Caravaggio as a Modernist | Editor’s Foreword

Foreword to the 2015 English Edition

This is not merely a book about Caravaggio; nor is it about Modern­ism. This is a book about everything that is in between: about what we think of when we say “Modernism” and about what we talk of when we think “Caravaggio.” For these discourses and the book’s main thesis—seeing in the modernist a reflection of a unique creative self and in consequence designating Caravaggio as such—to be truly brought to light, one must studiously venture off a well-beaten track of ostensible definitions and perceptions, both in art history and its philosophy, as well as in general patterns of thought.

This book is based on Dorit Kedar’s 1988 MA thesis com­posed at the Art History Department of Tel Aviv University. Preceding this thesis were several seminars on Italian Mannerism. These attempted to demonstrate that the Mannerists sought an indi­vidual freedom of expression by deviating from traditional formal language, while still following the rigid rules of iconography. The Mannerist way of treating traditional art topics exposes the viewer to the possibility of perceiving the world of the unknown, of the enigma, of the mysteri­ous, beyond time and space criteria, beyond the knowledge of men and women, beyond all dogma.

This open outlook continued to guide Kedar as she moved on to her MA thesis. It was further developed into a theoretical and empirical schema during her PhD studies in Creative Arts and Eastern Philosophy at Union Institute and University in Ohio, culmi­nating in her dissertation, “Zen Buddhism as Means to Increase Cre­ativity.” Zen Buddhism insights suggest a non-linear path in order to avoid the trap of subjective illusory reality and render possible the infinite spectrum of phenomena. All of the above projects and views eventually led to Kedar’s monumental opus, The Book of Interreli­gious Peace in Text and Image (Tel Aviv: Center of Interreligious Peace, 2013). It aspires to expose the everlasting interlinks among all main beliefs and to widen paths of inclusion through feeling, towards a better grasp of the infinite, opening up channels which go beyond the cerebrally idiosyncratic.

With the completion and official publication of The Book in 2013, the road was fully paved to bring the current project—and oth­ers by the Center of Interreligious Peace—to the awareness of a larger international audience. In line with the Center’s targets, the current project seeks to transmute traditional ways and methods of thought, and in the realm of the arts, to change the way these may be viewed, “read,” and interpreted. In this regard, the golden rule of the current book’s thesis is to locate in art such as Caravaggio’s not an­other chain of antecedents that can be neatly placed one next to the other, but to fan out a wider array of links in intricate networks that go beyond chronology, period, style, etc. Accordingly, modernism is to be seen as more than a mere “term”—both in the sense of period and in having a precise definition. As such, this work has much to do with the innovative viewpoint and approach to art and art history evi­dent in recent publications, like Alexander Nagel’s Medieval Mod­ern: Art out of Time (London: Thames and Hudson, 2012) or the lat­est keen interest in revisiting the texts of Warburg and Riegl.

The MA thesis was composed under the guidance of Profs. Gila Balas and Yona Pinson and was also evaluated by the then chair of the department, Prof. Nurith Kenaan-Kedar. Since then, it was adapted to a book in 2002 (in Hebrew; Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad). It has also been a required text in several art history courses and is widely circulated in major university libraries and in other establishments, in Israel and abroad.

Unlike its Hebrew counterpart, this book has been adapted rely­ing on the entire written thesis of 1988. Nevertheless, it has been ed­ited structurally and stylistically. In order to bring it up-to-date with cur­rent research and methodological approaches, the over-all struc­ture of the original thesis was revised. In keeping with academic standards of scholarly work publishing, notes and references were reformatted and more images pertaining to the discussion added. Thus, the following is not a re-work or a re-issue altogether, as no additional data and analysis has been added to it, and nor has any information been added on the state of affairs regarding its subject-matter since its conception; that is, no attempt has been made to in­terpolate this work within recent or current scholarly work on either Caravaggio or Modernism.

In and on itself, this thesis is given ground by major scholars ac­tively dealing with Modernism at the time of its composing, among others, John Russel, Linda Nochlin, Meyer Schapiro, and Herbert Read, and key Caravaggio scholars, mainly John Gash, Walter Friedlaender, and Howard Hibbard. As an adaptation of the MA the­sis, therefore, it is within this milieu that the book should initially be considered since the breadth of writing on these matters has been vast since the 1980s.

All the same, though, this thesis can serve to reevaluate previous writings and to possibly re-examine the field of research on Caravag­gio, as no scholar, best to my knowledge, has ever challenged to name Caravaggio a modernist in the unique way this book does. The modernist act in art is grasped as a manifestation of the artist’s unique spirit and inner being not coinciding necessarily with that of his peers and the zeitgeist. Far exceeding, then, the range of an art-historical essay, this philo­sophi­cal treatise on art, modernism, and individuality encour­ages a fresh outlook on situating the becoming of the work of art and its final analysis on several compatible lines.

These act as multiple entrance points for the discovery and com­prehension of Caravag­gio’s art via issues that were not available or in their early stages of advancement when this thesis was being com­posed: matters of visual culture such as gender or queer theory, evi­dent in Caravaggio’s per­sonal life which find their ex­pression in his work (as in his androgy­nous Bacchus or his sexually-charged, boyish angels); ideas of performance—engagement on the part of the viewer with the work of art (for example, depicting the aggressor as victim and vice-versa, like his Judith or even the executioners in Crucifixion of St. Peter, where the viewers are encouraged to make up their own minds as to the nature of the acts being committed and their perpe­trators); and even topics of phenomenology, anthropology of the im­age, and body studies, imminent in Caravaggio’s images, which serve as a reflection of his exceptional mind and self-awareness, co-exist­ing with his physical actions in the world evoking the formal aspects of his body of work (for instance, in his depiction of traditional themes, like saints; his St. Paul dumbfounded by the materialistically everyday darkness existentially surrounding him, being sprawled on the ground impotent after having being casually thrown off his horse, an act of mundane occurrence).

Attentive readers, then, shall notice—and benefit—from the unmediated observations prevalent in this book which establish a relationship between artist and reality, viewer and works of art. The true achievement of this book might be its directing the reader, viewer, and artist alike—of past, present, and even future—out towards a di­rect observance, which transcends norms, patterns, dogma, con­straining theories, and pre-concepts of restricting time and space.

 —Tzach Ben Josef, Editor

Own it now! Create Space – Amazon