, and challenges the viewer in a sophisticated interplay of proximity and dissimilarity. These lifelike, fictive figures not only enhance but enforce historical, social, cultural, and physiological notions of the body that were precluded from representation because indecorous, accessorial, mechanistic, trivial, and allegedly insignificant. Through embodiment, these paintings present multifold facets of the unrepresentable. Fried does not take any of this into account not because he dismisses it as irrelevant but because, paradoxically, he is convinced that none of this would modify the validity of his interpretation. And yet, it is a fact that viewers did not see these paintings with our eyes, nor did they process them with our mind. Indeed, these images are enshrouded in codes (visual, social, cultural, religious) that need arduous unraveling; they cannot be approached directly at the risk of misunderstanding and, even worse, of simplification. Nor can it be overlooked, in examining these works, that the depiction of the human figure was then the designated place in which nature, art, and culture were perceived emblematically to coalesce. But Fried dispenses with even exploring the relevant primary sources (they are numerous and immensely complex) that would have enabled him to grasp the multifarious approaches to the human body in Italian seventeenth-century natural sciences, literature, and especially art theory. Without historically disentangling the threads of this complex discourse on art and its functions we cannot assess the extent to which the painting of Caravaggio and his followers constitutes both an artistic caesura and a manifesto of cultural dissension.

This does not invalidate the value of some of Fried’s intuitions. For instance, he is right when he remarks that pictures by Valentin, through their figures’ elaborate disposition, invite “a further moment of perceptual and cognitive uncertainty on the part of the viewer.” Or when, in commenting on Valentin’s 1631 Reunion with a Gypsy, he observes that “one’s impression is that Valentin had reached an impasse shortly before his early death.” In discussing the same painting, I had already suggested in my Caravaggio and Pictorial Narrative (2011) that, through this work, Valentin “declares that the tavern scene as a pictorial formula has reached maximum saturation, unable either to expand into narratives as visually sophisticated as those of the istoria, or even to exploit the suspenseful and evocative indeterminacy caused by its actors’ emotional ‘opacity.’” In another passage of my book, in commenting on the daydreaming boy in Valentin’s Fortune Teller at the Louvre (another figure closely examined by Fried), I had already remarked that his attitude corresponds “to a blank in the pictorial script,” adding that this narrative blankness (that is, “the very fact that no one can put exact words, thoughts, or impressions in his mind”) serves “as a catalyst for attention, while it simultaneously renders the narrative content, and its reconstitution on the beholder’s part, if not useless, at least secondary.” These are just two of the many instances in which Fried neglects to acknowledge relevant discussion on the topics treated in his After Caravaggio. This is regrettable because, by taking into account the interpretive and historical perspective of previous scholarship, he could have turned his splendid soliloquy into mutually enriching dialogue.