Caravaggio as a Modernist | Book Review

On the Relevancy of Caravaggio’s Work

by Yossi Mark

Translated and edited by Tzach Ben Josef

[First published in Hebrew, in the journal Moznaim 3, no. 76 (2002): 53–55.]


This book’s claim is both intriguing and bold. With a claim such as seeing in Caravaggio a modernist, this book’s author had to sidestep a (contemporaneous) postmodern “mine field,” in order to bring to light a monumental personage like Caravaggio with its scope of experiential and dialectical activity, which might exceed by far any ostensible definition.

The assiduous attempts to deal with the model this book postulates give raise to the great complexity that is the work of Caravaggio. It resists any historical or theoretical attempts to verbally delimit its great spirit, so intensively, vehemently and magically transforming the pulse of life itself into a picture.

The very verity of the content of this book is evident in its title, as the term “modernism” is eruditely treated as an indicator of intrinsic value, moving away from any traditional chron­ological designation of it. This advances a discussion which posits the artist’s idiosyncratic and subjective state of mind as a perpetual “motto” while trying to distinguish Caravaggio’s work—a discussion that moves away from the exacting intricacies and contexts of the term “subject” in postmodern discourse.

Calling Caravaggio a modernist, it seems, is but one option in the attempt to define such a genius’ stout and profound work, which transcends time and space criteria and any one-sided ethical premises. But still, as one progress through this book, it becomes clear that apart from typifying the artist as having an uniquely independent, rational, psychological and integrative identity, it is quite challenging to describe his actual work as strictly modern; af­ter all, even if he could have dramatically revolutionized his era’s zeitgeist from an idealist to an existential one, his work does not reflect any optimism, utopia, or “progress” of the kind that strives to reject, abolish, and break away with the past and its traditions.

Now even his notoriously feral nonconformist nature does not manifest itself in his work, in and of itself, that is but, rather, it advances freedom of expression, allowing for a more accu­rate plasticized-mental reflection of his being to be constructed. The very “authenticity” found in his work is not necessarily a “rebellion” but more of a vital personal interpretation refreshing older and more traditional models (note his sophisticated and intellectual re­working of his contemporaries and predecessors’ works). The consolidation of the visual field, the strict, balanced and meticulous composition and refined execution of his work—all negate an opportunity of labeling Caravaggio a Primitivist or Romantic, in a strictly modern­ist sense.

Moreover, the following pairs of motifs and other elements in his works could easily be as­cribed to a postmodern notion of interdisciplinary reference: sensual/morbid, male/female, nature/vision, paganism/Christianity, physics/metaphysics, religious/ secular, doubt/belief, “high”/“low,” nihilism/positivism, light/shadow, surface/space, man/angel, sacri­fice/sacrificed, plaisir/jouissance (in Barthe); dualistically enigmatical contents, meanings and contexts; decadent atmosphere, almost nihilistic spirit, existential melancholy, and gruesome effect; or direct and pessimistic impartiality towards human existence; eroticism, narcissism, perverseness, androgyny, horror, aesthetic treatment of the brutal and the ma­cabre, mannerism, dramatics and theatricality.

It might be that the “modernity” this book seeks is of the same kind that one can detect in the writings of Kierkegaard‏, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, which has been granted great atten­tion in postmodern discourse owing to its relevant insightfulness. This is modernism not in its narrow Greenberg-like understanding, but as a complex concept, opening itself up to the paradoxical, the elusive, the ambivalent, and the hidden and unsaid. The very choice of pre­senting Caravaggio as a modernist and the discussion around this concept provide a spec­trum of conceptions, definitions and critical interpretations, that elucidate the range of interactions between the elements of a work, and enables the aggregate of realism to open up to new critical thought (specifically on the relationship between facts and naturalism; deep-seated existential meaning and realism; and perception and conception). All this is even more relevant in this day and age, when the figurative, particularly of the realist type, has been brought back into artistic practice.

The reader of this book will become an active agent in its flowing discussion, which shies away from deterministic conclusions. But the utmost accomplishment of this book is its turning the reader/viewer (and artist) to the bare act of the gaze, which goes beyond pat­tern, dogma, theory, and demarcating constraints of time/space. This is no naïve outlook, that is to say, without any regard to historicity or dialectics, this could not be further from the truth; it does, however, enables a relation of artist/reality and viewer/work of art, whose Archimedean point pivots on unmediated observance free of prejudices, and spirals around a strong experience involving one’s emotions. This project calls for “experience” rather than “understanding,” a sort of Heideggerian Stimmung, a lucid “pre-con- ceptualized” sensitivity.

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